By “Concerned International Scholars”
Authors’ note: Out of respect for ongoing privacy issues, the authors of this collective are requesting anonymity. Some are in their tenure application processes in 2020; others, including the “laid-off” tenured and tenure-track professors, are still seeking rescission of employment and/or are under the advice of legal counsel.
Purge is a strong word. For Canisius College professors, that’s what it was.
Over the past five weeks, some 25 tenured and tenure-track professors in the humanities (Classics, Creative/Performing Arts, History, Philosophy, Religious Studies/Theology) and across the curriculum (Teacher Education, Management, Communications) were fired alongside 71 staff members.
The firings were part of a “layoff” plan executed by President John J. Hurley, the Vice-President for Academic Affairs Sara R. Morris and the Board of Trustees on the pretext of a COVID-19 shock doctrine, in violation of shared governance and with a brazen overconfidence in their corporate power.
A small liberal arts college in Buffalo, NY just across the Peace Bridge, Canisius College was in trouble long before the exposures of Catholic abuse scandals and dirty upstate redevelopment plans. Woes are systemic: a bloat of admins having doubled in size over ten years; underpaid faculty with no raises in seven years; alienated alumni who won’t donate; a clumsy brand(s); obsessive overinvestment in local property and sports; and similarly conspicuous forms of mismanagement. Now Hurley’s Board of Trustees hurries toward a neo- (or post-) Jesuit Tech: a STEM-plus-vocational school minus meaningful focus on ethics, humanities or social justice. Programs such as Classics and Religious Studies were dissolved at the President’s whim, without faculty input. One can only speculate on why leading Jesuit public figures have been willing to give Hurley a pass, without delving deeper into the College’s affairs.
Canisius College’s power scenario was a kind of “Hunger Games.” The President’s opaque firing plan was executed starting on July 16. The tactic applied to four major departments: Philosophy, Religious Studies, History, and Management, in which professors with outstanding records of publication, teaching and service were effectively terminated. In English, they outright fired the one tenure-track professor, an award-winning Shakespearean. Hurley told the media he’d wisely had to cut low-enrolled programs, but in fact, the targeted departments such as Classics and Religious Studies (each abolished) and History and Philosophy (each halved in terms of tenured faculty) routinely have had some of the College’s highest per semester average seat counts. In History and Philosophy, three people in each department had to “voluntarily separate” from the College. Those who “separated” would get a “choice” of a year of severance or a one-year terminal contract. Senior professors were pressured to “volunteer” to retire and save another colleague’s job. If “volunteers” were not found before July 27, the most recently hired faculty would be fired. Making matters worse, administrators shamefully resorted to “Dear Faculty” form letters and “off the record” phone calls to fire people.
It ruined and demoralized everyone. Tenured professors were “laid off” by intimidation and deception—shady tactics of divide and rule. Hurley, his Board, and his recently appointed VPAA Morris gutted their way through the core liberal arts curriculum. They blatantly ignored established protocol as laid out in the Faculty Handbook and AAUP guidelines. Completely disregarding shared governance, deans of the three Schools unceremoniously informed longtime tenured and recent tenure-track professors of their terminations. No financial exigency was declared, though this is a required first step before eliminating any tenured faculty. No legal procedure of faculty-administration dialogue was ever initiated by the administration. By bullying and noncompliance, Hurley and his hirelings seem to have acknowledged that they were acting on questionable legal grounds. Included were newer hires and tenured mid-career faculty (with 8, 11, 12, 12, and 14 years of service); international faculty (at least 6, including 3 Canadian citizens and one permanent resident); women (8 and perhaps more, identified by The Griffin); and several POC (at least 4 of the 19 identified). These statistics provide a glaring contradiction to the administration’s claimed commitment to diversity.
In a heroic rally by faculty on July 22 defending the principle of shared governance, the Faculty Senate voted “no confidence” in Hurley and the Trustees and the College’s growing AAUP chapter called for his resignation. At a standoff, the administration’s Senior Leadership Team did an end-around to gain approval from the Committee on Faculty Status. Because the VPAA and VP of Finance were unwilling to follow procedures necessary to justify the layoffs, i.e., they refused to appear before the Senate to lay out the specifics of the financial situation, the Committee on Faculty Status staunchly refused to ratify the firings. Rather than pausing for dialogue, the Canisius administration unilaterally continued to fire faculty. Hurley & Co. liquidated some of the College’s best personnel.
The President, a corporate bankruptcy lawyer, played on COVID-19 and budget issues. Hurley invited 11 faculty members to be a part of a secret Faculty Budget Working Group (FBWG); these faculty had to pledge absolute confidentiality, no information in or out. A dean was kicked off of the committee for sharing a bit of information from the committee to faculty. The president thus counted on people not talking to one other. He justified “hard but necessary” firings and the “adjustments” he had to make to trim his $12.3 million deficit in 2020. (It was $3.6 million in 2010.) Few careful observers bought it. Citing enrollment again, he said nothing of labor law violations or nationally patterned firings of tenured professors at Ohio University and the University of Akron. He even let slip to a local TV station about how confident he was that faculty could be “kept on a short leash” to quickly streamline a new core curriculum. Hurley’s claims to have welcomed Canisius faculty into negotiations are pitifully false.
As an anti-model of corporatist abuse, the firings of faculty and staff at Canisius have inspired a grass-roots change.org petition (“Stop Canisius from Firing Professors”) started by “concerned alumni” on July 18, now with nearly 6,000 signatures. An active Facebook group has tapped into the popular outrage. To counter this bad publicity, on July 20 the Office of Alumni Engagement, another arm of the Board, also released form letters and a bizarre “impact report.” The Office apparently forgot to take out an image of a revered professor of Philosophy and Women and Gender Studies who was among the fired tenured scholars.
Sanctions are flooding in. The American Historical Association (12,000 members) on July 23 was the first to advocate for its members. Given Canisius’s proximity to Canada and the urgency in 2020 to protect rights of international students and faculty, the AHA was followed by the Canadian Association of Slavists (CAS, 600), the American Philosophical Association (APA, 8,000), the Canadian Philosophical Association (ACP/CPA, 600), the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES, 3,500), and the Modern Languages Association (MLA, 24,000). In a report on shared governance, the national AAUP indicated that if Canisius’s problems are not soon resolved, they will conduct a formal investigation.
Meanwhile, protesting students preparing for fall 2020 have lost dear mentors without warning or coherent explanation. Those professors who come back for a final terminal year show their continued devotion to their students, but the institution is broken. Will its administration be held accountable? Hurley & Co. have trashed a sanctuary for Jesuit higher education, and with it, the institution of tenure at Canisius College. Faculty continue to organize and international outrage continues to grow.