National Louis’ move to part-time profs provokes possible censure –
By Ron Grossman, Chicago Tribune reporter — June 13, 2013
Paul Gross shared his love of biology with students at National Louis University for 18 years and, like most academics with tenure, figured he was guaranteed a job for life.
But on April 16, 2012, he was disabused of that notion by an administrator who told him he was out of a job at the end of the semester and could come back only as a part-time teacher. He did, teaching one course a term for $1,440.
Gross’ abrupt tumble down the academic ladder has become an increasingly common story as colleges and universities across the country increasingly rely on less expensive, part-time faculty, said Anita Levy, a senior staff member at the American Association of University Professors. “It’s not a trend, but a fact.”
While adjuncts now do most of the teaching on all campuses, Chicago-based National Louis slashed its full-time staff so severely that an AAUP committee recommended the school’s administration be censured for violating the academic freedom of Gross and 15 other tenured professors.
The professors were among 63 full-time faculty dismissed in 2012 by National Louis, long known as a teachers college although it started as a business college in 1989. Over a two-year period, the university cut its full-time faculty in half.
National Louis President Nivine Megahed said the decision to jettison full-time faculty was necessary because of a nose dive in enrollment that put the school in financial peril. She predicted that other college presidents will confront the same tough choice.
“Either there will be a lot more censures or a lot more universities will close their doors,” said Megahed, who became president in 2010, just as the university was experiencing a steep decline in enrollments and tuition income.
The recommendation for censure is expected to be ratified during the AAUP’s annual meeting Saturday.
There are about 40 schools on AAUP’s censure list, and complaints to the organization based on this shift to adjuncts have been on the rise. Censure by the AAUP carries with it no legal penalty, but is a strike against a university’s reputation: Job applicants might look elsewhere; students could worry that it casts a shadow over their credentials.
Levy said schools often cooperate with her organization by taking measures to get their censure lifted.
Tenure, the other academic issue in this case, is widely seen as a vital protection of freedom of inquiry. Without it, professors might be tempted to pull their scholarly punches for fear of offending administrators or trustees and losing their jobs. Still, even tenured faculty can be fired in a few, specific situations.
Gross was told his discharge was because the biology department was being abolished and, with it, the courses he taught. The AAUP investigators rejected that claim, since science courses continued to be listed in the school’s catalog. Indeed, he was invited to teach one — as an adjunct.
“The replacement of a tenured faculty member with adjunct or nontenured faculty to teach the same or similar courses seems to us to be a clear violation of tenure,” the AAUP reported.
The drastic cuts Megahed said were necessary to balance National Louis’ books cost Gross and the other professors dearly. His salary and benefits as a full-time professor totaled $75,000 a year. In addition to a deep cut in pay, there was a psychological blow to his drop in status.
Biology wasn’t just a way to earn a living for Gross but a passion, as witnessed by his modest suburban home. Inside and out, it reflects the great two divisions of his field: botany and zoology.
The lawn and backyard are planted in tall prairie grass. He and his wife share the family room with a dog named Willie Bear and a parrot named Olive. In the soft-spoken but authoritative voice Gross brought to the classroom, he explains how the bird will “regurgitate into (the dog’s) mouth, just like a mother bird feeding her young.”
Gross’ story can be read as a cautionary tale by families about to send a child off to college. Today, two-thirds of college instructors are not professors, but adjuncts. Add in lecturers and others on year-to-year contracts and the numbers of “contingent,” or nonpermanent, faculty rise to about 75 percent, according to Levy. At Chicago’s DePaul University, part-time instructors make up 64 percent of the faculty, for example.
College days for students used to involve not just listening to lectures but after-class contact with faculty over coffee. That informal dimension of higher education becomes more rare with adjunct teachers, who often hop from campus to campus to cobble together even a modest income.
“We call them Roads Scholars,” said Tom Anderson, an adjunct professor in Michigan who is vice president of two union locals that represent nontenured faculty.
Adjuncts are often assigned a course on the eve of a semester. Courses they teach are attributed to “staff.” The situation was satirically referred to in the title of a 2012 study released by the Center for the Future of Higher Education: “Who is ‘Professor Staff’ and How Can This Person Teach So Many Classes?”
The shift to more part-time teachers comes even as tuition has soared. Debra Humphreys, a vice president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, reports a paradoxical relationship between tuition inflation and the increasing dependence on adjuncts: Even as colleges hire more adjuncts, the savings never seem to catch up to the increasing cost of running a campus.
The average undergraduate student at National Louis, long known for training teachers, pays a full-time tuition rate of $16,000 per year, a figure that takes into account scholarships and discounts, a university spokeswoman said. Average graduate program tuition ranges from $14,000 to $30,000
Megahed sees National Louis’ belt-tightening measures, and the risks she took implementing them, as in the university’s tradition of being an educational innovator.
The school was founded in 1886 to train kindergarten teachers by Elizabeth Harrison, a pioneering advocate for what is now called early childhood education. In 1930, when after several name changes it became the National College of Education, it established the first four-year teacher-training program in Illinois.
In 1990 it was renamed National Louis University in honor of a major donor, Michael Louis, whose generosity had enabled it to add degree programs in the humanities, the social sciences, the fine arts and a business school.
Fully accredited (its accreditation is being renewed during its current crisis), National Louis got a larger footprint on the national scene by establishing satellite campuses in Florida, Wisconsin and various locations in Illinois over the past 25 years. Its original campus in Evanston has been transplanted to Skokie.
In 2011, on the eve of the cutbacks, it had about 10,000 students. Most were part-timers, many who’d had a smattering of courses earlier at other colleges. When the American economy took a hit, so to did National Louis’ enrollment — a major disaster for a school that mostly turns out teachers instead of corporate executives whose donations can grow a university’s endowment.
“We went over a waterfall,” Megahed said. “Enrollment dropped 40 percent in five years.”
By 2012, when the AAUP’s investigation began after an appeal from some of the fired faculty members, Megahed said she and other administrators were working “24-7” trying to keep the university afloat.
She doesn’t dispute the AAUP’s charge that she refused to cooperate with their investigators, saying it wasn’t a priority, given all the problems she confronted. She was willing to roll the dice by declining the university’s best shot at justifying the dismissal of tenured faculty.
According to the AAUP’s guidelines, a university can dismiss tenured professors when confronting a financial exigency — a claim she didn’t make.
“The AAUP’s censure is less damaging than proclaiming a financial exigency,” Megahed explained. “That could cause lenders to call in our loans.”
She said other university presidents have congratulated her for getting the school through its financial crisis, which she takes as a sign that National Louis’ reorganization will be a model for others to follow, notwithstanding the pain it produced.
“2012 was the worst year of my career,” she said.
Yet it also was painful for those whose careers were ended and aren’t likely to find a silver lining. Among them is Ofra Peled, who as the head of biology was Gross’ superior.
When it was announced that cutbacks were in the offing, she figured she’d be the one who would be forced to tell a member of her three-person department they no longer had a job. It was a decision she dreaded.
“I was saved from having to make it,” Peled said. “They fired me, along with the other two.”
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