State College of Florida Can Now More Easily Fire Faculty
In the United States, erosion of academic freedom and faculty empowerment seems to start at the bottom and move up. K-12 public schools have been under siege for years, and now college faculty are finding the ground beneath their feet washing away. It's a phenomenon that university faculty should take seriously.
The news last week is from the State College of Florida. Last Tuesday, the SCF Board of Trustees decided that all new faculty would be hired on annual contracts, as opposed to the "continuing" contracts that currently prevail there.
First, some background. The State College of Florida is the former Manatee Community College. Founded in 1957 as a two-year institution, it converted to a four-year institution and changed its name in 2009. It has three campuses and is one of the 28 public colleges in the Florida College System. 65 % of Florida's high school graduates go to one of these public colleges, and 82 % of Florida's freshmen and sophomores are in these colleges.
Like many of Florida's public colleges, SCF does not offer tenure to faculty. "Tenure" is regarded by the courts as something like a property right which cannot be taken away lightly (although courts tend to be indifferent to the rights of tenured faculty - unless those rights are set down in a contract). Many institutions that do not offer tenure instead offer a kind of tenure lite: after a probationary period, a faculty member goes on a "continuing" contract or into a cycle of multi-year contracts. These contracts do not offer the same protections as tenure, but they are better than at-will employment. Florida Department of Education Rule 6A-14.0411 (see also SCF's own policy)provides more job security than annual contracts, which can simply be non-renewed at the end of the year.
On September 29, the SCC Board of Trustees decided to eliminate continuing contracts, effective next summer. The SCF vice president for academic affairs warned the board that eliminating continuing contracts would put SCF at a competitive disadvantage for hiring new faculty (a point echoed by the SCF president, with a warning that the accreditors might not approve) and the SCF president of their faculty senate warned that eliminating continuing contracts would make faculty more vulnerable to political fashion. Board members responded by saying that good faculty can be enticed to SCF with bonuses and merit pay raises and voted 7-1 (one member absent) to switch to annual contracts.
The Bradenton Herald editorialized that board members "...are not educators, but mostly appointees selected by a governor whose purpose is to pursue an agenda with more to do with politics than education..." Incidentally, all current members of SCF's board were appointed or reappointed under Governor Scott, and seven of the nine board members are up for reappointment before the next gubernatorial election - and Scott has made his hostility towards tenure quite clear.
Those of us with long memories may recall that when USF's Fort Meyers regional campus was spun off into an independent Florida Gulfcoast University, FGCU put new faculty on track for multi-year contracts rather than tenure. That was regarded as a major step towards making Florida higher education more "businesslike". Now continuing contracts are being replaced by annual contract5s, as tt seems that multi-year contracts are not "businesslike" enough, and boards are thinking of switching to annual contracts - against advice from their own administrations. Considering that many businesses regard two weeks notice before dismissal as an onerous burden, one wonders how long before boards start toying with at-will employment...which is what adjuncts have now.
Freedom of Expression and Social Media
It is becoming almost a cliché. Mild-mannered Joe posts a cartoon of his boss on the Indiscretions_Unlimited website, twenty-five internet trolls post snide comments about Joe's artistic skills and the quality of his company's widgets, the whole conversation is liked by the entire I-Hate-Cat-Videos chat room, a business columnist writes a garbled account of the entire affair (complete with cartoon of boss) in an e-newsletter to which the boss subscribes and for some reason occasionally reads, and we know what happens next.
Contrary to the claims of overexcited pundits, the internet did not create this problem. In fact, some anthropologists claim that using gossip to build social relationships is one of the leading causes for the development of language. But the internet seems to offer everyone the chance to be notorious for fifteen nanoseconds, perhaps just long enough to get fired.
Or maybe not. The National Labor Relations Board recently ruled that an employee's Facebook postings are protected by federal labor law provisions on people talking about their working conditions. An NLRB spokesperson told The Chicago Tribune that "Workers' rights are the same at the water cooler as they are on the Web." The Tribune reported that social media are evolving rapidly and that a sequence of NLRB rulings were limiting employers' authority to retaliate against employees for off-the-job speech, writing, and other expression.
For academia, this is helpful. One problem academics have is that out in the "real world," an employee could get fired for saying or writing things the boss didn't like. Academic freedom seemed an unfair perk, and the enemies of higher education took advantage of that resentment. But much of what many employees want to do and what unions do do - talk and publish material on working conditions and form organizations to do something about them - are the sort of things the First Amendment addresses. The First Amendment protects citizens against government - and therefore government and public employees - but the issue the NLRB is raising is whether such protections should be extended beyond the public sector.
The NLRB is not alone in raising such issues. Protections for whistleblowers are a matter of public debate as well. Many of the arguments for such protections echo arguments for academic freedom. The time may be coming when employees - and not just academic employees - can speak without fear of retaliation.
But of course, while we should have the right - and perhaps sometimes even a moral obligation - to speak truth to power, prudence reminds us of Walt Kelly's quip that in a free country, one has the right to make a fool of onesself in public. And thanks to the internet, one can have one's follies resonate around the globe and then hang around as long as blogs archive their postings. Sometimes, a little tact is helpful.