Lost in Exigency, Baby.

As a researcher of organizational communication, I have spent much of the past year observing and analyzing crisis communication by university and library leadership. Often I’m in the minority, praising communication and transparency I’ve observed from university responses to the pandemic, where others have been quick to find fault. Far from an apologist, my unpopular opinion just as often puts me at odds with leadership, especially when presenting views of those further removed from the hierarchy.

Kansas stirred up quite a bit of crisis communication last week as its Board of Regents (KBOR) unanimously passed a policy suspending University tenure protections aimed at addressing immediate budget challenges due to COVID-19. While no University is required to implement the new policy, KBOR gave Universities 45-days to respond with criteria and a process for invoking such a policy.

University administrators’ reaction to the policy was swift, either seeking broader input or acknowledging they would not implement. An open letter also quickly circulated, criticizing the policy as well as administrations who hadn’t joined in denouncing it outright. Without diminishing this alarmed response — the policy and its adoption are certainly worthy of it – my first and strongest impulse is always to ask questions.

One important question being asked is “why is a new policy needed?”

When KBOR’s Governance Board met to present and discuss this policy (around 19 minutes in), Regent Kiblinger asked this very question, in context and comparison to KBOR’s existing “financial exigency” policy. The response she got highlights several distinctions, while justifying it against other COVID-specific policy changes the Board has made.  The first key distinction, though, really struck me.

“It treats everyone the same.”

KBOR General Counsel, Julene Miller

The new KBOR policy (6.b.ii) creates a COVID-specific exigency (if you will) applicable to any state university employee without the declaration of financial exigency as a prerequisite. Who is affected is the current focus of both the response from Universities and indeed the essence of how this policy “treats everyone the same”. It is admittedly more complicated , but deceptively that simple.

This sentiment — a takeaway from Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s very timely visit to my campus this week discussing Generous Thinking: A Radical Approach to Saving the University (John Hopkins University Press) – has bolstered an uncomfortable hunch I have about this current situation in Kansas.  Fitzpatrick calls for a radical rethinking of how we participate in our collective values as communities of learning with a “duty of care”. While faculty loudly address the failure of leadership to make clear or understand the value of academic freedom and shared governance promised by tenure, we fail recognize and acknowledge how its structures like tenure and governance have also been built and broken down in ways that no longer live up to the values they intended to secure.

The key differences in the policy getting the most attention have to do with who has input throughout the processes and changes to the advance notice, process of appeal, and the affected employees. These explicit limitations on who is consulted, their representation and due process do raise justifiable concerns on a number of levels, one of which may be the further erosion of academic tenure in and beyond Kansas.  But, remedying these concerns through a narrow lens of tenured faculty rights, just hits wrong. It misses the larger point, an opportunity even, that could be driving new and more equitable policy. Ironically, it misuses the privilege afforded by that which actually needs defending here.

What’s driving the policy?

The next set of distinctions the KBOR Governance Board outlined in its meeting mention the expedited timeline the new policy provides and an executive-centric role in the process. While financial exigency lacks as explicitly specific a process, it does ensure the executive role is shared with governance. We’ll come back to this.

But, first, the gist of the financial exigency. The Kansas Reflector summarized the policy even more succinctly [my emphasis inserted]:

Under existing Board of Regents’ policy, a state university must formally recognize a financial exigency that [has already] required elimination of non-tenured positions and operating expenditures. With the declaration, the universities could move ahead with reductions in tenured faculty positions.

By the open letter responding to this new policy asserting at the outset that, “procedures already exist to make decisions according to financial exigency as part of shared governance”, its authors acknowledge the similarly dire circumstances that concern both policies. KU’s rules and regulations for shared governance of financial exigency further emphasizes the gravity.

“Only as a last resort after all possible alternatives calculated to preserve the survival of the University as a quality institution of higher learning have been in good faith examined, and utilized or rejected, should the University consider the release of any tenured member of the faculty on the basis of Financial Exigency.

https://policy.ku.edu/governance/USRR#ArticleVII

If urgency of the circumstances are justifiably similar and this new COVID-19 specific policy is something clearly different than financial exigency, then how we talk about those differences matter.

The positive difference in the policy of financial exigency (shared governance) has already been noted. My question is why would we defend a policy that requires Universities to explicitly begin eliminating non-tenured lines before any tenured lines?

Because…tenure?

Like crises before it, COVID-19 has been both a global equalizer and a stark reminder of disparities resulting from all kinds of privilege. For KU employees COVID-19 has already forced temporary salary reductions across all employee types, additional hiring freezes, and top-down realignments that have resulted in administrative promotions and demotions, unpaid additional labor, and the voluntary and involuntary loss of good people and expertise.

Values and standards can certainly be upheld during unprecedented upheaval. The open letter reminds us “the statements of core values and standard practices [of academic freedom and tenure] were composed during moments of extraordinary societal upheaval and unrest—during the worst economic depression and the deadliest world war”. We must acknowledge they also occurred when “in some Northern cities, whites called for African Americans to be fired from any jobs as long as there were whites out of work.” Can we honestly say today, under circumstances similar or unique from crises of the past, that explicitly prioritizing the elimination of non-tenured faculty or staff actually “preserves the survival of the University as a quality institution of higher learning”, but eliminating any tenured faculty doesn’t?

What actually needs defending here?

What if Universities responded to the call for developing this framework with a generosity inherent in “it treats everyone the same”? What if a framework did include shared governance, adequate notice and appeal privileges, and did so (as the policy requires) for any state university employee?

Wouldn’t that be better than defending currently inequitable alternatives like financial exigency, or narrowly focusing on the academic freedom afforded only to tenured faculty?  Wouldn’t it be better than an institution publicly declaring they are (for now) not planning to submit criteria or implement the new policy as is?

These questions prevent me from defending an alternative of financial exigency as it exists. In posing these questions, I also acknowledge that KBOR’s approval of this policy without shared governance and transparency is indeed unprecedented in a manner that “degrades the working conditions of the entire university and the learning conditions for all of our students”. At the same time, I can see the issues it is attempting to address gives unprecedented opportunity for more equitable approaches to “save the university”.

Having worked for the State of Kansas in the KBOR system for more than 20 years, I have experienced the political and budgetary challenges to employee salaries and benefits from the vantage point of different employee statuses – classified and unclassified staff, tenure track and non-tenure track, and tenured faculty administration in which I have supervised or mentored all of the former. This given me access to perspectives some of my colleagues may not as readily share.

Clearly this issue has shaken more than the foundational principles of tenure. It has us questioning ourselves, our professional relationships, and our leadership at all levels. Ultimately, though, this is a good thing.  And while manifested poorly, both these polices, and at all times our privilege, should be open to further critique.

Shared governance is a privilege students, staff, and faculty can and should exercise on behalf of the most vulnerable. It calls us to use our collective voices not in self- or self-identifying preservation, but for giving unprecedented voice, participation, and due process for all employees. KU’s chancellor has publicly and internally sought input from governance, administrators, faculty, and staff across the university to determine this process, despite any requirement of the KBOR policy to do so – as he should! In addition to this invitation, it is our right and obligation to demonstrate how equity becomes and remains a prerequisite part of any policy.

Let’s get to it.

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