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What Emporia (and Kansas) Has Lost

Posted on the 28 September 2022 by Russellarbenfox
What Emporia (and Kansas) Has Lost

[Two weeks ago, Emporia State University President Ken Hush pushed through a plan that allowed him to engage in a devastating "restructuring" of this small, beautiful state university in southeastern Kansas. I wrote a piece about it last week; this is a slightly expanded and updated version.]

The sad news coming out of Emporia, with at least 30 members of the faculty of Emporia State University fired on a single day, did not garner much attention state-wide. (The best source of news about what's been done to ESU continues to be The Bulletin, produced by the journalism students at Emporia State, a program that has now been halted, along with more than 30 others.) That’s unfortunate, and not just because the firings were a terrible blow to the education of hundreds of ESU students. It’s unfortunate because the changes at Emporia reflect a misunderstanding of what I think--as a non-tenured (by choice) university professor at Friends University in Wichita, KS--higher education in Kansas realistically is all about, and what it can aspire to be.

The population of Kansas as a whole is growing at a slow pace, relative to the rest of the country—with a few of the states heavily urbanized counties increasing in size at a decent pace, but with our more expansive rural areas mostly shrinking in population, sometimes quite dramatically. This is the reality which all the universities and community colleges operating under the Kansas Board of Regents umbrella, and all the different independent liberal arts colleges across Kansas, have to deal with. Add to the decline of potential college students the burden of tuition costs, the plentitude of educational alternatives, and the many re-evaluations which the pandemic brought on, and it is obvious that Kansas’s colleges and universities must rethink how they do business.

Which they have done, and continue to do. It is wrong to suppose that the faculty who teach classes, run workshops, administer internships, and provide training are removed from the kind of hard choices and experimental strategies which the aforementioned pressures make necessary. On the contrary, it is those faculty who do the legwork in figuring out how to combine old programs or innovate new ones, and reconstruct majors and courses to reflect diverse student needs. This has happened multiple times at my institution in the years that I’ve taught here, and almost all the faculty I know here in Kansas, whether at large institutions or small ones, have gone through the same.

Why do all that extra work? There are cynical answers, to be sure: "you'll lose your job, otherwise" is an easy snark. But that cynical take cannot fully account for the immense creativity and resources which Kansas's higher education teachers regularly dedicate to keeping what they do both institutionally solvent and educationally successful. So mostly, I believe it’s because the teachers at those institutions have committed themselves to teaching Kansas students, and that means meeting them where they are: in all those diverse cities and towns, large and small, in all those distinct regions, both rural and urban and in-between, and developing unique educational approaches to serve all those different student needs. It means making our colleges and universities “native to this place,” to quote Kansan Wes Jackson—and that requires the knowledge which only long-term job support makes possible.

Which is exactly what President Ken Hush has undermined at Emporia State, by getting permission from KBOR to fire tenured faculty without any particular explanation. He sold it as grand plan in “workforce management,” dismissing incremental approaches to re-developing ESU as insufficient. Perhaps Hush sees this as an ideological win over a bunch of supposed radicals weighing down the efficient, education-to-job, libertarian machine that he perhaps imagines that ESU could or should otherwise be, but he's deeply misinformed. In practice tenure—which varies greatly from one institution to another—doesn’t promise faculty any kind of lifetime promise of intellectual isolation from the pressures and shifts of the educational landscape. Rather, by providing a degree of job protection (like due process guarantees that they will not be hurriedly or arbitrarily terminated, not unlike the job protections enjoyed by police officers, fire fighters, public school teachers, and many more), tenure enables those with the necessary expertise to take the time to build creative, lasting connections in the midst of students’ ever-changing educational needs and situations. A building which Hush’s decision has now made harder at ESU, crossing a line which Kansas higher education really can’t afford to break.

In our slow-growth state, tenure is probably best understood as one of several policies that makes more likely--for at least some, anyway--the sort of job security and intellectual stability which is necessary if committed faculty, those who choose to root themselves in the particular, sometimes shrinking, Kansas communities their various institutions serve, are to develop a real connection to both their students and the diverse topics of study which can bless their lives. Emporia State did that, in teacher education, in library science, and much more, just as Fort Hays and Pittsburg State and my own Friends University also do so, in their own specific ways. One can only hope that ESU will be able to continue to provide some of that unique service to those Kansas students who need it—but it will be harder now, and that’s a shame.

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