Updated: Mar 21
by Gaines West, Attorney-at-Law, West, Webb, Allbritton & Gentry
Not long ago I wrote that there were warnings that this Legislative Biennium might headline belt tightening, new austere measures, and budget cutting. For public colleges and universities that could have meant lots of terminations because of financial exigencies (meaning they would NOW have a reason – financial exigency - to get rid of that troubling tenured prof and thereby cover up the real reason they want to do it!). And with a rumored recession coming for private commerce, private colleges and universities were brushing off all their old pink slips too, ready and willing to use the same reason to fire a few tenured profs – we are just out of money!
But miracles of miracles, in 2023 there is a budget surplus to deal with in Austin, and that recession prediction for our national economy seems to still be just around some far corner (we all hope). So, how then is it that Administration can rid itself of either too many tenured profs, or that troubling tenured prof who won’t fall into line, or when there are too many who are too old and who are paid too much (why, wouldn’t it be nice to replace that one big salary with two or three others totaling that same amount – just to get a fresher/younger approach)?
Have you heard of the fool proof Texas Two Step firing process – especially reserved for tenured faculty? It works for the Administration of both public and private employers. Let all be aware – because this is how it goes: One beautiful day (or to fit the mood better – one dreary, cloudy, hot or cold day) on your (tenured) doorstep at your office (more on that later) there suddenly appear (at least) two uninvited “guests.” One will be in uniform – namely the Chief of Kampus Kops, accompanied by the Chief Auditor for the school or college. Having someone there in uniform “salutes” the gravity of the situation. You will be greeted with a request for your office keys (all of them) and cheerily it is announced that because of some (at this time) vague allegations, you are being put on paid administrative leave. They will say something like – "treat it like a paid vacation" – and that they are sure all will be cleared up soon. With that, the Chief Kampus Kop will escort you to your vehicle in the parking lot in full view of everyone (the more the merrier they always say). Once back in your office the skullduggery will begin.
The first thing that will be checked is your computer. Just to be sure there hasn’t been personal shopping going on – on the equipment owned by the university. And also, just to check to be sure that equipment hasn’t been used to view any adult websites. Maybe too, just because they are already checking, see if they can find any electronic communication that seems too ‘over the top’ – really about anyone or anything! Next, they check your travel and leave vouchers – the Chief Auditor goes here because she knows no one can fill one of those out correctly. And especially she wants to see if by chance this tenured prof claimed travel and leave AND received an Honorarium for speaking to some August Body somewhere in the world. For to have done that conjures up notions of (drum roll please) THEFT!
You have just heard me describe the first step in this Texas Two-Step firing process of a tenured professor (remember this works for either a public or private employer). The next step in the Texas Two-Step process is a bit draconian – so full warning, if you are the least bit queasy from what I have already described – don’t read on! But, if your curiosity won’t let you stop – here goes. This next step takes some time – but after all the Administration is in no hurry - right? It wants to at least appear to be concerned about giving everyone due process – r I g h t! A few months – or maybe 6 or more, will pass in this next step. The timing depends on what the Kampus Kop and Auditor found in your office during their first step visit. If your office was pretty clean, this next step may drag on for a while. Here is what happens: within a few months (but why should you worry that it is taking so long – right? You are on a paid vacation) they start interviewing your colleagues and staff. They ask a lot of open-ended questions and employ awkward silences to see and hear what might be said about you. They may even make up some outrageous claim about you, just to test it out to see if anyone would come to your defense (wow – I’m not making this up – this actually has happened and that was the excuse given for doing it!).
Ok, I really am not trying to be funny about a very serious thing that happens all too often – but just writing it out again makes it sound like a really bad Saturday Night Live skit! Oh, and for you scientific types – yes, you will be kept from your research and your ongoing experiments even though tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of taxpayer funded research, may be going down the drain while they pay you to stay away!! Once this two-step dance is done, your goose is likely cooked. If nothing showed up in the “inventory” of your office, the great likelihood is that someone or more of your colleagues or staff, after you have been away for months, will be glad to spill the beans on you (real information or made up to kiss up to the Administration who has clearly signaled they want you gone).
What can you do to protect yourself – you may ask? I promised earlier I would give you more later in reference to “your office.” First, recognize it isn’t “your office” it is their office that they are loaning to you. Everything in it is theirs and all the equipment is theirs and the law gives you no expectation of privacy for what is in your office or what is stored on those electronic devices they are loaning you, including your laptop which is theirs and they will ask for it back during the first step interview with you. So, treat it (starting now) like it isn’t yours. Pretend like you can’t access what is in your office and set up another one in your space (at home or elsewhere) and store your stuff on your own equipment. This will at least keep you being able to continue your work while you are on this unwanted paid vacation. Oh yes, and contact a legal advisor, someone you trust to help you navigate this perilous time, because you can survive the Texas Two-Step, but you don’t want to dance this dance alone! Tenure is truly being attacked at every turn.
“The information in this column is intended to provide a general understanding of the law, not as legal advice. Readers with legal problems, including those whose questions may be addressed here, should consult attorneys for advice on their particular circumstances.”