Emporia State University faculty leaders wait for answers after rapid firing of tenured professors

Students hold vigil. President gets ride from police. Author laments ‘self-sabotage.’ Future of programs unknown.

by Sherman Smith, Kansas Reflector

Editor’s note: Sherman Smith is a 2004 graduate of Emporia State University with a degree in English and a minor in journalism. He took classes from English professor Mel Storm.

Emporia — Faculty leaders at Emporia State University are alarmed by their administration’s lack of clear direction following the sudden layoffs of 33 professors and staff members last week.

Professors have unanswered questions about which programs will exist beyond the current school year, and what to tell current and prospective students.

“Please wait for more information,” faculty senate president Shawn Keough told colleagues at a meeting Tuesday. “That’s what’s being pushed down at this point.”

The Kansas Board of Regents granted permission to ESU president Ken Hush to rapidly fire tenured professors in a cost-saving move permitted by a temporary COVID-19 policy that expires at the end of December. No other state university has taken the controversial option.

Most faculty members were allowed to remain through the end of the school year in May. Others were immediately dismissed.

Students responded with protests and a candlelight vigil. Hush’s office is now guarded by a chain, and the student newspaper, the ESU Bulletin, photographed him being driven off campus by police. Some faculty members were weighing legal assistance from the American Association of University Professors and rushing to secure intellectual property from university servers.

The author Joyce Carol Oates questioned the university’s actions through her Twitter account.

“If a university abolishes tenure, how can it expect to hire instructors who could get tenure-track jobs elsewhere?” Oates wrote. “In both the short & the long run, this is self-sabotage to a university.”

Some of the faculty senate members at Tuesday’s meeting were among those who were laid off, and remained silent. Others had questions that Keough, the senate president and a business administration professor, couldn’t answer.

Howard Pitler, an associate professor of school leadership, said his department chair had been told to clear out his desk when he was laid off. Pitler wondered about the future of the department. Keough stifled a nervous laugh.

“I just chuckled because that’s a lot better than you seeing tears streaming down my face,” Keough said.

Juan Chavarria, an assistant professor of accounting, information systems and finance, said his experience in the corporate world was that layoffs were immediately followed by a talk from leadership about what the organization’s roadmap will be.

“Why can’t we get that roadmap?” Chavarria asked during the faculty senate meeting.

The lack of certainty creates an unhealthy environment, he added.

“It’s not healthy for anybody — not for those who are leaving, not for those who are staying,” Chavarria said.

Mallory Koci, director of the Ethnic and Gender Studies program and the only faculty member in the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies, raised concerns about the university’s big “Black and Gold” recruitment event for prospective students, which takes place on campus Saturday.

Campus leadership needs to release information about the university’s plans so that “we are not unduly recruiting students or making promises for programs that will no longer exist,” Koci said.

In an interview, Koci said she wants alumni and community members to know that “despite the turmoil, there are people who are committed to this institution.”

“We can be both critical of the changes in how they’re happening, but also be hopeful that there is a path forward where we can be successful and work collaboratively,” Koci said. “Even though I’ve gone through a whole range of emotions this past week, I am hopeful that there is a future that we can create and live into if we care enough.”

Mel Storm, an English professor who started teaching at the university in 1971, was among those who were laid off last week.

Storm said he was targeted because he teaches literature. The English department is gone, he said.

“I don’t think individual merit was looked at, or individual dignity, personal concerns,” Storm said. “Obviously at my age, I’d be retiring one of these days. My plan was to teach as long as my health allowed, because I really enjoy what I do.”

One by one, Storm and the others were called into a “mandatory meeting” at a deserted off-campus building. They were told to come alone and arrive no more than five minutes early, Storm said. A woman let him in the door, and two individuals were present for the meeting: An HR person and an administrator who read a statement about the university’s plans to save money by firing employees.

In the past week, former students have sent emails to the professor to let him know his teaching meant a lot. The remembrances go back to the early 1980s.

“I do seem to have given some direction to a few lives along the way,” Storm said.

“It’s certainly gratifying,” he added. “I suppose in some respects, it makes it harder because I think I’m still affecting people’s lives, and will be until the 16th of May.”

Two days later, he will turn 80.

“I did hope to leave on my own terms when the time came,” Storm said. “It’s kind of a personal affront.”

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