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November 7, 2022

NYS Appellate Court Sustains College's Tenure Terminations

The New York Appellate Division, Third Department recently overturned a lower court ruling that had vacated the termination of several tenured professors. 

The case, In the Matter of Yvonne Chavez Hansbrough et al. v. The College of Saint Rose et al., concerned the College of Saint Rose, a private liberal arts college in Albany, New York. Following years of low enrollment and financial hardship that was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the college adopted a plan in 2020 to reduce expenses. To save approximately $6 million, the plan recommended the elimination of 32 undergraduate and graduate programs and the termination of 33 full-time tenure and tenure-track faculty positions. Four tenured professors in the college’s Music Department whose positions were eliminated in the restructuring challenged the decision internally and, when unsuccessful, brought an Article 78 petition seeking judicial review. In bringing the Article 78 petition, the professors sought to overturn the college’s determination by arguing that the college acted arbitrarily and capriciously; according to the professors, the college violated the existing College Faculty Manual by terminating them instead of their nontenured colleagues. 

In December 2021, Supreme Court Judge Peter Lynch granted the plaintiff’s Article 78 petition and reversed their terminations. The judge agreed with the professors, finding that the college had acted arbitrarily and capriciously by improperly interpreting the procedures in the faculty manual, which required the prioritization of tenured professors. Specifically, the college was found to have “circumvented” this preference by instead choosing to prioritize retaining those professors associated with a particular program in the Music Department. This violated the contractual obligations in the faculty manual, the judge decided, which states: 

“[i]f faculty in the eliminated program must be [terminated], preference will be given to retaining faculty according first to tenure, then to seniority at the College, and then to rank”

The judge held that this language requires that in the event of program eliminations and/or faculty layoffs, the college prioritize retaining tenured professors in the school or department—not with any qualifications by degree programs or concentrations. Furthermore, the judge found that the eliminated professors had requisite qualifications to teach across all of the Music Department programs, including the one concentration that was set to remain in the restructuring process. Accordingly, the tenured plaintiffs here should have been retained in accordance with the faculty manual prioritization rules.

On October 20, 2022, the Third Department reversed the lower court decision, finding the judge had not provided enough deference to the college in its interpretation of the faculty manual. While a court can properly review the administration’s decisions in interpreting its internal rules, including on matters involving the benefits and privileges of a professor’s tenure, this was not a situation that warranted reversal. The Third Department held that courts have a limited role in reviewing such determinations because the administrative decisions of educational institutions involve highly specialized professional judgment. Deference should be accorded to a college or university’s determinations on wholly internal matters. 

According to the Third Department, judicial intervention is only appropriate where an institution does not “substantially comply” with its internal rules or in the event that the decision was otherwise arbitrary and capricious or made in bad faith. In this case, the college’s interpretation of the faculty manual—that the administration only had to prioritize retaining tenured officials by their rank in each individual program rather than department-wide—had a rational basis because the faculty manual did not explicitly require that preferences for retention must first be given to all tenured professors in the school or department in the event of the elimination of a program; instead, the faculty manual only required preferences be given to those with tenure . . . in the event of an elimination of a program. Accordingly, the Supreme Court “should not have supplanted” the college’s judgment for its own regarding how to handle terminations involving tenured faculty. 

The Third Department’s decision reiterates that colleges and universities are given deference in interpreting their own internal rules so long as there is a justifiable or rational basis for the conclusion. 

If you have any questions regarding the content of this alert, please contact Buster Melvin, Higher Education Practice Area chair, at emelvin@barclaydamon.com; Payne Horning, associate, at phorning@barclaydamon.com; or another member of the firm’s Higher Education Practice Area.
 

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