Tuesday, February 09, 2016
From Farce to Tragedy
In the current environment, tenure is becoming increasing less valuable. I have become aware of increasing numbers of tenured faculty being forced out on trumped-up charges, without being allowed to present any sort of defense. It is outrageous to hear that a tenured faculty member at Mount Saint Mary’s was fired simply for being “disloyal”. In his case, his disloyalty was simply for disagreeing with the president on his plan to “drown the bunnies”. Back when I was teaching at Research-Intensive Technological Institute, I remember hearing about a tenured faculty member being forced out because he was writing letters to local high schools, telling them that they shouldn’t send their graduates to the Institute. Now *that* is disloyalty. But simply expressing dissent from administrative policies on academic matters should be an important part of academic freedom. I don’t know what the Mount Saint Mary’s faculty handbook says about tenure and academic freedom, but if what Simon Newman did is in violation of what the handbook says, he would have good grounds for a lawsuit. The AAUP should step up in defense of the tenured professor.
I understand that the provost also got fired over all this. But the provost serves at the pleasure of the president, and can be fired at any time for any reason or even for no reason at all. Fortunately, he had a tenured appointment which he could step back to. And the faculty member who advised the student newspaper which leaked the “drowned bunnies” quote also got canned. But he didn’t have tenure, and the rights of untenured faculty to academic freedom are sort of ambiguous, unless the faculty handbook says that academic freedom applies to all faculty members, whether or not they were tenured.
There must be an atmosphere of utter terror among the faculty at Mount Saint Mary’s. I am sure that they are watching what they say, lest they too be caught up in this Stalinist-like purge. If I were a faculty member at Mount Saint Mary’s and if I were sufficiently eminent and accomplished that I might have some degree of mobility, I would get my CV on the street right away. But in this depressed job market, the chances of a faculty member, who, like most of us, is not a superstar, in landing another faculty appointment are really not much better than the odds of winning the PowerBall lottery. Best to hunker down and keep your mouth shut.
What really made things really interesting was when, during the open arbitration hearing attended by throngs of faculty, Thames walked in with reams of paper, printouts of all of the two professors' email sent or received through the USM server. After that faculty would not use their USM computers or phones. They were all standing outside their buildings handling all of the phone conversations on private cell phones (mostly flip phones back then).
Over the course of three or so years a greater number of faculty left USM than the total faculty count. I was among them. I have landed a better job; so did the two fired tenured faculty -- within a couple of months at better institutions with higher salaries. Plus they won the arbitration judgment and wound up receiving double salaries for a year or more.
Someone even anonymously authored a whole novel with pseudonyms about the whole thing. It was hilarious.
Finally after a couple of years, the Mississippi Institute of Higher Learning (their regental entity) and Thames worked out an agreement by which he would retire or otherwise step down. By then the damage was too well done.
The interesting part is that Thames was a tenured faculty member himself, who, through his having worked up through the T&P rat-race himself, should have understood the academic traditions and culture that Matt notes. On the other hand, Thames made a lot of money for himself and for USM in polymer chemistry. And, he was an amazingly narcissistic person. Amazingly so.
So, like at least one presidential candidate I can think of, maybe money does something to a person that makes them do what Simon Newman has done. Or, is it narcissism that allows someone to lack the empathy or insight into a culture and its traditions? Maybe it's the intersection of those two factors. I don't know.
But, stuff like this happens, and I am happy with the general response to "bunny drowning" and firing tenured faculty for disloyalty and without due process. (Sheesh.)