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VLS Cuts Salaries for Faculty  In Bid to Close Budget Deficit

  • Tom McHenry, Vermont Law School's dean and president, discusses his position and the state’s sole law school during an interview at his office in Debevoise Hall on Tuesday, July 18, 2017, in South Royalton, Vt. (Valley News - Charles Hatcher) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Vermont Law School professor Peter Teachout listens to speeches during a Veterans Day ceremony in South Royalton, Vt., Friday, Nov. 10, 2017. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 17, 2018

South Royalton — Vermont Law School has revoked the tenure of several professors and cut teaching salaries in a bid to close a $1 million gap in the annual operating budget.

Some of the faculty members said they were blindsided by the move by VLS Dean and President Thomas McHenry to renegotiate teaching contracts that lowered their pay and, for some, removed their tenure status.

“I negotiated what I could say. And now I’m going to say it,” said constitutional law professor Peter Teachout, who said he is one of 14 faculty members who lost tenure during a round of contract negotiations that ended on July 1. “I’ve agreed to a significant reduction in salary in return for a significant reduction in administrative obligations, which will allow me to concentrate all my energy on teaching and writing.”

Teachout, who has been with the law school since 1975, three years after it was founded, said he needed to choose his words carefully because he, like all of the faculty whose employment status has changed, is now bound by a nondisclosure agreement.

McHenry, who declined to confirm the exact number of changes to faculty contracts, made his first public statements about the staff restructuring to the Valley News on Monday.

“The school is today in a much stronger financial position, with a sustainable financial model going forward, than it was two months ago,” McHenry said.

McHenry characterized the move as the best possible way to keep the law school financially healthy in a economic climate that’s been toxic for law schools nationwide: enrollment across the country has dipped, and law schools have responded by offering ever-larger tuition discounts to attract high-quality students.

“There have been truly tectonic shifts in the legal education marketplace in the last eight years. … , which means we’re getting a lot less of our tuition dollars,” said McHenry. “We need to adapt to those changes. It’s not just reactive, but it’s also a proactive restructuring in that we are working to provide the best legal education we can provide.”

McHenry said that the moves would save $1 million off the school’s $23 million operating budget for the current year. After severance packages have been paid out, the school expects to save $2 million in year two and subsequent years, he said.

Tenure carries no specific financial component in faculty compensation packages, according to Teachout, but does represent a long-term agreement, as opposed to one- or two-year teaching contracts.

The tenure changes are one of several cost-cutting measures the school has taken in recent years. In 2013, a round of faculty layoffs resulted in $4 million in savings. Last year, the school received a $17 million loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that was primarily used to pay off higher interest debt. Last year’s 19 tenured faculty (now five tenured faculty) constitute a small fraction of the roughly 135 faculty and staff members the school employed (not including summer, adjunct and online faculty).

Though Teachout and McHenry agree on the need for cuts to staffing costs, the professor has been critical of McHenry’s execution.

“I like the dean. I’m probably going to have a beer with him tonight,” Teachout said. “I like him as a person. But he’s really disappointed me in the way he’s approached this.”

Teachout says that during the past academic year, McHenry did a good job of taking input and building faculty consensus around the general planning and need for cuts, but that suddenly, when it came time to address specifics, “the administration went dark.”

“Nobody ever told the faculty that they were even thinking of even stripping anybody of tenure. The faculty did not know,” said Teachout.

VtDigger on Sunday reported that another professor, Craig Pease, refused to sign a new agreement that limited what he could say about the loss of his tenure, calling it “absurd,” and was fired. Pease had worked at VLS for 18 years and was making $110,800 a year before the cuts, VtDigger reported.

McHenry said he involved the faculty in various ways, and that the final decisions, including who would be allowed to keep tenure, were made after careful case-by-case evaluations conducted by a group of senior deans.

The board of trustees voted unanimously to approve the restructuring plan in May.

“In any set of decision-making, when you get down to the details, you can disagree with some of the specific decisions that were made,” McHenry said. “I’m very confident that we made our decisions in as fair and equitable a way as possible.”

Teachout said he believes that the process was flawed, because specific criteria, such as published research or teaching performance, were not publicly established.

“Everybody I knew was prepared to make significant sacrifices. Where the whole thing falls apart is when you have this little cabal of five or six people going about deciding who is going to be stripped,” Teachout said. “This is the problem of a lack of transparency that runs through everything like a freight train and leaves everyone in the dark. It’s not healthy for an academic institution.”

In the end, Teachout said, three of the five who have maintained tenure status are the deans who helped make the decisions.

“In my mind, they are no more deserving of holding tenure than many of the other faculty,” he said.

But McHenry said that the deans were each subjected to the same evaluation as the rest of the faculty, and that no one evaluated themselves.

Those who maintained tenure did not escape from the cost-cutting unscathed, said McHenry.

“In almost all of those instances, they either revised their salaries or their relationship with the school to be more flexible,” he said. “They were asked to give their pound of flesh and they willingly did.”

McHenry also said one piece of evidence of success of the process is the fact that, with one exception, the faculty agreed to continue teaching under the new contracts. Because of that, he said, the fall’s course offerings would demonstrate that students will not see a decline in teaching quality.

“We’re doing what we need to help our students graduate, pass the bar and find good jobs,” McHenry said.

Anita Levy of the American Association of University Professors said on Monday that the move is part of a much larger trend away from tenured faculty, a trend she says threatens academic expression.

“More and more faculty positions, over the past 10 or 15 years, have become contingent faculty,” a term that describes faculty members who are on short-term or part-time contracts, rather than tenure or tenure-track.

In the early 1970s, Levy said, more than two-in-three faculty were tenure or tenure-track. Today, more than two-in-three are contingent faculty.

“The problem from our perspective is that tenure is a guarantor of academic freedom,” she said. “We recognize that financial emergencies occur, and that institutions may have to make hard choices. But we also recognize that can be a pretext. It’s not clear to us whether the VLS so-called restructuring is not really an attack on the institution of tenure.”

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.