Albany

Saint Rose music professors sue to keep jobs eliminated in crisis

The Colllege of Saint Rose's Centennial Hall on Madison Avenue in Albany is shown in this undated photo from the college's website.
PHOTOGRAPHER:

The Colllege of Saint Rose's Centennial Hall on Madison Avenue in Albany is shown in this undated photo from the college's website.

ALBANY — Four of the dozens of professors given termination notices in December 2020 by The College of Saint Rose are suing to get their jobs back.

An attorney for the four music professors filed a legal complaint on their behalf Thursday in state Supreme Court Albany County, charging that the small, private school was arbitrary and capricious and committed extensive violations of internal policy when it let them go.

The complaint seeks reinstatement with back pay and benefits.

Saint Rose declined comment Thursday evening, saying via email:

“The College has not yet been served with this petition and complaint. Until we are served, and have an opportunity to review all of the documents, we will not comment.”

The firings were announced at the end of a very difficult year for American colleges, struggling amid the COVID pandemic.

Saint Rose said in December 2020 it would eliminate 33 tenured and tenure-track faculty and not renew the contracts of eight full-time visiting faculty effective December 2021. It also said it would cut 16 bachelor’s degree programs, six master’s degree programs and three certificate programs.

The cuts would yield nearly $6 million in savings, it said.

The four plaintiffs, who rely heavily on the college’s alleged violations of its own formal procedures in their arguments, say Saint Rose hasn’t declared or demonstrated the financial exigencies that would justify their termination.

The legal papers state and allege that:

  • Plaintiffs Yvonne Chavez Hansbrough, Robert Hansbrough and Bruce Roter are tenured full professors who’ve been music professors since 2008, 1999 and 1998, respectively; plaintiff Sherwood Wise is a tenured associate professor and a professor of music since 2012.
  • The four have their own specialties and each is qualified to teach in the four majors previously offered by the Music Department.
  • Saint Rose terminated them in violation of its own procedures, using inaccurate and inadequate information, while retaining lower-ranked members of the department with less seniority, some of them not tenured.
  • The college’s Faculty Manual sets out procedures and circumstances for termination of faculty and says there are two circumstances that allow for personnel reduction through retrenchment: anticipated program reductions and financial emergency. The college must attempt all reasonable alternatives before a termination and it must give preference based on tenure, seniority and rank.
  • Faculty members facing termination have the right to appeal, and the results of their formal hearing must be reviewed by committees.
  • Saint Rose told faculty the college was struggling financially but it never declared a financial exigency, explaining that to do so would be a public relations problem. Nor did it release data supporting the contention that a financial emergency existed.
  • In September 2020, the Music Department submitted a proposal signed by Wise, its chair, containing sources of additional revenue and $560,000 in cost reductions. Wise met with a Joint Working Group to review the proposal.
  • For years there was a well-known tension between the professors who taught in the Music Industry concentration and the rest of the Music Department.
  • Unbeknownst to Wise and his fellow plaintiffs, the Music Industry subgroup drew up a secret counterproposal to eviscerate the Music  Department and submitted it to the Joint Working Group after Wise’s presentation. 
  • This proposal did not originate with the Music Department nor was it approved by the Music Department faculty, as required by the Faculty Manual.
  • The Joint Working Group didn’t interview any member of this second, clandestine Music Department faculty group.
  • The counterproposal called for elimination of the entire Music Department except for the Music Industry concentration, a move that would result in termination of all Music faculty except those who had made the counterproposal.
  • The counterproposal projected savings but offered no explanation how the savings were calculated.
  • The Joint Working Group, citing financial savings, recommended closing three of the four degrees offered in the Music Department and retaining the bachelor of science degree with concentration in Music Industry. 
  • Every member of the Music Department who hadn’t resigned or retired received a termination notice, except for those who taught the Music Industry classes.
  • The four plaintiffs were notified Dec. 8 that they would be terminated Dec. 29, 2021. All but one of the Music Industry professors were junior to the four plaintiffs.
  • The employment contract between the college and plaintiffs incorporates the terms of the Faculty Manual, which the college did not follow, therefore it breached the contract
  • To date, the Music Industry counterproposal has not been adopted by Saint Rose and the college is still offering students the classes that the plaintiffs taught. The required classes for music majors have not changed
  • The four plaintiffs appealed their termination and requested data from the college but were not provided with the data.
  • The Faculty Review Committee supported the plaintiffs’ appeal, finding that the terminations were not justified and that the college violated procedures in making them.
  • The Faculty Review Committee submitted its findings to interim President Marcia White, who on May 21, 2021, rejected their recommendations and the plaintiffs’ objections.
  • White’s determination that the college is currently facing extraordinary financial circumstances that justify laying off tenured faculty is not supported by substantial evidence; the college has not made public all of the financial reports mandated by its acceptance of more than $3.4 million in federal COVID grants.

The plaintiffs seek to have their termination voided and seek award of salary and benefits lost, plus costs and any other relief the court deems just.

Reach John Cropley at [email protected], 518-395-3104 or @cropjohn on Twitter.

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