In fall 2017, I republished concerns by my colleagues in the University of Arkansas System that proposed changes to board policy essentially would render academic tenure a nullity, allowing discipline and termination of faculty on a broad range of new and vague grounds. Adopted in 2018, one new policy provision allows faculty firing for "a pattern of conduct that is detrimental to the productive and efficient operation of the instructional or work environment." That's code for "we don't like you; play ball or else."
Symptomatic of the contemporary corporatization of higher education, the new policy fails to recognize that faculty are actually the governors of universities, not at-will workers on the assembly line. This is not just an Arkansas problem. See generally Benjamin Ginsberg's "lacerating" (WSJ) 2013 book, The Fall of the Faculty, for documentation of this phenomenon and why it's so dangerous. For a stunning yet representative case study, see Jacob Howland on the University of Tulsa for the Manhattan Institute's City Journal (describing "a perfect storm of trends currently tearing through the American academy: the confident ignorance of administrators, the infantilization of students, the policing of faculty, the replacement of thinking with ideological jargon, and the corporatization of education") (and podcast).
Now three tenured faculty have sued over the revised policy. Professor Joshua M. Silverstein at the University of Arkansas Little Rock Law School explained in an email to Arkansas Little Rock faculty last week:
After the Board of Trustees adopted the revisions to Board Policy 405.1 at the Board’s March, 2018 meeting, I wrote an email summarizing what happened at the meeting and offering some thoughts regarding strategies that could be used to combat the changes. In the latter section, I noted that litigation challenging the revisions was highly likely. That litigation has commenced. Yesterday, the law firm of Quattlebaum, Grooms & Tull filed a lawsuit on behalf of three of our colleagues – one each from UAMS [Medical School], UA-Little Rock, and UA-Monticello. The lawsuit seeks to nullify the changes to 405.1 to the extent they apply to UA System faculty who were tenured or started in a tenure-track position prior to March 29, 2018, the date the amendments to 405.1 were adopted. As I explained last year during the deliberations on 405.1, I believe that the lawsuit has a very good chance of succeeding....
[A] bill that was introduced in the Arkansas legislature this past session ... would have prohibited the application of Revised 405.1 to any faculty member with tenure or on the tenure track at the time the revisions were adopted. Rob Steinbuch, a colleague of mine at the law school, and I were deeply involved with that bill and we both testified in favor of it. Had the bill become law, it would have nullified the need for litigation. Unfortunately, the bill died in committee. Hence the filing of the lawsuit.
Note that this lawsuit itself won't stop the slow death of tenure and academic freedom going forward at the University of Arkansas. New hires would still be entitled only to paper-thin tenure. Meanwhile, nationwide, we still are grappling with the elimination of tenure-track positions altogether, in favor of cheap adjunct labor. Nevertheless, I applaud my plaintiff-colleagues. It's time faculty started pushing back, lest we irreversibly turn American universities into a mockery of the Bolognian conception—just in time for its 1,000-year anniversary in 2088.
Professor Silverstein is tracking the litigation at his blog, Jurisophia, where you can download the complaint. The case is Palade, Borse, and Sullivan v. Board of Trustees of the University of Arkansas System, No. 4:19-cv00379-JM (E.D. Ark. filed May 31, 2019). Here is June 1 coverage in The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. One of the named plaintiffs is a law professor, extraordinary practicing attorney, and treasured friend of mine, J. Thomas Sullivan at Arkansas Little Rock.