Emporia State University fires tenure-track faculty, commits a queen sacrifice

Emporia State University sealEmporia State University has just fired a group of faculty members, including those on the tenure track.  It’s the latest example of what I’ve called a queen sacrifice.

(This occurs when a college or university cuts tenure-track faculty members. The source of the phrase is chess, where queens are the most powerful piece, as tenure-track faculty are, in theory, the most powerful members of an academic community.  In the game giving up the queen is a desperate move, often an attempt to wrest victory from a very bad situation, and so it seems to be for colleges and universities axing people in those positions.)

This is an emerging story. Emporia’s news site doesn’t have an official statement so far. The official Twitter account is silent.  So I’ll summarize what I’ve been able to learn from other sources.

Emporia State University president Ken Hush submitted a plan to cut certain faculty to the state board of regents.  KBOR, which had granted that power to its campuses last year, approved the plan on Wednesday, and Hush then issued a series of firings.

The regents’ policy is fairly broad.  The Chronicle summarizes it like so:

According to the approved framework, the university can “suspend, dismiss, or terminate” employees based on factors “such as, but not limited to” low enrollment, cost of operations, reduction in revenues for specific departments or schools, current or future market considerations, restructuring, realignment of resources, performance evaluations, teaching and research productivity, and “low service productivity.” Affected employees can appeal to the state’s Office of Administrative Hearings. The burden of proof is on the employee, and “no discovery will be permitted,” the document says.

Who was cut under this policy?  23 [UPDATED: 33] professors, according to student reporters, from the following departments:

Accounting, information systems, and finance – 1

Art – 1

Biological sciences – 2*

Business – 1

Communication & theater – 2*

Counselor education – 1*

English, modern languages and journalism – 5*

Music – 3

Physical sciences – 2

Social sciences, sociology and criminology – 5*

*numbers have been confirmed by department chairs

All told, the cut people amount to “about 7 percent of Emporia State’s work force.”  Here’s one of those instructors on Twitter:

Students and faculty protested the cuts.

These cuts to certain departments seem to go along with shifting university resources to other departments:

“Going forward, ESU will realign resources in programs that sit squarely in our strike zone,” said Hush. “For example, ESU excels in programs like nursing, biology, technology, business, psychology and teacher education. In fact, we are further refocusing and reenergizing some of our teacher preparation programs. No one does teacher education better than Emporia State University!”

Why is this occurring?  As per most queen sacrifices, the institution is feeling “extreme financial pressures,” according to local media. My readers will be unsurprised to learn that the cause of those pressures is the combination of COVID and a drop in student numbers.  The latter is steep, according to this official statement: “on-campus enrollment declined 24 percent between 2017 and 2021,” according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Some observations:

  • There was no declaration of financial exigency, although the administration highlighted economic pressures as paramount.
  • Emporia did not conduct an academic program prioritization effort to determine which units and people to cut.  According to the Chronicle, they deliberately avoided this action:

Brent Thomas, the interim provost, painted the process Emporia State used as considerate of the faculty. At the Wednesday board meeting, he said that it would be “unwise, harmful, and frankly unethical to ask faculty to make decisions about people and programs across the entire university. We did not believe that we should put our faculty into situations where they were forced to point at one another as targets for restructuring.”

  • Cuts fell across the curriculum. The humanities seemed to catch about half of the ax blows, but social and natural sciences were hit as well.
  • ESU’s latest news release uses a lot of euphemisms to set the state for the queen sacrifice, like “the framework would allow ESU the flexibility to realign resources to address the university’s structural deficits that have been ongoing for several years, accelerated by COVID.”  There is also a futures theme in describing this action as part of a strategy called: “Forward Focused, Future Ready.” (italics in original)
  • The regents’ policy is really open-ended. How many other states will follow suit?  And are appealing faculty actually denied discovery?
  • President Hush (a Dickensian name) is an interesting person.  He’s an Emporia alumnus, as well as a former board member. He lacks any advanced degrees and apparently donated significantly to a Koch brothers fund.  Professor Max McCoy sees that funding as one sign Hush is aligned with an anti-academic Republican state government.
  • McCoy also views the cuts as the suspension of tenure at Emporia State, and writes that he fears losing his job for saying so.  It certainly looks like it.

As I have said before, keep an eye out for more such queen sacrifices. That move seems to have become an established one in American higher education.

(thanks to Caroline Coward and Peter Shea for the pointer, and to Windwailer for a good link)

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3 Responses to Emporia State University fires tenure-track faculty, commits a queen sacrifice

  1. Deborah R Penner says:

    This happened at a university just 60 minutes drive from my small college. We are down too but partly because we have a new President who increased the academic standards for admission. We can already see a difference in student work and attitude. However, the major cuts in English and languages as the reason why I no longer encourage my English majors to go for a doctorate in lit and criticism. I encourage a master’s in English education and a doctorate in composition and rhetoric. There is still a need for persons to teach English with an ESL certificate. That is where the jobs are: directing writing centers, heading composition programs, or teaching high school English or college level high school dual credit. My “retirement” position is now teaching EN 101 and as a writing support professor in our master’s degree programs. Essentially, a grad level writing center.

  2. Gary Stocker says:

    Bryan: I posted this earlier today on LI. gary

    Let’s go to the data.
    Emporia State (IPEDS data 2015-2020)

    1. FTE enrollment down more than 700
    2. Total enrollment down more than 250
    3. 4 and 6-year graduation rates abysmally low at at upper 20 and middle 40 percent, respectively
    4. No big observations on total assets v. total liabilties
    5. Percent admitted and admissions yield (aka popularity) suggest that the students who go to Emporia do so from a pretty tight geographic region.
    6. Average institutional grants have almost doubled in the reporting period. This suggest that ESU needs to add tuition discounting to get students to enroll. We see that a lot at privates – not so much at publics.

    Quick College Viability analysis: A public college like Emporia State is highly unlikely to close. But this news that lay-offs are planned indicates the expenses are getting way out of line with the revenues. We may see low-enrollment majors and programs cut. If you are considering ESU, as specific questions about the major(s) you are considering. For example, how many graduates have there been for that major in the last 5 years.

    #collegeviability #cvapp #garystocker

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