These layoffs are rare


MPR/Tim Post

Professors are bracing themselves

Yesterday Tim Post reported that Mankato State is giving layoff notices to a dozen faculty members, a third of whom are tenured.

A third tenured — that’s rare. For tenured professors to lose their jobs is a sign of a severe financial situation, say university and faculty representatives.

“The universities haven’t seen (a layoff scenario) on this scale since the 1970s,” said Inter Faculty Association President Don Larsson, who is on the English faculty at Mankato State. That was when Mankato’s English department, for example, “was cut virtually in half.”

Neither the faculty-union reps nor the officials in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system said they had hard numbers on the history of faculty layoffs. But Scott Olson, the system’s interim vice chancellor for academic and student affairs, said he hasn’t seen layoff notices given to tenured faculty in his 25 years in higher education.

And that includes seven years in Minnesota, five in Indiana and 13 in Connecticut.

Tenured positions are usually the last to get cut, because they’re highest on the academic totem pole. Under them are tenure-track or “probationary” faculty, as well as part-time (or “adjunct” in some circles), fixed-term and non-tenure-track faculty.

That said, it’s possible for a school to cut a tenured position while keeping a probationary one. After all, not all cuts are across the board, and it’s not just seniority that rules.

When layoffs loom, administration and faculty usually meet to discuss criteria for department cuts — such as how many students are enrolled in each program, how expensive it is to run the department, and qualitative measures such as whether the program has outside accreditation. With that information, administrators decide which departments to trim. Seniority then comes into play.

So theoretically a department that teaches a booming subject might keep its probationary faculty — even while a department teaching a dying subject at the same university has to shed both probationary and tenured professors.

Of course, every job loss is unfortunate. But Robert Kreiser, senior program officer of the American Association of University Professors, said something more is lost when a cut hits a tenured professor.

“Those granted tenure are presumably the best people in their areas at time of their hire,” he said. Laying them off “is a loss of quality faculty, institutional memory — and people making a longstanding commitment to the institution.”

On a last note, Minnesota State Colleges and Universities officials say that as of today, 154 employees in the state system have accepted early retirement bonuses. I’ve asked for a breakdown of how many are faculty, what kind of faculty they are and where they teach.