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The Pandemic Blues...Staff Reduction, Tenure in Jeopardy, Cuts Everywhere

by Gaines West, Attorney-at-Law, West, Webb, Allbritton & Gentry

The pandemic has touched every area of our lives - and now Tenure? More state and private institutions of higher education are toying with how to curtail their budgets in the face of shrinking enrollment and increasing costs - without more {and less certain} immediate government aid. And it isn’t only tenured professors in the crosshairs, it is administrative staff and adjunct faculty. About twelve months ago we all started together on this COVID journey. Higher Education seemed at first to be more insulated from the enormous impact of a slowed economy - but as time goes on - the economic wear and tear has infiltrated every institution. Some tenure has turned into simply a contract for a term of a few short years. Orders come from on high forcing some into the classroom, and some, inexplicably are ordered to stay away from in person teaching. To conclude there is a ‘norm,’ or consistent way of handling this crises, would simply be wrong. What do you do in response to this daily tumult?

Remember the Faculty Senate? In some schools it still thrives, in others it is a pawn of administration. Now is the best time for the Faculty Senate to come alive - if it has been hibernating {for whatever reason}. Faculty needs advocacy in the administrative halls of Higher Education - more now than ever. If you are employed in a state institution, stand up for the principle that tenure is a property right that cannot be taken without due process protections. And in private institutions: cling to your contract rights that guarantee protections from arbitrary administrative actions - including unilaterally changing the employee handbook and the protections found in it. Be vigilant, no one will protect your rights for you.

You might recall, at the beginning of this pandemic I warned that some institutions might use this challenge as a cover to make reductions in force {RIF}. RIF’s have been used for decades to cover up discriminatory animus. Over this past year I have seen my prediction come true. Check when you hear about RIF’s to see if one age group, gender, race or religious groups are targeted. If so, remember you have only 180 days to file a complaint with the Texas Workforce Commission - Civil Rights Division and 300 days to file a complaint with the EEOC.

I am not trying to fan the flames of discord. I am simply asking you to heed the clarion call for vigilance at this crazy time. The lines have blurred between professional speech and political speech - and the consequences of being on the wrong side of that Dean, or that Provost or President can be devastating to a career. Get help if you think you need it. Don’t put it off. A First Amendment right to speak freely is a treasure we must all work to protect.

Make no mistake: every job in Higher Education is different than it was just twelve months ago. Likewise, also make no mistake that the pressure for change is continuing to ramp up. Tenure is no longer a given way for protecting scholarly work, teaching, academic excellence or service. We are forging a new future together - but don’t base your expectations of what you will see in the future on the way things were done in the past. We are in this together - and it is up to each of us to ensure that the future of Higher Education will be better than its past. We will have no one to blame but ourselves if any other story is written! “

“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.”

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