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  • Sydney Umstead

National AAUP supports tenured professor’s appeal

AAUP stands with tenured faculty in appeal case 

By: Sydney Umstead, News Editor

The national office of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) in Washington, D.C. has published an amicus brief supporting the appeal case of tenured faculty members who filed their case against Canisius College in the Fourth Judicial Department, Appellate Division, of the New York Supreme Court. An amicus brief or amicus curiae is referred to as a “friend of the court,” in support of an ongoing court case. The appeal deals with whether or not Canisius College breached the contract when laying off of the tenured professors in 2020. 

How we got here 

The case of “Astiz v. Canisius College” involves plaintiffs Maria Fernandez Astiz, Ph.D., Steven Maddox, Ph.D., Matthew Mitchell, Ph.D. and Kathryn F. Williams, Ph.D. InsideHigherEd reported in February of 2021 that the four tenured professors were suing the institution after being told in July of 2020 that “this academic year would be their last year at Canisius.” 

As per the article, the professors claimed “Canisius carried out their layoffs — and others — without declaring exigency and without input from the college’s Academic Program Board, the Faculty Status Committee or the full Faculty Senate.” Furthermore, “The four professors, who stand to be out of work at the end of the semester, are seeking unspecified compensatory and economic damages, including lost wages, back pay, bonuses and benefits.” 

In May of 2023, InsideHigherEd reported that New York State Supreme Court judge Emilio Colaiacovo “upheld Canisius College’s layoffs of four tenured professors.” 

The article states that Colaiacovo said Canisius “was not required to declare financial exigency in order to trigger the language allowing termination under the handbook.” Furthermore, he is quoted as stating, “It is uncontroverted that Canisius was running a budget deficit that was only exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic,” and that the institution “had a rational basis for rendering its decision and … it would be error to supplant the judgment of the college with [the court’s] own.” Colaiacovo then dismissed the case; however, the professors have gone on to file their appeal in the appellate division. 

The AAUP’s Brief 

The AAUP brief states that their legal team filed the brief “in support of four tenured professors who were terminated due to their college’s purported financial difficulties.” 

According to the association’s 1940 “Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure,” (“Statement”) the College should have utilized “meaningful involvement by the faculty in assessing whether the claimed financial exigency actually exists and whether it necessitates faculty terminations.” This includes but is not limited to “faculty participation in questions concerning the implementation of any truly necessary terminations.” 

The brief notes that Canisius’ Faculty Handbook states that tenure “is a part of the contract of full-time faculty of the college,” and that the language used in the handbook “expressly incorporated language from the AAUP’s 1940 Statement pertaining to tenure and financial exigency.” The Faculty Handbook is “the contract of all full-time faculty” at Canisius and is accepted by faculty, administration and trustees.

The document cited court cases in their argument in which “the AAUP has played a central role in establishing and maintaining academic freedom and shared governance; to define fundamental professional values and standards for higher education.” The layoffs have affected the class sizes at Canisius, with many professors being forced by administration to accept higher student numbers in courses. In addition, since the layoffs, there is heavier reliance on part-time, adjunct faculty, which means some courses may only be offered on an occasional basis. 

The AAUP’s mission involves “fundamental professional values and standards for higher education,” and they are considered the “authority on the meaning of tenure and related principles vital to the academic profession." New York State Communications Director for the AAUP Dr. Tanya Loughead states that, “Tenure is what protects academic freedom” and that “to have good courses, good research, and for students to have a good education, a university needs tenure.” 

After the layoffs, the Canisius AAUP hired an independent auditor to assess the finances of Canisius. This audit revealed that — while Canisius’s finances may not be in a great place due to lower enrollment — the University “certainly did not need to lay off about 100 people,” stated Loughead. Moreover, Loughead noted, “The faculty-student relationship is the core of education and ought to be protected; it is what helps students succeed and fosters good retention.”

The AAUP brief goes on to state that “Protecting tenure is important because, as the Canisius College Faculty Handbook explains, … tenure is ‘a means to certain ends,’ namely, to ensuring academic freedom (the ‘freedom of teaching and research’).”

 The New York State Supreme Court is expected to hear the appellate case regarding the four fired tenured faculty members in September of 2024 at a Rochester courthouse. 

InsideHigherEd states that, “The Court of Appeals is New York State's highest court and court of last resort in most cases.” 

Looking ahead, the AAUP brief states that "Leaving decisions regarding the termination of tenured faculty appointments…to the unfettered discretion of college administrators would render tenure an empty promise and would have disastrous consequences for higher education.”

As The Griffin reported in June of 2021, the national AAUP named Canisius among seven other American universities in a list of sanctioned universities. The article by Natalie Faas states, “After an almost yearlong investigation conducted by a special committee for the American Association of University Professors, the association has recently recommended that Canisius College be added to the AAUP’s list of sanctioned institutions due to ‘substantial noncompliance with standards of academic governance.’” Canisius still remains on that list on sanctions, which as Faas’ article indicates, is rare in the AAUP’s history. 

1940 ‘Statement’

The AAUP’s 1940 “Statement deals with “public understanding and support of academic freedom and tenure and agreement upon procedures to ensure them in colleges and universities,” as per their website. 

The section on academic tenure discusses five bullet points that outline the importance of tenure. 

The fourth point states, “Termination for cause of a continuous appointment, or the dismissal for cause of a teacher previous to the expiration of a term appointment, should, if possible, be considered by both a faculty committee and the governing board of the institution.” Continuing on, “the accused teacher should be informed before the hearing in writing of the charges and should have the opportunity to be heard in his or her own defense by all bodies that pass judgment upon the case.” 

Canisius has not yet responded to the AAUP’s amicus curiae. 

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