How Safe is Your Job?

In light of the COVID crisis, many tenure-track and tenured faculty at UO are asking how safe their jobs are. Although not all tenure-track and tenured faculty are in the United Academics bargaining unit, the policies that govern the faculty not in the bargaining unit are similar enough that the processes described below apply to all tenure-track and tenured faculty, save the provision that no bargaining unit faculty can be terminated for financial exigency during the life of the collective bargaining agreement.

Below is a description of the job protections and vulnerabilities for the tenure-track and tenured faculty at UO.

Once a faculty member has been hired into the tenure track, there are five ways they could lose their job at the UO:

  1. An unsuccessful mid-term review; or
  2. An unsuccessful tenure review; or
  3. Termination due to discipline; or
  4. A declaration of financial exigency; or
  5. Program reduction or elimination

A termination due to an unsuccessful mid-term or tenure review or a termination due to discipline, though devastating, would not be related to the current COVID-based situation, so this post will focus on terminations due to a declaration of financial exigency or a program reduction or elimination.

Declaration of Financial Exigency

Any faculty member could lose their position due to a declaration of financial exigency, whether they are pre-tenure or tenured. 

Unfortunately, there are no clear policies governing the declaration of financial exigency at the University of Oregon. Old policy stated that exigency could only be declared when “a bona fide determination will be made by the president that a financial exigency does exist, and that sufficient funds are not available for payment of compensation for the position concerned.” This policy was eliminated, however, when the Board of Trustees came into being and no language guiding a declaration replaced it.  

In general, a declaration of financial exigency would mean that President Schill and the Board of Trustees would be stating that the university can no longer meet its financial obligations – including living up to the contracts it has with its faculty – and is essentially declaring bankruptcy. As with any such declaration, there would be drastic long-term consequences for the university, including loss of bond rating and possible state receivership. A declaration of financial exigency is a declaration that the administration of the university has failed its most basic fiduciary duties. 

One of the reasons there are no clear policies governing a declaration of financial exigency is that it is almost impossible for a state intuition to go bankrupt. but it could happen. If, for instance, enrollment suddenly dropped by 50%, the university might be in a position where the ongoing functionality of higher education as we know it would no longer be feasible.

The policies of the university and the language of the collective bargaining agreement are such that a declaration of financial exigency could allow the president to instantly terminate contracts without consultation, notice, or severance. President Schill would not have to do this, but he could if he declares financial exigency. 

There are very sound reasons to believe that this worst-case scenario is not in the offing. One, it would be a declaration that Schill’s leadership has completely failed. Where exigency declarations are rare, rarer still is a president surviving such a declaration. Two, it would almost certainly be something that would need to be approved at the highest levels of state government and that is not feasible at this time, nor have those discussions begun. Three, we’re not in that bad of shape; while an enrollment decline might be possible, no one is predicting such a steep decline that keeping the university open is a worry. 

Finally, the current collective bargaining agreement states that no bargaining unit faculty member will be terminated due to financial exigency during the life of the contract. The current contract expires on June 30, 2020, but the terms and conditions of an expiring agreement are generally considered to remain in place until a successor agreement is negotiated or negotiations fail. Whether the exigency provision would automatically be extended is unknown – it has never come before the state Employment Relations Board, as a declaration of financial exigency is something that is extremely rare. 

Program Elimination or Reduction

Less rare and more likely would be a program reduction or elimination. Here, the policies and procedures are more well-defined, but are still designed to allow the administration flexibility to accommodate long-term shortfalls or program realignment. Even here, though, program elimination and reduction is only supposed to be used for long-term planning, not a short-term crisis. 

The process for eliminating or reducing a program varies by a couple of factors. Eliminating a degree-granting program has to be authorized by the Senate, usually as a seven-year process so all the majors can graduate. Eliminating a non-degree granting program is not as complex, but still requires Senate approval – especially if part of the process was the elimination of a tenured position. 

There is less definition around the “reduction” of a program. Obviously, if a department or program has ten tenured faculty and two are terminated, then the program has been reduced. Generally speaking, though, there is agreement between the administration and United Academics that a reduction in a program needs to entail the elimination of a subset of the current curriculum in a department or program. So, if the History Department were forced to eliminate the teaching of European history, then the professors who specialize in European history could be terminated. The administration cannot, however, tell History that it has to reduce itself by three professors and keep providing the same curriculum. 

If the administration sought to eliminate or reduce a program and did not need to go through the Senate for approval (very rare), they are obligated to give the faculty members 30-days’ notice that they believed that there was a legitimate financial reason to terminate a tenure-track or tenured faculty member. This notice begins the process of program reduction or elimination. If the elimination or reduction needs Senate approval, then the process is much longer. 

Once the process is complete, faculty on the tenure track who have not achieved tenure are entitled to termination notice of one year or length of their current contract, whichever is shorter. Faculty who have achieved tenure are entitled to a least one-years’ notice before termination takes effect.