Amid a $2 million budget shortfall, Vermont Law School improperly eliminated tenure for three-quarters of its faculty last year, according to new report by an organization of college professors.
That report, issued this week by the American Association of University Professors, concludes that the independent law school ran afoul of the organization’s academic governance standards when it restructured last year in a bid to cut costs and removed tenure from 14 of its 19 tenured faculty members. Those standards dictate that faculty play a role in campus governance. The organization, which asserts that the professors were not properly consulted in helping manage the budget shortfall, could vote to sanction Vermont when it holds its annual meeting next month.
“Put inelegantly, [the law school] laid off a majority of its most expensive faculty members and then outsourced the work they did to a much cheaper contingent labor force, with no intention, it seems, of looking back,” the report reads. “Left in the dust pile of this type of corporate restructuring are the primary goals of higher education: to serve the common good and advance the progress of society through teaching and research, which goals are the very reason for academic freedom, tenure, and shared governance.”
The AAUP is an organization that represents university professors and aims to protect academic freedom on campuses. Its sanctions and censures are largely symbolic, but can serve as a red flag for potential hires.
Dean Thomas McHenry did not respond to request for comment, though the school issued a statement the day the report was released saying it is planning for the future and is committed to shared governance and academic freedom.
“The steps required to resolve our financial challenges were painful and by their very nature could not be accomplished to the satisfaction of everyone involved,” the statement reads.
McHenry also submitted a lengthy response to the AAUP about its conclusions, which appears in the footnotes of the report. McHenry disputed the conclusion that faculty members were kept out of the decision-making process in 2017 and 2018, when the school was determining how to balance its budget.
“When a condition of financial exigency was identified, and it became clear that the survival of the school was at stake, the administration explored, together with the faculty, all realistic alternatives to involuntary reductions in faculty positions, while at the same time preserving its premier environmental program,” he wrote.
The report found that some tenured faculty members were involved in the restructuring process, he wrote. Moreover, the AAUP committee investigating the situation did not point to other viable options for reducing the schools costs, McHenry added.
Vermont Law School was founded in 1972 and remains the only law school in the state. According to the report, the campus ran into financial problems in 2012 amid the national decline in law school applicants. Enrollment fell from 556 in 2011 to 445 in 2018, ABA data shows. It’s currently ranked No. 136 by U.S. News & World Report.
According to the report, McHenry in October 2017 informed the faculty that the school was facing financial problems. (He had been dean for four months, having come from the law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher.) In February, the school’s board voted to require a balanced budget by May.
McHenry was up front with the faculty about the school’s financial problems, the AAUP committee found, but it drew a distinction between that transparency and the ability of the tenured faculty to take on a meaningful role in the decisions that followed. For example, the school’s tenure and review committee was not consulted on the changes. The administration did provide an avenue for the faculty to offer ideas to balance the budget, it found, but the faculty did not have a real seat at the table when the school asked how to implement the cuts.
Throughout May and June of 2018, 14 of 19 tenured faculty members were stripped of that status. They were given the option to accept a variety of short-term contracts involving reducing teaching loads and service responsibilities, among other requirements. Only one professor, Craig Pease, did not sign an agreement with the school, and his employment ended that July.
The AAUP committee also found that Vermont Law School has a long history of weak shared governance, in which the administration holds much of the decision-making power and the faculty play a limited role.
“Asking faculty members for suggestions does not constitute meaningful consultation when the faculty is not given any opportunity to review, analyze, and assess the options, whether suggested by faculty members or not, and, ultimately, to affect decisions being made,” the report reads. “Having access to data is not equivalent to being consulted about what those data mean and how they should be understood and addressed.”
In his response, McHenry said it was “unfortunate” that the AAUP committee opted to “further the personal agendas of a small minority of previously tenured faculty as part of a collective effort to protect tenure nationally” rather than focus on the school’s financial challenges.