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Dismissal of 33 staff members at Emporia State University sparks protests, questions

A student holds a hand-written note that reads, "SAVE OUR PROFESSORS" outside Plumb Hall on Friday.
Posted at 12:36 PM, Sep 19, 2022
and last updated 2022-09-19 15:09:55-04

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Max McCoy, a tenured journalism professor at Emporia State University, was told Thursday he had lost his job.

The news came as an unwelcome shock after 16 years at ESU.

An administrator handed McCoy a letter with nine possible reasons as to why a faculty member could be dismissed. When he asked why he was being let go, he said they cited a need for university reorganization while alluding to the fact that there could be other factors.

“There's so little information that has come from the administration that it's just impossible to tell what the reasons are,” he said.

Several of his colleagues were given the same news over the next couple days, too. In total, 33 staff members were dismissed.

The mass firings at Emporia State followed a framework for the workforce management approval to the Kansas Board of Regents, or KBOR.

In June, KBOR said it would allow universities to submit framework justification for firing tenured staff. While other Kansas schools have the ability to follow Emporia State's example, ESU is the only Kansas school to submit a justification so far.

The KBOR gave the university the go-ahead Wednesday to terminate tenured faculty.

The framework document aimed to present its need through a drop in enrollment and financial burdens. According to data from the university’s website, enrollment has been on a steady decline for over a decade, with the total student population slipping from 6,262 in 2010 to 5,615 in 2021.

Gwen Larson, director of media relations at Emporia State University, said the decision to cut programs and dismiss professors was purely based on numbers and logistics. The administration did a deep dive of programs’ success 10 months ago, she said.

The university considered enrollment numbers by program.

“The entire process was driven by data,” she said. “These are decisions that will allow us to restructure our academic programs and strengthen some programs.”

Of the 33 staff members who were let go, 23 worked in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the ESU Bulletin reports.

McCoy called the day he received tenure in 2011 “one of the happiest days of my life," but those emotions have since run dry. The faculty felt blindsided late last week, he said.

“Even though we had been told that changes were coming, we've been led to believe that we would have ample opportunity to respond in full to any proposals,” McCoy said. “And what we were given was little more than a couple of days.”

Now, McCoy has been told he’ll likely be able to finish out the school year. Larson said some employees are able to work until May, but others have been laid off immediately.

And while McCoy acknowledges the university has experienced financial burdens over the past several years, he’s not convinced the choice to fire other tenured staff is totally benign.

“I have fears that this process is, frankly, politically motivated,” he said.

McCoy said he suspects his firing was partly in retaliation to a column he wrote for the Kansas Reflector in which he spoke out against the framework. In the piece, McCoy theorizes the framework is an excuse to get rid of tenured professors who uphold certain ideals.

In his column, McCoy concludes that KBOR and the university's decision is an attempt appease Republican legislators who view tenured staff as "the enemy."

“The termination policy, to call it what it is, is a desperate attempt to dismantle tenure at a state school and establish a cultural beachhead upon which others can land,” McCoy wrote.

Emotions run high across campus as students continue protest efforts that began after news of the firings broke.

Friday, many students gathered directly below newly elected ESU President Ken Hush’s office, held signs and sat in silence for most of the day. At the end of the work day, students huddled outside in an attempt to catch Hush exiting the building. The president was escorted off campus by university police, according to the ESU Bulletin.

Sophomore political science major Raiden Gonzalez said he’s outraged to see his professors let go with little notice. He wishes students were given an opportunity to weigh in.

“The president likes to say that he's asked for students’ advice through our student government, but Student Government is in [the dark],” he said. “Students are angry about it.”

Gonzalez said his entire program is being cut. While Emporia State has a teach-out policy that guarantees all current students will be able to finish their degrees with the university, he said he’s beginning to wonder about transferring, though it would prove to be a massive financial burden.

“I came here because of the affordability. I'm a low income student. Ever since my time of arriving on campus, I've been really getting the support that I really need,” he said. “I don't know if I'll have that opportunity again.”

Larson with ESU communications said the university is looking into ways to carry out the teach-out policy, including allowing laid-off professors to teach some courses, hiring adjuncts or contracting professors.

She said the firing choices have nothing to do with political or personal situations and are purely due to the school’s need to save money in a trying time. In addition, the decisions give the university the opportunity to create more programs that suit a changing job market.

Even with the setbacks, Larson doesn’t think the 150-year-old university is going anywhere anytime soon.

“The Emporia State University that emerges from this entire process will be stronger than the Emporia State University we see today,” she said.

Noah Eppens, editor-in-chief for the ESU Bulletin, the school’s student-run paper, is losing their mentor and only full-time journalism professor. Without McCoy, there will be no program.

Eppens said they found it odd the three professors who were most vocal against the framework were among those let go — something Larson said was purely coincidental.

For now, Eppens said the atmosphere on campus remains somber. Students talk amongst themselves in fear about what the future of the university holds.

"It's a scary time for a lot of people because there haven't been a lot of answers or explanation," Eppens said. "There hasn't been a plan given for where they're going to go from here."

Eppens said KBOR’s allowance of ESU’s framework opens the door for more schools to follow the university's lead. Because of this, Eppens believes everyone in the state should pay attention to the plight of ESU faculty.

“This is a really important issue,” Eppens said. “It's not just isolated to Emporia State. It's going to have wide-ranging effects.”

Monday night, students plan to hold a candlelit vigil for the dismissed staff.

Larson said Hush could not be reached for comment, but he’d likely be interested in an interview after Monday. KSHB will update the story as more information becomes available.