When it was announced in April that the University of Louisiana at Lafayette would terminate its cognitive science doctoral program, Mike Kalish was upset, but he expected a transfer to the psychology department.
Instead, Kalish was one of two tenured, cognitive science faculty who recently received termination notices.
Faculty critics say the terminations represent another example of the abuse of tenure policies that were softened more in February within the eight-college University of Louisiana System through rule changes. The changes were criticized by faculty groups nationally.
Kalish said he feels lied to, and by abandoning a developing academic program that is the only one of its kind in Louisiana, UL-Lafayette does not seem interested in being a comprehensive research university.
“They implemented the rules so they could fire people,” said Kalish, who will not be out of the job until 2013 because of notification requirements.
UL System and UL-Lafayette officials said the new termination policies did not factor into the recent tenured faculty layoffs.
The tenure system essentially gives faculty much greater job protection once they have earned the status through teaching, outreach, research and publishing.
Proponents say tenure is necessary to protect academic freedom and quality. Critics call it an antiquated system that can promote laziness and give too much job protection.
Oftentimes, extreme declarations of financial emergencies, or exigency, are needed to fire tenured faculty.
For instance, when Louisiana colleges had a slate of foreign language degree program eliminations last year because of budget cuts, LSU targeted the so-called “Foreign Language 14” group of full-time instructors and protected the tenured and tenure-tracked faculty.
Southeastern Louisiana University, which is in the UL System, instead, opted to terminate three tenured faculty when it axed its bachelor’s degree program in French.
Those three faculty members filed suit in May, arguing the tenure rules were violated because the French program still exists as a minor and classes are still taught. Two were offered lower-paying, less-protected instructor jobs. Evelyne Bornier was the only one to accept.
“It’s insulting, of course,” Bornier said. “It’s a very serious thing to strip someone’s tenure without reason.
“It could happen to anyone (on the faculty),” she said. “We are just starters. They are going to keep doing it, unless we stop them.”
The UL System does not comment on ongoing litigation.
Other layoffs at Northwestern State University and the University of Louisiana at Monroe, both within the UL System, also have been condemned by faculty groups.
The UL System faculty termination rules changes essentially allow colleges to lay off faculty, including tenured professors, more quickly and easily during times of budget cuts and academic program eliminations. In 2010, the UL System considered, but decided against even-stricter changes.
In June, the American Association of University Professors, which seeks to protect academic freedom, sent out a highly critical letter concerning the UL System rules changes.
The letter by Michael Bérubé, AAUP chairman of the subcommittee on program closures, said “tenure is essentially meaningless” when tenured faculty are fired and offered instructor jobs.
“The (UL System) appears to be going well beyond anything that can be justified by economic hardship, launching a capricious assault on tenure as well as minimum standards of job security for the untenured,” Bérubé wrote, warning that the UL System’s maintenance of core liberal arts programs “is no longer a priority.”
As for cognitive science, UL-Lafayette interim Provost Carolyn Bruder said the terminations have nothing to do with UL System tenure rule changes and are only about a statewide review of programs without many graduates.
Bruder said that Kalish, for instance, will maintain his job into 2013, when the UL System rules could have let the university release him sooner.
“We have a standard of notification that’s higher,” Bruder said, arguing that there are no vacancies where Kalish and others can be transferred.
The doctoral cognitive science program was identified as a low-completer program — one that graduates few students over a three-year time period. It was initially slated for survival on a probationary status.
Bruder said cognitive science is expensive and that there was no evidence to suggest the numbers would improve during probation, so the “difficult decision” was made to axe the program and allow students near graduation time to finish.
“Times are really pretty tight,” she said.
Cognitive science is essentially the study of minds as compared to processors, or machines. It combines the disciplines of psychology, computer science, linguistics, neuroscience, behavioral ecology and philosophy.
Istvan Berkley, a cognitive science professor keeping his job, said axing the cutting-edge program is akin to eliminating a new computer science program 40 years ago. UL-Lafayette has an Institute of Cognitive Science.
Higher education statewide has seen its state funds cut by more than 25 percent in less than three years, but tuition increases have offset many of the losses.
UL System President Randy Moffett declined interview requests, but he released a prepared statement that the rules changes, “which include a shortened notification timeline, have to be triggered by significant budget reductions and have a 2013 sunset.
“Gov. Bobby Jindal and the Legislature worked hard to keep higher education from undertaking more budget reductions (this summer), and we are hopeful those efforts will continue so that our campuses are not forced to further reduce personnel,” Moffett stated.
Although not directly affected, LSU Faculty Senate President Kevin Cope said he is concerned the UL System actions on tenured faculty may move onto other college campuses.
“The actions of one system are taken as justification for the future actions of other systems,” Cope said.