John Carroll U.

Tension between John Carroll University’s board of directors and some of the university’s faculty centers around three recently passed amendments aimed at updating the faculty handbook.

One, some faculty said, now renders them tenured “in name only.”

“Under conditions the Board has defined as ‘budgetary hardship,’ faculty can be removed whenever the administration projects an annual budget shortfall of 6%, assuming the university projects two additional years of ‘hardship,’” faculty members wrote in a news release this week.

Previously, the faculty said, cuts could be made only if a department was axed or if the university hit a level of “financial exigency.” They added that these types of moves typically would need faculty approval.

The board proposed these changes six months ago to update provisions in a handbook “which is outdated, fails to promote fairness and equity, and is not consistent with best practices in higher education,” according to a statement from the university.

But some faculty said the move means academic freedom is now threatened. They also said the move will encourage current faculty to leave for other places “where they are valued and protected” and make it tough to attract new talent.

“The foundation of a high-quality education is the ability of teachers to nurture and challenge students — to encourage them to think for themselves and to understand perspectives and beliefs different from their own, even when those may be unpopular or controversial,” faculty council chair Brent Brossmann wrote in the faculty’s release.

Like its peers nationwide, the pandemic delivered some hits to JCU. The university saw a 6% enrollment drop in the fall. That rate is about three times higher than the national decline for private nonprofit four year institutions.

University president Michael D. Johnson told Crain’s Cleveland Business in November the board allowed a one-time dip into its endowment, which clocked in at about $228.7 million as of last June, for expenses related to the pandemic.

“We have never been worried about the longevity of the university because we’re in a stronger position than other institutions,” Johnson told Crain’s last fall. “But we are dealing with a lot of historical problems that other institutions also have.”

One of those problems is the economic blow.

“As I’ve noted in prior meetings, we’re on a path to annual losses in excess of $20 million absent implementation of a significant restructuring program of permanent and structural cost savings,” board chair Bill Donnelly said at a January general faculty meeting, per posted meeting minutes.

At that same January faculty meeting, Donnelly reportedly said they’re aware of “multiple” other universities who are considering similar moves. He added this provision is aligned with other Jesuit colleges’ handbooks, including those at Loyola Chicago, Loyola Maryland, and Marquette.

“The board believes that one of the most effective ways to preserve tenure and academic freedom and to attract outstanding faculty is to continuously strengthen the university’s academic offerings and overall student experience,” the university said its statement. “This requires the ability to effectively steward the university’s resources for the long term. These amendments, along with many other activities underway, will help accomplish that objective and allow John Carroll to continue delivering on its Jesuit mission to the benefit of our students and the broader community.”

Faculty members launched a “Save JCU” website to raise awareness.

Amy Morona covers higher education for Crain’s Cleveland Business, in partnership with Open Campus. This story is part of Crain’s Cleveland Forum coverage, which is sponsored by The Joyce Foundation.

Higher education reporter for Signal Cleveland in partnership with Open Campus.