KEUKA PARK — On the heels of an announcement that Keuka College will be investigated for cutting faculty due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the college’s president is defending the decision that was described by one of the ousted professors as a “mass firing.”

“This is sad and unfortunate. It’s probably the worst part of the job,” Amy Storey said by phone Thursday afternoon. “Our faculty, including those let go, are excellent. That is not the issue. We really had to take into account what was happening with the financial picture. The dollar amounts we were looking at were astronomical.”

On Monday, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) announced it would be investigating Keuka and six other colleges due to the “crisis in academic governance” over COVID-19. The other schools are Canisius College and Medaille College, both in Buffalo, Illinois Wesleyan, Marian University (Wisconsin), National University (California), and Wittenberg University (Ohio).

“Since March, the AAUP has received numerous complaints from faculty members detailing unilateral actions taken by their governing boards and administrations to dictate how courses are taught, to suspend key institutional regulations, to reduce and close departments and majors, to compel faculty members to teach in person, and to lay off long-serving faculty members,” Gregory Scholtz, director of the AAUP’s Department of Academic Freedom, Tenure, and Governance, said in a press release.

In the most cases, the AAUP said the stated basis for the actions was the need to deal with pandemic-related financial shortfalls.

Bill Brown, a professor of biology and environmental science at Keuka for 10 years, wrote an oped piece that will be in the weekend edition of the Times. He said he was among 12-15 faculty in the “mass firing,” which he said was abruptly disclosed to those affected July 1.

Storey and college officials would not confirm that number, but did say the college made a 13% workforce reduction due to pandemic-related measures that includes faculty and staff. The college also cut program majors including biochemistry, math, and medical technology, along with sports including cross country, golf and men’s volleyball.

Brown said most of the professors fired were tenured, but not all.

“I was blindsided and completely surprised, and I remain shocked,” Brown said. “The investigation is clearly warranted and I welcome it. I think the AAUP is a fair group and they don’t always find in favor of faculty in these investigations.”

The college sent a press release to media outlets Wednesday, saying Keuka does not have an AAUP chapter or a relationship with the organization. The AAUP did a similar investigation in 2006, after mass terminations at five universities in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.

“This is not out of character for the AAUP, and I feel like sometimes the big picture is lost during these investigations,” Storey said. “The challenges posed by this pandemic were significant and unprecedented.”

Storey said while Keuka electively followed many AAUP guidelines with respect to continuous tenure and other issues, a projected $7 million budget shortfall due to the pandemic prompted several decisions she called difficult before the 2020-21 academic year.

That included the Keuka Board of Trustees suspending certain policies that align with AAUP guidelines, including the college’s typical process for closing academic programs and eliminating positions held by professors with continuous tenure.

“Our first and foremost obligation is to our students and the college community at large,” Aqua Porter, Board of Trustees chair, said in the press release. “While the decisions to close underprescribed programs were difficult, following AAUP guidelines during this unprecedented time would have stymied the college’s ability to respond to the financial challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Porter said the college could not afford to spend nearly $1.3 million to follow AAUP guidelines on closing programs and eliminating positions.

Brown said in making the cuts the college waived its shared governance model, which includes faculty in the decision-making process. He said while the college did put out a survey including what programs could be closed due to budget cutting, he called it a “gimmicky survey” with limited options.

“The Keuka College model is shared governance. This is not a corporation that works from the top down,” he said. “We don’t have a CEO. Faculty are involved in hiring and firing.”

Brown added that the college also waived its faculty handbook, which he said is contractual. He claimed it also is illegal to fire a person without cause and hire someone else to teach their courses, although he said he does not have the resources to file a lawsuit.

“The faculty handbook specifies this,” he said. “With COVID, apparently the college said we are waiving the faculty handbook because the financial situation is so dire. I helped hire a new environmental science professor. That person is still here with two years of experience, but not me with 10. That is my major and my program.”

“Dr. Brown is an incredibly talented faculty member and really knowledgeable about his particular subject matter,” Storey said. “It is devastating to the college to have lost him, as well as the other faculty.”

An AAUP official said the investigation will likely start in late October, with a report likely in late spring. The official said the AAUP could add investigated institutions to a list of those sanctioned for infringements of governance standards, but didn’t specify what those sanctions would be.

Storey said the college will consider if participating in the investigation is a good use of its limited resources. She said the program and faculty cuts will likely allow Keuka to avoid closing.

“We have tried to be very transparent with the college community. For five years in a row we have operated with a deficit. We don’t have a cushion, reserves, an endowment, a big philanthropist to bail us out,” she said. “Coming into this pandemic, we were not on strong financial footing. There was no alternative. Before we cut the tenured staff, we exhausted every other possible avenue.”

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