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Faculty Advocacy Group Investigating Vermont Law School

Valley News Correspondent
Published: 12/20/2018 11:27:33 PM
Modified: 12/21/2018 5:14:50 PM

South Royalton — A Washington-based faculty advocacy group is investigating whether Vermont Law School violated “shared governance” standards when it cut teaching salaries and revoked tenure for most of its professors last summer.

But the inquiry — investigators from the American Association of University Professors were in the Upper Valley this week — is creating friction between some professors who support the investigation and others who regard it as baseless and predetermined.

Professor John Echeverria, who was one of the five professors out of 19 who retained tenure at the law school, said he believes there’s no reason for the AAUP to carry out the investigation.

“The dean met one-on-one with the faculty, and was willing to meet with any faculty that wanted to meet with him, to talk about restructuring options,” Echeverria said of the process. “A whole variety of options were exhaustively discussed and every member of the faculty was invited to come up with their best ideas on how to solve the Vermont Law School’s budgetary challenges.”

VLS President and Dean Thomas McHenry last summer said the cuts were needed to stabilize the South Royalton-based school as law school enrollment declines nationwide, and that the school would save up to $2 million a year once severance packages were paid off. VLS had an operating budget of about $23 million as of last summer.

In the wake of the cuts, the AAUP late last month said it was starting an investigation into the law school for excluding faculty from having some say in the budget restructuring process, which led to program and pay cuts.

One faculty member who lost his job is Craig Pease, a former law and science professor at VLS who said he was fired last summer after refusing to sign a nondisclosure agreement. Pease said he welcomes the AAUP inquiry because the law school kept the process of firing tenured professors and people under long-term contracts hidden from faculty members.

“The restructuring was something that was done by a small group in the dean’s office,” Pease said. “They hatched this plan in secret. They decided the criteria for firing faculty in secret. They decided in secret who was going to make those decisions. They decided in secret how much money needed to be saved by all of that.

“(McHenry) did the whole thing in secret, up until the point where people were fired.”

Shortly after the AAUP released its statement about the inquiry, McHenry issued a statement that reiterated concerns about declining enrollment. He also noted that if faculty members who are on long-term contracts, which he said the AAUP regards as equivalent to tenure, are counted, there remain 15 faculty members who could be considered as tenured.

Anita Levy, senior program officer at the AAUP, said that the organization had been contacted by VLS professors about concerns of losing academic freedom and tenure before the law school had finished restructuring its program.

“We had three or four (VLS) faculty members who contacted us simply to inform us about the conditions there, and to urge us to investigate,” said Levy, who is leading the inquiry in Vermont.

In a second statement on Dec. 1, the AAUP said that VLS faculty were given a “stark choice” last June: either give up their full-time tenured positions and benefits or have their contracts terminated. In doing so, the AAUP said, VLS sidelined faculty input, violating the bylaws of the Association of American Law Schools.

“(W)ith only five faculty members having retained tenure at an institution with more than six hundred students, the restructuring appears to have effectively eviscerated the existing tenure system and, with it, protections for academic freedom,” the statement said.

McHenry said that while he welcomes the AAUP’s investigation, its claims are false: The law school took about six months to talk with faculty to ensure they were involved.

“We believe in academic freedom and freedom of speech,” McHenry said in a phone interview. “One of the things we’re deeply disappointed about is that (the AAUP says) VLS didn’t consult the faculty.”

But Levy said, “There were a large number of faculty appointments that were restructured and essentially stripped of tenure. ... Even though many of those faculty retained their positions, they were deprived of voting rights.” She noted that those slated for restructuring were asked to sign nondisclosure agreements — something very unusual in circumstances like this one.

If the AAUP inquiry finds violations of shared governance, Levy said, a decision to sanction VLS ultimately could be voted on at the AAUP annual meeting in June and would signal to prospective faculty and students that VLS might not be a suitable school for them.

Liz Ryan Cole, who has been at VLS since 1984, said she welcomes the inquiry. She said she isn’t able to talk about the specifics of her employment terms, but noted there are systemic forces putting more pressure on deans to cut tenure and budgets and restrict academic freedoms. Cole cited the demand for smaller class sizes, an emphasis on students to be “practice-ready,” a general obsession with law school rankings, and an emphasis on data, thereby devaluing the work of lawyers.

All of these factors, she said, encourage law school deans to say, “ ‘I can’t live with tenure, I want to run this like a business. I want to be able to hire and fire.’ ”

The AAUP committee, comprised of university professors from an assortment of institutions, met directly with some VLS faculty members on Tuesday and Wednesday as part of the inquiry. The advocacy group also is holding a teleconference meeting open to all faculty members on Jan. 3 and 4.

One of the complaints from VLS opponents of the investigation is that many faculty members have not been able to meet directly with AAUP investigators.

According to Echeverria, some of his colleagues were turned away when they requested to meet directly with AAUP investigators on the available dates this week.

One such individual was VLS professor Stephen Dycus, who surrendered his tenure well before the school’s restructuring of its faculty last June. Dycus said that he was “never invited” to meet with AAUP investigators.

“This process of investigation,” Dycus said, quoting Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy from a 2008 court case, “ ‘is closed and accusatorial, and that makes it suspect.’ ”

Levy said faculty members were turned away because an unusual number of VLS faculty expressed interest, creating time constraints.

She said the VLS faculty is deeply split on their desires to see the investigation continue, and that increases anxiety for both those who are defending, and criticizing, the law school.

“There’s a lot at stake for both sides,” she said.

Cole said she is hopeful that the AAUP inquiry ultimately will be a positive development for VLS.

“We all think it’s an amazing law school that we want to thrive, and I think the AAUP investigation will help that happen,” she said.

Sam Corey can be reached at samhcorey@gmail.com.

Correction

Vermont Law School Professor Stephen Dycus surren dered his tenure well before the school’s restructuring of its faculty last June. An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the circumstances of his change in status.




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