Calling general conditions for academic freedom and governance at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas, “abysmal,” a report we released today found credible the claims of three faculty members that their criticism of administrative decisions led to actions against them. Two of the faculty members, both tenured, were suddenly fired in their twelfth year of service. The third was not reappointed after her fifth year on the tenure track, ostensibly for financial reasons.
An AAUP investigative committee found that administrators had violated the academic due process rights of all three faculty members. The committee also noted that “fear and demoralization” are widespread among the faculty at the university.
The tenured faculty members, Shannan Butler and Corinne Weisgerber, who happen to be husband and wife, were dismissed in a meeting by the institution’s acting vice president for academic affairs, on the stated grounds of “continued disrespect and disregard for the mission and goals of the university.” The vice president alleged a pattern of unprofessional conduct on their part toward their departmental colleagues, and especially toward two interim chairs. Following the meeting, they were escorted from campus by a university security officer.
Despite the urging of the AAUP’s staff, the university’s president declined to afford the two faculty members—who sharply contested all the charges against them—an adjudicative hearing before a faculty body in which the administration would have to demonstrate that adequate cause for their dismissal indeed existed.
The tenure-track faculty member, Katie Peterson, learned of her nonreappointment in a meeting with the same vice president for academic affairs. She was not given adequate notice of nonrenewal, nor was she afforded an opportunity to appeal the decision to an elected faculty committee. She was thus denied the opportunity to ask a faculty body to review her allegation that the real reason for her nonreappointment was that the dean perceived her as a troublemaker. In 2015 she had filed a complaint of sexual harassment against an associate dean, which did not, according to her account, result in a complete cessation of the objectionable conduct. As a result, she filed additional complaints. The new dean, she charged, seemed irritated by the complaints, spoke of them disparagingly, failed to support her tenure bid, and brought the associate dean (who had retired) back into proximity with Peterson.
In addition to finding that none of the three faculty members was afforded academic due process, the investigating committee also concluded that the dismissals of Professors Butler and Weisgerber were plausibly the consequence of their “persistent outspokenness about administrative decisions and actions.” And it found credible Peterson’s allegation that the nonrenewal was the consequence of her having lodged complaints of sexual harassment against an administrator, noting that the allegation stood unrefuted absent an appropriate faculty review procedure
AAUP investigating committees are appointed in a few select cases annually in which severe departures from widely accepted principles and standards on academic freedom, tenure, or governance have been alleged and persist despite efforts to resolve them. Investigating committees are composed of AAUP members from other institutions with no previous involvement in the matter.
At its June meeting, Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure will consider whether to recommend to the AAUP’s annual meeting that censure be imposed on the St. Edward’s University administration for substantial noncompliance with AAUP-supported standards of academic freedom and tenure.
Join us this Friday, October 26, at 12 p.m. ET, for a Facebook Live discussion of the case and examination of the work of Committee A with Henry Reichman, the chair of Committee A, and Hans-Joerg Tiede, a senior program officer in the Department of Academic Freedom, Tenure, and Governance. RSVP here.
Director, Department of Academic Freedom, Tenure, and Governance
P.S. Help support the continued work of the AAUP to protect faculty and academic freedom and due process. Donate to the Academic Freedom fund of the AAUP Foundation today.