Kansas Regents adopt transparency guidelines for firing tenured faculty as an olive branch

Rafael Garcia
Topeka Capital-Journal
The Kansas Board of Regents adopted transparency changes to a policy that allows state university presidents to fire tenured faculty in dealing with the financial fallout of COVID-19.

While Kansas' state universities will retain a new ability to fire even tenured faculty to deal with the financial fallout of COVID-19, a new set of changes to that Kansas Board of Regents policy will at least require university administrations to be more transparent about those decisions.

The Kansas Board of Regents on Wednesday adopted two changes, recommended by a faculty work group, after the higher education body came under intense state and national criticism for allowing universities to unilaterally fire staff if responding to COVID-19's effect on budgets.

The board had in March developed a work group to advise the Regents on how to better that process, particularly after faculty leaders condemned the policy as circumventing the long-held concept of shared governance.

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Under the Regents' changes to the policy Wednesday, faculty staff and student governance groups will have to at least be offered the chance to provide "input, comments and recommendations" before university CEOs can proceed with obtaining board approval of any plan to suspend tenure and fire staff at their campuses.

University CEOs will also be required to communicate with their campus communities and the Regents of the process of developing those frameworks — including justification and alternatives the university explored before resorting to drastic layoff measures. The CEOS in any case retain the ability to unilaterally seek board approval of the policies, even if faculty and student groups disagree.

Aleksander Sternfeld-Dunn, the Wichita State University faculty senate president who represents all Kansas faculty presidents, called the changes a great improvement to the original policy.  Sternfeld-Dunn and others had been harsh critics of the Regents for adopting the policy in January on short notice and without consulting with faculty groups.

While the policy applies to all state universities, all but the University of Kansas have ruled out using it to implement tenure-elimination policies on their campuses. However, KU chancellor Doug Girod in late March said in a campus message that he had heard "grumblings" that other state universities may be starting to consider the policy, the Lawrence Journal-World reported.

Regents president and CEO Blake Flanders pushed back on suggestions that KU officials haven't been transparent about their budgeting decisions, saying he did not want the changes to come off as fixes to a "flawed" process.

Read More:Facing $37M in funding cuts, Kansas colleges given broader latitude to fire employees

"I think at the very least that it's not informed that say that process hasn't been transparent, and I don't think these changes impact what's going at the University of Kansas, because clearly, they've been communicating every step of the way."

The changes passed 8-1, with board member Mark Hutton voting against. Hutton, who attended Wednesday's meeting virtually, had wanted more time to review the changes with stakeholder groups before voting to accept the changes.