The University of Tulsa Chapter of American Association of University Professors
The University of Tulsa Chapter of American Association of University Professors (TU-AAUP) formed as the 2019-2020 academic year began. As our inaugural year draws to a close, we offer a timeline of events pertaining to the state of shared governance and academic freedom at the University of Tulsa (TU).
The impetus for the formation of our chapter was largely the university restructuring known as True Commitment, released in Spring 2019. At that time, faculty experienced violations to shared governance, the key details of which are documented throughout this report. True Commitment served as a key point of contention at TU leading up to the Covid crisis which, much like at other universities, further strained the university’s already overstressed budgets. This report is thematically organized around these two central events: True Commitment and the Covid crisis.
While faculty have become more deeply invested in university governance and have made strides to incorporate their voices in university decision-making, a few notable weaknesses remain. These weaknesses are highlighted in this report’s conclusion; resolving them will be central to TU-AAUP’s agenda moving into the 2020-2021 academic year.
Below is a timeline of events, lightly annotated.
True Commitment and Shared Governance at TU
True Commitment resulted from a committee known as the Provost’s Program Review Committee (PPRC), established by Provost (and now Interim President) Janet Levit in June 2018 following a site visit by the Higher Learning Commission (HLC), TU’s accrediting agency. The PPRC consisted of faculty selected by senior administrators. It included no one from the humanities, performing arts, or natural sciences—the areas hardest hit by the ensuing restructuring. All committee members signed blanket non-disclosure agreements.
The administration and Board of Trustees approved the PPRC’s recommendations, bypassing the Faculty Senate and college curriculum committees. Faculty contend that these circumventions of shared governance violated the Faculty Senate Constitution and the charges of the University Curriculum Committee and various college-level curriculum committees.
The details of True Commitment were announced to the TU community on April 11, 2019. On that day, faculty were informed of planned program closures, departmental mergers into multi-disciplinary “divisions,” faculty buyout offers, and increased teaching loads, among other changes to the administrative structure and curriculum of the university.
• Faculty resolutions and responses in Spring-Summer 2019.
The faculty response to True Commitment began soon after the plan’s rollout. On April 15, 2019, the faculty of the College of Law passed a motion, approved with only one dissenting vote, resolving that “teaching loads will not be increased during AY 2019-2020 pending a report from a special task force elected by the faculty to study and report upon the effects increased teaching loads will have on the ability of TU to compete in the law school marketplace.”
On April 17, Faculty in the Kendall College of Arts and Sciences voted 89-4 in favor of the following resolution:
The faculty of the College of Arts and Sciences resolves not to implement the changes proposed by the PPRC within the coming academic year (2019-2020), pending the creation of a task force to study the effects of the proposed changes on students, faculty, and the University. The task force, composed of, and elected by, the faculty of the College of Arts and Sciences, would also explore possible alternatives that would address both the University’s practical needs and the mission and needs of the College and its students.
On May 3, the College of Arts & Sciences Curriculum Committee passed a resolution denouncing True Commitment, citing the college’s Faculty Handbook which states that the curriculum committee “shall have the responsibility for review of the Collegiate baccalaureate requirements and curricula and for action on proposals to alter them.” The charge of the University Curriculum Committee also states that “proposals for creation or changes of undergraduate programs (degrees, majors, minors, and certificates) shall be submitted to the University Curriculum Committee.”
Soon after these actions, a coalition of faculty across the university began to meet weekly under the name of Concerned Faculty of TU (CFTU). This group conducted research, facilitated communication among faculty, and performed various tasks aiming to overturn True Commitment and increase shared governance on campus. With the help of alumni, www.tuplan.org was created as a clearinghouse for information related to many of the events described in this document.
On August 29, 2019, the Faculty Senate passed a resolution stating that the implementation of True Commitment violated Article VI(c) of the Faculty Senate Constitution, which outlines requirements for shared governance. (This article was added to the Faculty Senate Constitution in response to the HLC site visit.) The resolution passed by a margin of 30-13.
Individual faculty members also emerged as key voices in opposition to True Commitment. Economics Professor and specialist in education financing Matthew Hendricks, for example, delivered a public lecture to the TU community on October 16. Hendricks’s research revealed, among other findings, that relative to other universities, TU devotes a comparatively small percentage of its expenditures to instruction, i.e. faculty salaries. In 2015, for example, TU Ranked 422 out of 467 schools, that is, in the bottom 10%. His research also found that university spending on administration and athletics was among the highest in the country, measured according to percentage of the university’s budget. Hendricks’s research presentation led to substantive discussions with senior leadership. The university has subsequently solicited an external audit by the Huron Consulting Group that has largely corroborated his findings, and an administrative reorganization is now underway to curb this administrative bloat.
• The “30 Day Offer” in October 2019.
Responding to faculty organizing, including the founding of TU-AAUP, expressions of concern from alumni, the general public, students, and professional organizations, TU’s Board of Trustees asked the Faculty Senate President and Vice President to develop an alternative to True Commitment. On September 24, 2019, Faculty Senate leadership informed the faculty of their plans to work toward such an alternative proposal. The Faculty Senate President and Vice President, however, were limited to investigating instructional costs only. Nevertheless, they produced a plan which offered alternative ways to produce the desired savings within the 30-day timeline. This plan was ultimately rejected. In an email dated November 7, President Clancy reiterated the Board’s full confidence in the True Commitment Plan and its intention to proceed toward full implementation.
• Votes of No-Confidence in November 2019-February 2020.
On November 13, the TU faculty voted No Confidence in President Gerard Clancy and Provost Janet Levit. Nearly 60% of TU’s full-time faculty cast votes, and 80% of all voters voted no-confidence in top leadership. TU-AAUP sponsored the vote and announced the results through an all campus email. Regional AAUP officers also helped to oversee the process.
Immediately following the Vote, and in separate and similar emails, the Chair of the Board of Trustees and President Clancy affirmed their full support for True Commitment and university leadership.
On December 10, the Faculty Senate held a special session to meet with Fred Dorwart, Chair of the Board of Trustees, and Dana Weber, who takes over as Board chair beginning in summer 2020. The meeting featured a hostile back-and-forth between Dorwart and the faculty, with Dorwart asking the faculty to apologize for the university’s recent troubles with the HLC. At this meeting, Dorwart reiterated his view that the Board has sole fiduciary responsibility, that shared governance does not include any procedural guarantees, and that a small minority of TU faculty were unnecessarily stirring the pot of dissent. Little more than a week later, on December 19, university President Gerard Clancy alerted the TU community that Moody’s had downgraded TU bonds to Baa3, one step above “junk” bonds.
A student-led petition led the Student Association (SA) to sponsor a vote of no confidence in February 2020. The vote took place via the university’s online system “Harvey.” On February 21, the SA announced that by a roughly 75/25 margin among voters, it had certified that students had voted no confidence. Voter turnout in the election was the highest it had been for any student vote in at least a decade.
• University Leadership Changes in January 2020
On January 17, 2020 the Board of Trustees informed the TU community of the resignation of President Clancy citing health concerns. Clancy has since announced his plans to leave TU to pursue an administrative role at the University of Iowa. The Board elevated provost Janet Levit to Interim President and PPRC chair Tracy Manly to the role of acting provost. At the February Faculty Senate meeting it was announced that a search for a new president would commence only after the university’s financial situation had stabilized. No further timeline was provided.
• Task Force Reports on Administrative Restructuring in January 2020.
On January 8, 2020 college level task forces released reports on several cornerstone elements of True Commitment. Based upon 4 months of research, analysis, and collaboration with faculty from affected departments, these reports undercut the case for several of True Commitment’s major proposals. The Arts & Sciences Task Force on Administrative Structure, for instance, found that no peer or aspirant institutions have replaced disciplinary departments with interdisciplinary divisions in a manner comparable to the PPRC’s recommendations; that the proposed move to divisions would provide little to no cost savings; that at least one other university that had shifted to a divisional structure witnessed a steep decline in student retention rates; and that a divisional structure that eschews departments may promote a disciplinarity, harm faculty morale, and prevent students from engaging meaningfully in deep thinking and disciplinary knowledge.
Similarly, The Professional College Task Force, which was comprised of faculty and staff from the three colleges proposed for consolidation (College of Law, Oxley College of Heath Sciences,
Collins College of Business), concluded that the full combination of the three colleges into one entity, as planned under True Commitment, is not feasible given various concerns about accreditation.
Interim President Levit accepted the task force recommendations, as did the Board of Trustees. These actions effectively repealed much of True Commitment’s structure. Indeed, references to True Commitment were eliminated from the university’s website soon thereafter. However, faculty buyouts and most programs closures remain, and plans for other parts of True Commitment such as the proposed but not-yet-implemented increased teaching loads remain uncertain.
• Faculty Senate Efforts to Promote Shared Governance in Spring 2020.
On December 10, 2019 the Faculty Senate established a Task Force on Shared Governance. The Initial Meeting took place on February 7, 2020. The charge of the task force is to “investigate the roles and responsibilities of faculty, administration, and the board of trustees in university governance, and to produce a report and recommendation for the full Faculty Senate to consider.”
The Task Force has met periodically since February. While the Board of Trustees initially declined to participate, most meetings have included at least one Board member. Task Force members have consulted relevant studies and documents on shared governance. Given the scope of the task and disruptions occasioned by COVID-19, the deadline for the final report, originally scheduled for April, has been extended to the Fall.
The Senate has also convened a Bylaws Committee formed to address the administration’s voting membership on the Faculty Senate. Presently, eight unelected administrators serve as voting members of the Faculty Senate, impeding the faculty’s ability to carry out its business without a supermajority on all matters not supported by the administration. The work of this committee will begin at the start of the 20-21 academic year.
The Covid Crisis and Changes to Faculty Employment and Compensation
As it became apparent that the Covid-19 pandemic would significantly disrupt university education nationwide, TU assembled a crisis management task force that includes the president and vice president of the Faculty Senate as well as several other faculty members selected on an ad hoc basis. It is our understanding that these faculty members were consulted on most major decisions described below. On March 10, 2020, TU moved all instruction online. As with many universities, the uncertainty of the short- and medium-term changes to instruction, as well as the decline in students enrolling for Fall 2020, have created additional budget shortfalls that may impact shared governance and academic freedom at TU.
• Contract Faculty Contract Alterations in March 2020
Contract faculty—many of whom are signed to multi-year contracts—were informed that their contracts would be renewed only on a year-to-year basis and that existing contracts would not extend beyond the current academic year. These changes—which impact nearly one-third of TU faculty—create conditions of job insecurity and therefore dampen the academic freedom of a large portion of the faculty. For example, these changes will subject contract faculty to more frequent performance reviews. Moreover, this alteration appears to conflict with ABA accreditation standards for clinical faculty at the law school. TU-AAUP plans to initiate a report on contract faculty in Summer 2020.
• Changes to Retirement Benefits in May 2020
As the 2019-2020 academic year drew to a close, TU announced both short- and long-term changes to employee retirement benefits. The university had contributed an amount equaling 9% of an employee’s annual salary to a retirement account—slightly below the nationwide average of 10.7% listed in the AAUP’s 2019–20 Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession. (Note: The university suspended these contributions in 2016 and brought them back one year later at the urging of the HLC.) Owing to the Covid crisis, the university announced a reduction in this figure to 5% (with a maximum annual contribution of $5,000), after which time the university will continue to contribute a minimum of 5%, with matching contributions of up to an additional 4%. This alteration was approved by the Faculty Senate Benefits Committee.
On May 19, the full Faculty Senate resolved to voluntarily accept “a temporary reduction in University contributions to the retirement plan from 9% to 5% for one to two years in response to the SARS-CoV-2 crisis” while asserting that it expects a return to 9% “within one to two years.” The Senate resolution also included a call for transparency in any proposed cuts and financial restructuring and requested participation and consultation in this process.
• Plans for Fall Campus Reopening in Summer 2020
As of June 2020, TU plans a limited reopening of the university in Fall 2020. Instructors have been given the option to teach remotely—whether synchronously or asynchronously—whereas those willing to return to campus will do so using the “hyflex” model, an ill-defined method consisting of a limited number of students in class and the use of technology to allow students remote access to lectures and other classroom materials. The university has announced that all courses will have a “backup instructor of record,” which might further add to faculty workloads. Faculty have not been informed of additional compensation, resources, or expectations for the many “backup” roles that will be needed for the Fall term.
The principles of shared governance are rightly considered part of the institution’s legally binding contract with its faculty, as formalized in the University’s Statement on Academic Freedom, Responsibility and Tenure (the “Blue Book”). Section III.A of the Blue Book, “Academic Freedom and Responsibility,” includes the following language: “The exercise of academic freedom and responsibility by faculty members extends beyond individual rights and duties to participation in the determination of University policy.” These principles are also enshrined in Article VI, Section C of the Constitution of the Faculty Senate which states: “Except in emergencies, major decisions and plans of the administration that significantly affect the academic affairs of the University should be discussed with the Faculty Senate for an expression of views prior to implementation or submission to the Board of Trustees.”
TU’s recent difficulties in adhering to standards of shared governance are documented throughout this report. We are encouraged that the administration appears to have discontinued the use of blanket non-disclosure agreements and that it has included faculty members in its emergency response planning. However, several structural obstacles continue to diminish the faculty’s role within the broader scheme of university governance. The first such obstacle pertains to the Faculty Senate, where nearly one-quarter of all voting members hold administrative titles of Dean or higher. (The president and provost also have voting membership on the Senate.) Preliminary research shows TU to be out of step with the vast majority of comparable universities, many of which allow presidents and/or provosts a non-voting, ex officio role but which often explicitly bar deans from participation in the Senate.
Another obstacle is in the composition of influential faculty committees, many of which include members chosen by upper administration. Over the past year, for example, the University Council—a committee originally tasked with “special projects”—has become an influential committee consisting of representatives from various university stakeholders. (The charge and scope of this committee has expanded greatly during its short history, of great concern to many faculty.) Faculty are represented on this committee by the president and vice president of the Faculty Senate as well as representatives from the various colleges. However, there is no standard mechanism of appointment to this committee and, while some members were elected to the University Council, most were not. The influential Program Review Committee—formerly the PPRC—has a composition put together in a similarly inconsistent manner that does not appear to accord with AAUP standards for shared governance.
Third, there appears to be little harmony between the Board, the administration, and the faculty about what procedural assurances are offered to the faculty to ensure a thriving shared governance. While a Senate-sponsored Task Force may help to rectify this issue with help from TU-AAUP, it remains to be seen whether TU administration will accept and endorse this committee’s findings and suggestions.
Submitted July 2020 by the TU-AAUP Executive Committee
Matt Hindman, President
David Tingey, Vice President
Machele Dill, Secretary
Tamara Piety, Treasurer