The American Association of University Professors (AAUP), a national group that works to protect the academic freedom of faculty on college campuses, will launch an investigation into whether Vermont Law School broke from widely accepted standards when it made a number of cost-cutting moves this summer.
The group says Vermont Law School lowered salaries, reduced the number of full-time positions and eliminated the tenured status of 14 of the 19 tenured faculty appointments without involving the faculty in the decision-making process.
“We recognize that many small colleges and universities, you know, are in financial trouble,” said Anita Levy, an AAUP senior program officer with the Department of Academic Freedom, Tenure, & Governance. “However, what we expect is that there will be a meaningful process in determining how and where reductions should be made.”
Levy said Vermont Law School informed staff members in June that they could either accept the reduced pay and benefits or be terminated. According to Levy, AAUP worked with the law school over the past few months to try to improve the situation and re-open the salary negotiations.
“Our object is always to find a mutually agreeable resolution to these kinds of situations,” Levy said. “We could not reach any kind of agreeable resolution so we recommended to our director that we should do a governance investigation. We want to know more about how this process was carried out."
"But from what we know," Levy continued, "it was done in a very secretive, non-transparent fashion where a gun, as it were, were put to their head to lose their tenure rights, to have their salary reduced, or else lose their job and lose their health benefits in one month’s time. And that is not acceptable.”
Vermont Law School President and Dean Thomas McHenry said he was not surprised by the announcement that the AAUP would investigate the school.
McHenry said the school has retained its accreditation through other organizations and that the AAUP represents faculty interests.
“We welcome their scrutiny,” he said. “If they want to talk to us about this we’re happy to do so. We feel that we made the right set of decisions given the budgetary restraints.”
McHenry said AAUP is not questioning that there was a need to make tough decisions to shore up the school’s finances.
“We follow the AAUP as best we can within the confines of our budget and we’re deeply committed to academic freedom,” he said. “We’re a social justice and environmental law school and we care about academic freedom as much as anyone does.”
McHenry said the faculty members were consulted before the restructuring was put into place and that they were aware of the school’s financial situation leading up to the cuts.
“Any suggestion that the faculty weren’t consulted and didn’t play a very important role in this process is incorrect,” McHenry said. “And that’s something we’ll tell the AAUP folks when they come to visit.”
Levy said three AAUP members will visit the school on Dec. 18 and 19 to speak with faculty and members of the administration to better understand the process leading up to the staff cuts. She said a public report will be issued in January.
If serious violations are uncovered, Vermont Law School could be placed on the AAUP's national sanction list that would say conditions for academic governance are unsound on the South Royalton campus.