By Reginald Stuart
The procedures used by Tennessee State University (TSU) in deciding this year to phase out six degree granting programs as part of a wide ranging university restructuring, is being challenged by the TSU Chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP).
The faculty group called on its national AAUP Committee on College and University Governance to “investigate” whether Tennessee State, The Tennessee Board of Regents and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) ignored “shared governance” practices in deciding elimination of the six programs was in the best interest of the school. “Shared governance” is a long-established practice in which school administrators consult with appropriate faculty members and representatives in instances where major programmatic issues are to be determined.
“We felt it was a deeply flawed process in which TSU was harmed,” said veteran TSU biology professor Philip F. Ganter, president of the TSU Chapter of the AAUP. He was referring to the process started in late 2009 and continuing through the winter of 2011 for determining what academic programs to cut. “This thing was railroaded,” said Ganter, asserting numerous steps followed in the past for faculty review and input were bypassed by current university President Portia Holmes Shields and her predecessor.
School officials defended their actions, in a response to the recent criticism, asserting the university “family” was consulted.
“At each juncture, I met with the university family to seek suggestions given the data we had available and to keep faculty updated,” said interim TSU President Portia Holmes Shields. “ Finally, after weighing all the evidence, the decision had to be made to merge some programs, change two majors to minors and eliminate one undergraduate major and three master’s degrees,” said President Shields in a letter to the national AAUP.
The AAUP concerns, expressed in a letter to the organization’s national Committee on College and University Governance, are the latest salvo in a string of complaints in recent years about the quality and judgment of Tennessee State’s leadership dating to the tenure of past president Melvin Johnson.
A persistently bad economy is hurting state revenues used to help fund a variety of public services from highway construction and maintenance to education. As budgets are cut, lawmakers are forcing college administrators to make some tough choices with many schools, including Tennessee State, opting to phase out academic programs that are deemed of marginal value to their core missions.
In Tennessee State’s case, three Master’s degree programs – one each in art, music and English – are being phased out. Three Bachelor’s degree programs are being cut, one each in physics, modern foreign languages and Africana Studies.
The TSU AAUP letter focused its complaint on its complaint that established “shared governance” procedures were ignored, although it also echoed other critics in questioning the logic used in selecting the six degree programs that were cut.
The TSU AAUP complaint asserts the university never referred a plan for termination of degree programs to the TSU Faculty Senate, “handpicked selected faculty members” to serve on study groups it says were largely made up of “administrators” and did not conduct a meaningful cost/benefit ratio regarding the impact on future enrollment of eliminating the programs that are being cut.
TSU Faculty Senate President, Elaine Busey could not be reached for comment.
B. Robert Kreiser, the national AAUP staff person coordinating the work of the organization’s Committee on College and University Governance, acknowledged receipt of the TSU AAUP complaint and said more documentation has been requested before a determination can be made of whether to pursue it.
“The lack of consultation with faculty is becoming an increasing phenomenon,” said Keriser, adding formal requests such as this one are not frequent but are taken “seriously.”
A finding by the AAUP against TSU has no legal implications for the school. It the organization were to “sanction” TSU, however, the school’s standing among academicians could be harmed, depending on the nature of the sanction(s).
SACS, the national recognized regional accrediting agency for most colleges and universities in the South, does not make public comment on complaints lodged against it. However, the agency’s rating system does wield considerable clout over an institution’s attractiveness to students and prospective faculty as well as a school’s ability to attract federal and private funding.
In that respect, SACS last December continued the school’s accreditation, declined the reaffirm it for the standard 10 years and placed Tennessee State on “warning” status for failing to comply with a number of standards for accreditation without qualification.
Tennessee State was denied reaffirmation of its accreditation due to numerous questions about its ability to clearly delineate the effectiveness of some of its efforts in planning, student assessment and learning outcomes. That caused the agency to place the popular school on “warning” status for one year.
The decision gave Tennessee State one year to address several questions regarding compliance with the rating agency’s so-called “core requirements,” those that apply to the whole institution, and its “comprehensive standards,” those that measure specific departments or programs. The school has since filed updated compliance reports with SACS hoping they meet its demands.
SACS has more than 80 criteria schools must meet to win its prized endorsement which the federal government looks to in determining what schools can participate in a variety of federally funded programs, including student aid. Private donors also look to such regional rating agencies for guidance on determining who to support.