Why Emporia State axed 33 employees
At approximately 1:00 p.m. last Thursday, Dan Colson’s phone rang. The tenured professor of English at Emporia State University answered the call and was told to report to a university-owned off-campus building at 2:00 p.m. Little information was provided about the meeting.
With threats of job cuts hanging in the air, Colson already sensed what was about to happen. When he arrived, Colson said, Emporia State administrators reading off a script fired him. Suddenly, after 11 years at ESU, Colson was no longer a tenured professor, though he and others will remain on the payroll and in the classroom through the end of the academic year.
Across campus, other Emporia State employees awaited a similar fate.
At 2:00 p.m., Max McCoy’s phone rang. The tenured professor of journalism was told to report to the same off-campus building at 3:00 p.m. McCoy’s experience mirrored Colson’s: he was fired by administrators reading from a script with no explanation beyond a series of bullet points related to a workforce-management strategy.
That process played out numerous times last Thursday and Friday as the depth of the recently approved workforce-management strategy became apparent to the employees pushing back against the policy, which some believe has killed tenure in Kansas public higher education.
“A lot of faculty members were crying. There were tears; there were expressions of sympathy and loss,” McCoy said. “It was sort of like attending a funeral in the department.”
But for struggling Emporia State, administrators see the cuts—33 in all—as a pathway to viability. With declining enrollment and dwindling finances, officials believe the cuts will allow them to reinvest cost savings in the university, though details on those specific efforts have not yet been unveiled.
The Workforce-Management Plan
The cuts at Emporia State have been a long time coming. In January, a university leadership team began considering how to respond to the financial and enrollment challenges facing the university. Then, in May, the Kansas Board of Regents extended a workforce-management policy that it had introduced during the coronavirus pandemic to allow cash-strapped institutions in the state to quickly terminate employees. Suddenly, ESU leadership had a new mechanism to eliminate jobs, pending approval from the Kansas Board of Regents, which signed off on the plan on Sept. 14.
(The Kansas Board of Regents did not answer a list of questions sent by Inside Higher Ed.)
The workforce-management policy initially had a deadline of July 2021 for implementation, which the regents dropped in May. The policy, which is set to expire in December, states that “any state university employee, including a tenured faculty member, may be suspended, dismissed, or terminated from employment by their respective university.” The policy requires approval by the Kansas Board of Regents, which Emporia State received last week.
But Emporia State employees told Inside Higher Ed that they had little notice of what was coming and were given almost no time for feedback before the plan was approved. ESU officials announced their intent to use the policy to eliminate an unspecified number of positions on Sept. 7, with feedback from employees due by the morning of Sept. 12.
“We held an emergency Faculty Senate meeting on [Sept. 9]; we passed a resolution reiterating our beliefs in tenure and shared governance. This framework is an affront to both of those,” Colson said. “In addition, the Faculty Senate executive committee composed a longer document addressing several problems with both the process and the document itself. My understanding is that based on that feedback, there was one bullet point struck from the framework.”
Critics also find fault with an appeals process, which lacks a discovery component and which they believe is rushed and inadequate. While fired professors will stay on until the end of the academic year and receive three months’ severance, they also note a stipulation that allows the university to place them on administrative leave or terminate them early, which they worry may be abused by officials.
The framework, as it stands now, lists nine bullet points that can be used to dismiss any ESU employee between Sept. 14, when the regents approved the policy’s use at ESU, and Dec. 31, when it expires.
According to a copy of the framework provided by Emporia State, employees can be suspended or fired based on a number of factors, such as “low enrollment; cost of operations; reduction in revenues for specific departments or schools; current or future market considerations as to the need for a program or department; restructuring of a program, department, or school as determined to be necessary by the university; realignment of resources; performance evaluations; teaching and research productivity; low service productivity.”
Colson argues that the plan didn’t really change following employee feedback.
“The faculty feedback was, I’m assuming, a hoop they felt they had to jump through before terminating upwards of two dozen tenure lines and tenured faculty,” Colson said.
Brent Thomas, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and a member of the leadership team that advanced the framework, notes that concessions were made: a bullet point about employee conduct was removed following faculty feedback.
But that change isn’t enough to appease faculty who see the implementation of the workforce-management policy as a mechanism to end tenure in Kansas public higher ed.
“I know the university says that they are not suspending tenure. But come on, this is what this plan does when you can summarily dismiss a tenured faculty member without having to go through any process other than saying, ‘Hey, you’re fired.’ That is effectively suspending tenure and academic freedom,” said McCoy, who has worked at Emporia State for 16 years.
ESU leadership has disputed the notion that they’ve ended tenure. Officials are more concerned about why the workforce-management policy was even necessary.
“The university has had declining enrollments, especially in our on-campus population, for a number of years. Our financial situation has been deteriorating for a number of years. In the past, the university has chosen not to make hard strategic choices and chose to kick the can down the road. And as a result of those past decisions, the clock is running out,” Thomas said. “We have some very serious financial challenges in our future and the not-so-distant future.”
Cuts now, Thomas argues, will stave off deeper cuts in the years ahead.
“We had to do some things we would have rather not done in ways that we would have rather not done because of the financial realities going forward,” Thomas said. “Failure to act quickly and decisively would put us at risk of eliminating a lot more people in the very near future.”
Employees have also questioned whether the cuts are necessary, arguing that there are better ways to manage a workforce that give them more of a voice in the process.
Gary Wyatt, associate provost, dean of the honors college at ESU and a member of the leadership team that advanced the workforce-management policy, said he understands faculty criticism of the cuts but argues that the time to collaborate on an alternative solution has passed.
“I think [these cuts] could have been avoided two or three years ago, had political decisions been made then about vacant positions that became open, decisions to move resources to strengthen certain programs and not others. So the faculty, from my perspective, are right, but those decisions would have had to happen at least two or three years ago,” Wyatt said.
Though employees have been sharply critical of the short window for feedback, officials argue that the timing was made to help those who lose their positions get started with the search for a new job as soon as possible.
“The academic job market has a certain cycle to it, and the job market is not always great, especially now. Any delays in making these decisions and notifying the impacted employees, they would have been getting notification later. And the later we go, that’s less time for them to seek out and apply for other opportunities,” Thomas said. “So we really felt like, in many ways, moving quickly allowed the greatest notification for our faculty in a tough job market where they would have the maximum amount of time possible to find other employment opportunities.”
The Postcuts Future
The concerns cited by officials are not unique to ESU. Many other regional public universities are dealing with some of the same challenges regarding declining enrollment and dwindling finances.
Though officials aren’t yet willing to share details, they say the deep cuts at Emporia State have a purpose, and they promise to reinvest savings in a way that improves long-term institutional viability.
Critics aren’t convinced.
Colson said the plan reflects “right-wing fantasies about what higher education should be,” with cuts landing hard in the liberal arts and sciences, which are commonly questioned by conservatives.
“I don’t believe that this is an economic fix—I believe this is an ideological reorganization,” he said. “I think that the people let go were a combination of things that our current administration doesn’t value and people who have challenged our administration. If you look through the list of people terminated, it includes most of the outspoken people on campus, including just about every single faculty member who has been quoted in local media about this framework recently.”
Colson and others have also questioned ESU president Ken Hush’s qualifications—he is the only public college president in Kansas without an advanced degree—and ties to the corporate world, where he worked for Koch Industries, owned by Charles and David Koch, who have contributed widely to conservative and libertarian causes (David Koch died in 2019).
ESU officials have said the idea emerged from a leadership team facilitated by Hush but described it as a long-running group effort. The cuts have run their course, they say, and now Emporia State can expect a reinvestment of resources, with details to be released soon.
“It may be understandable why people would just look at this as just a cutting exercise, but it is different than what we’ve done in the past. Because in the past, we’ve made cuts to balance the checkbook, so that we’re not overspending the dollars we actually have,” Thomas said. “But when we make those cuts, the money is gone. What we’re doing now is different in that we’re being proactive in trying to make some of these hard decisions and then reinvest the savings in a more strategic way that will help the university be more sustainable and a better institution.”