Essex College resists probe of its firings

September 25, 1994|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,Sun Staff Writer

The American Association of University Professors will investigate charges by a dozen former Essex Community College faculty and staff members that they were illegally fired or denied the traditional security of tenure.

But when the AAUP team arrives Oct. 14 at the eastern Baltimore County campus, it shouldn't expect red carpet treatment. In fact, it might not even make it to the office of President Donald J. Slowinski.

"The AAUP doesn't even have a chapter on campus," Dr. Slowinski said. "I can't assure them access to my office, and they certainly have no right to access our records. There is current legal action against Essex Community College, and I choose not to tell them a thing."

"This could disgrace the college nationwide, if AAUP censures Essex," said Edward G. Sherin, one of the professors fired after his program was eliminated. "And, if this doesn't break tenure on campus, it will surely bend it."

Proponents of tenure, a time-honored job-security status granted after a probationary period, say it assures academic freedom without political interference and guarantees stable long-range planning and programs.

However, tenure is not protection against incompetence, misconduct or the closing of a program. The AAUP long has believed that some institutions try to fire a professor with whom they disagree simply by closing a program. In such a case, the burden of proof is on the institution to demonstrate that the program is without merit or no longer draws students.

R. Robert Kreiser, associate secretary of AAUP, which claims a nationwide membership of 42,000, said "it is not unusual for administrations to cite litigation as a reason for not cooperating. These are academic issues, not legal issues, and I hope Dr. Slowinski reconsiders."

Edwin A. Hirschmann, a Towson State University history professor and president of the Maryland AAUP Conference, said things aren't what they seem at the once-sleepy Essex campus, where enrollment now reaches 10,000 and administrators have to work with an ever-shrinking education dollar.

"My understanding is they had a reorganization and fired 10 or 12 tenured members of the teaching staff and replaced most of them with part-timers," Dr. Hirschmann said. "We are very much concerned that a college financed by the taxpayers of Maryland and the county has treated faculty in such a cavalier and unprofessional manner."

Most of the Essex cases into which AAUP is looking occurred in 1993.

At least four professors who were terminated have filed suits or initiated other legal action to reclaim their former positions. Two will be in Baltimore County Circuit Court tomorrow seeking reinstatement and restoration of full tenure and contracts.

Jane Adams and Gwen Nicholson, each of whom has taught more than 20 years each at Essex, claim that the administration fired them despite clauses in their contracts prohibiting termination related to downsizing or elimination of programs.

Barry Steelman, an attorney representing the two professors, would not comment on the action.

For his part, Dr. Slowinski said his college lost more than $4 million in state funding between 1991 and 1993.

The annual budget dwindled from $30 million to $26 million "and we had to take some painful steps."

He said that meant dropping courses in mass communications, office technology, hotel and restaurant management, electronics, health information, food technology and travel and tourism. The professors in those courses were informed their contracts would not be renewed.

Maryland has 18 community colleges. State 1994 fiscal year figures show that the community colleges operate on a $124,913,000 budget, while the four-year institutions in the University of Maryland system have a $522,934,000 budget.

"While the community colleges in Maryland have 57 percent of all the students in higher education, we only receive 17 percent of the state dollar," Dr. Slowinski said. "This episode here at Essex marks the reality of higher education in the '90s. This controversy will either be a catalyst for unionization of faculty on campus or things will die down and people will accept the shared governance of the faculty, administration and the board of trustees."

Opponents of Dr. Slowinski contend that he and the board of trustees ran roughshod over individual rights, such as due process, during their appeals and ignored the human side of their cases.

"When things started to change, it was frighteningly bizarre," said Vivian Martin, a writer who worked for the college cable television channel and left last year on her own.

"Basically, it was the leadership," Ms. Martin said. "One division head couldn't write an English sentence. Another had speakers installed on our desks where he could listen to our conversations. This same man, a leader, believed that space aliens met every seven years with U.S. Navy propulsion experts in Germany's Black Forest. I left that mess and am I glad that I did. Morale was suffering; the place went down."

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