A couple of letters sent earlier this month by higher education commissioners shed light on recent controversial policy changes that fear teachers will complicate obtaining and retaining positions at Mississippi universities.
In his letters, Commissioner Alfred Rankins expressed concern that new IHL standards added to ownership policies, such as “collegiality”, could be used by university presidents to discriminate. against politically outspoken teachers or color teachers.
Rankins wrote that IHL considers the new policy to be “an improvement on the language of the previous policy”. Although teaching, research, and service are still key factors, Rankins wrote that the council believes that standards such as collegiality are valid and legitimate for university presidents that they must consider and do not violate constitutional teacher rights in Mississippi.
“There is no preliminary evidence to suggest that these conditions abolished academic freedom or the individual rights of teachers in our university system,” Rankins wrote. “Considering your concerns, I must point out that almost any criterion commonly used in the assessment of faculty can be used by a bad actor as a reason to resign for inadmissible reasons.”
“However, this does not mean that this criterion is not a suitable and valuable point for consideration in the process of obtaining the right to the position,” he added.
Rankins sent similar letters on May 9 and 10 in response to inquiries from professors at the University of Southern Mississippi, as well as two national nonprofits, PEN America and the Human Rights Foundation for Education.
“I want to assure you that protecting the constitutional rights of our employees is extremely important to us,” he wrote to both groups.
Jeremy Young, senior manager for freedom of expression and education at PEN America, told Mississippi Today he was unsure. Young said Rankins’ letter made him more concerned about the new policy. Organizations Rankins said much earlier this week in response to his letter.
“Your response does not reassure any of the concerns about academic freedom or freedom of expression in our initial letter, and in fact strongly insists that the IHL Board of Governors does not understand the concept of academic freedom and does not recognize its paramount importance for higher education health,” organizations. wrote May 18th.
PEN America and FIRE dismissed Rankins’ assertion that there was no evidence that IHP policies violated academic freedom. They wrote that presidents of IHL and universities seem to be using the policy of being in office to target open teachers in several casesincluding in 2019, when several board members voted to reject Mississippi University sociology professor James Thomas because they didn’t like some of his tweets.
Teachers “justifiably interpret the new policy as more than an inactive threat,” the organizations write.
The new IHP policy has given university presidents the final say in approving applications for office. Earlier, the council approved the term of office. IHL has also added new criteria for university presidents that can be used to determine whether to qualify for a position, including “collegiality” of a teacher, “efficiency, accuracy and honesty in communication” and “Indecent behavior” a factor that was previously included only in the policy of dismissal of the council.
Teachers say the new conditions will reduce the length of stay in Mississippi, giving university presidents the option of firing open or marginalized teachers. The term of office is intended for teachers to resign only for a reason.
But IHL has never given teachers the opportunity to make official contributions to new policies. If the trustees approved the ownership policy at the April meeting they did so without discussion. The council discussed the policy at a March board meeting, however the proposed revisions were not included in the agenda. The March meeting was held at the Riley Center in Mississippi, Mississippi, on the Meridian, an hour and a half from the complex where the council usually meets in Jackson, and was not broadcast live.
The April IHP vote took place when teachers were in the busiest time of the year reading essays and putting up final grades. At the University of Southern Mississippi, faculty senate members met with President Rodney Bennett to ask him about the new policy.
Shortly afterwards, Brian LaPierre, president of the USM Faculty Senate, wrote a letter May 3 with a request to Commissioner Rankins to clarify the new policy.
“This is to give you a sense of the confusion, anxiety and worry that these policies – and the lack of information and context that accompanies them – have created on our campus,” LaPierre wrote.
LaPierre added a number of questions about the new policy: What prompted IHL to reconsider ownership policy? Why not consult with teachers? Is IHL concerned that the policy “will affect the ability of our universities to recruit and retain talented faculty and students, and to promote research in Mississippi?”
Rankins did not address these issues in his answer. He defended new criteria, in particular collegiality, as a standard that is legitimately taken into account when granting the right to a position, and wrote that “efficiency, accuracy and honesty in communication are important components of effective teaching and learning.”
The changes are already having drastic effects. Under the old policies, most universities applied for IHL for approval at their May board meeting. This did not happen this year because the IHL changes came into force immediately after the April vote.
Some universities are now working to find out whether they need to retrospectively consider collegiality for applications for the right to hold office, which they expected the IHL Council to approve this month. At USM, Denis Wiesenburg, a member of the faculty’s Senate executive committee, said the university is sending applicants for the position back to the school level to provide faculty assessment against the new standards.
“It creates chaos,” Wiesenburg said. “The amount of administrative burden that IHL has added at the worst of the year.”
At a meeting of the University of Mississippi Faculty Senate earlier this month, Chancellor Glenn Boyce and Vice Rector Noel Wilkin assured faculty that all those appointed to the post this year would be approved.
Wilkin also told faculty that the top researchers met before the board meeting but did not discuss the policy of holding office, which showed him that none of the rectors knew about the changes.
Boyce, who served as commissioner from 2015 to 2018, said he “knew for a while” that IHP was considering changing its policy of holding office and electing a president, but he was unaware that the council was going to make changes this year.
“They thought about these two politicians when I was commissioner,” Boyce said. “They just never officially sat down like this time.”
“Needless to say, we did not receive advance notice of the changes,” he added. “We did not have advance notice that it would be on the agenda, and there was no opportunity to contribute. I hope this will help you understand what we knew and when we knew. ”