What the University Says (And Doesn’t Say) About Firing Employees

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After Wesleying learned of the reasons behind Pat Tully’s firing on August 26, and subsequently posted her letter of explanation, I reached out to a number of administrators to ask for more information about the situation.

In light of the subsequent termination of another University mainstay, Ed Chiburis, Facility and Events Manager for the Memorial Chapel and ’92 Theater, I had some questions how—and why—employees are fired. According to Vice President of Student Affairs Mike Whaley, “Generally speaking, all students should know that (except in egregious situations) a progressive coaching/discipline system is in place to address any performance issues with any employee.  Only after that system has been exhausted would an employee be terminated.” He recommended me to talk with Human Resources about that system.

Director of Human Resources Julia Hicks, after receiving my questions about university policies, referred me instead to the staff handbook, as she could not comment about matters relating to individuals.

Assembled by the Human Resources department, the handbook does explain policies and procedures for administration, faculty, and employees. But it did not nearly answer my questions about how “termination,” as it calls it, is considered, pursued, and justified in a liberal arts university setting. Obviously the points gone over in this handbook aren’t going to be revelatory to any University staff, or really anyone out of college who’s held a real job. Students, however, probably don’t know such things—the handbook is pretty much all we have to understand the University’s side.

So let’s go through it and see what we can dig out and make sense of.

At-Will

In the handbook’s introduction, Wesleyan makes an important clarification: “Administrative staff are ‘at-will’ employees and their employment may be terminated by the University at anytime with or without cause. In terms of who is considered “administrative staff,” Hicks clarified they are “all employees hired by the university other than faculty or employees covered under a collective bargaining agreement.”

Does this seem oddly authoritarian? It shouldn’t: According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), a bipartisan NGO, employment relationships are in the United States automatically presumed to be “at-will.” This means, like above, “an employer can terminate an employee at any time for any reason, except an illegal one, or for no reason without incurring legal liability.  Likewise, an employee is free to leave a job at any time for any or no reason with no adverse legal consequences.”

“At-will” status, of course, may be modified by contract—for teaching faculty, the local union probably oversees this negotiation. I am less certain about how unions operate at Wesleyan (although 24 percent of librarians and 18.4 percent of library technicians are unionized, according to a June 2013 issue of ALA-APA’s Library Worklife newsletter.)

“Collective bargaining agreements usually provide that represented employees may only be terminated for cause,” the NCSL explains. “Cause generally includes reasons such as poor employee performance, employee misconduct, or economic necessity.”

Termination of Employment

The handbook’s section on “Termination of Employment” separates “termination” into two categories: “Voluntary resignation” and “Involuntary termination.” For voluntary resignation, the University requests at least two weeks’ notice, submitted in writing to a supervisor and HR.

Recall here that Tully, in her letter to the faculty listserv, recalled that HR gave her the opportunity to resign and collect further benefits, in exchange for signing a release. She turned down the offer, allowing her to write about the incident.

Another faculty member, former John C. Andrus Professor of Sociology Charles Lemert, ended up in The Wesleyan Argus in 2010 after he “voluntarily retired” following allegations of discriminatory remarks.

The alternative to resignation is, of course, termination; placed next to “unsatisfactory job performance,” the section suggests the two are necessarily related. Of course, the NCSL’s definition above makes it clear that at-will employee termination can be for a variety of things—as with Lemert’s non-academic violations.

(Not to say that an unsatisfactory job performance isn’t reason for, and sometimes the clear cause of, termination—Wesleyan’s firing of former AFAM Professor Annemarie Bean in 2007 was the direct result of students rating her poorly on teaching evaluations. That case, coincidentally, also made national news, appearing in a lengthy 2008 New York Times Magazine piece. Point taken: Take those emails from Eloise Glick about semester-end evals more seriously.)

Performance Issues and Improvement

Unfortunately, Wesleyan’s handbook gives no clarification on what constitutes “unsatisfactory job performance.” A lot of the handbook is vague and uncomfortably open-ended on points like this; something to consider in how much free reign the University technically has on employment matters.

Supervisors or department heads do, however, offer performance improvement efforts and counseling (their word) for unsatisfactorily-performing employees, “when appropriate.” (All employee’s performances are reviewed at least annually, according to the section on “Performance Assessment.”) That process may include discussions about what’s unsatisfactory or inappropriate, what needs to be done to make it satisfactory, and the opportunity to do that (so, saying what’s up and giving the person the chance to do better).

If things continue to go badly, some actions can be taken, after consulting with HR. “Corrective actions may include written warning, or discharge, based on the seriousness of the performance deficiency and the employee’s work record.” Two options.

The rest of the page goes on to discuss things like returning keys, excess vacation time, and the opportunity for severance packages. We can safely move on.

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Considering Tully

Although Tully did not sign the release, allowing us access to her telling of her story, the University has continually declined to comment. I have reached out to Mike Whaley, Manager of Media and Public Relations Kate Carlisle, Director of Human Resources Julia Hicks, Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Ruth Weissman, and two librarians.

Weissman’s response, “In the interest of protecting employees’ privacy, as a matter of principle, we do not comment on personnel matters,” was effectively repeated by all those contacted.

(The NYT, when they reached out for comment in 2009, was met with a similar answer.)

So, we will have to examine Tully’s recollection of the incident alone, “strictly from her point of view” as she acknowledges, without any explanation of the University’s perspective. (We are working on reaching out to Tully directly.)

Tully dates her tensions with Provost Weissman to July 2013, when Weissman was appointed to VPAA. In August, when Tully herself considered resignation, Weissman scheduled a meeting for them on 26th. When Tully entered the room, Weissman told her she was being terminated; the HR representative offered her the choice between resignation and termination. The next day, she left Wesleyan.

Tully does say she and Weissman both tried, “at various times, to resolve these differences, but our efforts seemed always to be at cross purposes.” Whether this was done in an official employer-employee “counseling” session or simply as coworkers is not specified.

After reaching out to Tully, she clarified her status as an “at-will” employee, saying, “so the University did nothing actionable in my case in terminating my appointment immediately without citing a cause. (Almost certainly the reason for my termination was my long-standing disagreement with the Provost—as mentioned in my letter—but this was not cited as a cause.)”

Also absent from this narrative are: the influence of performance reviews, official prompting to improve unsatisfactory performance, any previous written (or verbal) warnings, and the details of negotiating non-teacher contracts (Tully has been at Wesleyan since 2004). Whether those holes persist because of those elements’ nonexistence, or because of their intentional or unintentional omission, is not something we are able to determine until one or both parties provides more information.

What’s Left Unclear 

I’m still curious—not just about Tully, and not just about Chiburis, but about termination in general. What goes down? What actions are done in every case of termination, and which are only done in some? How much power and discretion is given to individuals?

There is reason, of course, to give some benefit of the doubt to the University: In many cases, firing is the right action to pursue. As in the instances of Bean and Lemert, both academic performance and non-academic conduct can be just cause for termination.

However, as Tully points out in her email to us, “Especially in a liberal arts institution like Wesleyan, it is essential to create and foster a community that is safe, open and respectful—not only among students and faculty, but among and between them and staff and administrators at every level in the organization.” Students, as well as the university, should consider if the rash of firings/terminations/forced resignations are having an impact on the campus—and whether the resulting environment is one that the university can be proud of.

I will leave you with some of the questions I asked, and some of the questions I still have, about this process. If anyone can fill us in or correct us on any part, please do: Email us, post in the comments, or both. Inquisitive minds want to know.

  1. What are the university’s official procedures for reviewing a faculty member’s performance, coaching and working with them to fix any problems, and potentially offering disciplinary measures?
  2. How does the university decide that termination is the right measure for a faculty member? Is there a benchmark for “unsatisfactory performance” that must be met by an employee, and who makes that judgment?
  3. How long does this process take, and what guidelines are set up to determine the timeline between when the university is alerted to problematic performance and when they decide to terminate that faculty member?
  4. How is a faculty member alerted of their performance review, and to what degree do they have a say or is there negotiation in the process? Similarly, what is included in a written warning, and what opportunity do they give for employee response?
  5. What departments or person(s) are involved in this process? To what extent are the views of peers and students taken into consideration? Where do unions come in?
  6. How much notice must be given to employees before their firing?

And, finally: Are these firings part of a larger trend, and what might this suggest for the future?

Additional reporting by kitab and Samira

Updated (9/16/14 1:50PM): Added details relating to Tully’s latest email.

For further reading:

The Wesleyan Argus: “Student Workers Protest Termination of Ed Chiburis” (9/12/14)
Inside Higher Ed: “Fired for Disagreeing” (9/11/14)

Wesleying: “University Librarian Fired Due to Provost Disagremeent” (9/9/14)
The Wesleyan Argus: “Lemert To Leave Univ. Following Allegations of Discriminatory Remarks” (9/14/10)
NYT Magazine: “Judgment Day” (9/19/09) 

  • Y15

    Other awesome staff let go for mysterious reasons: Dr. Antosz from CAPS (rumor has it he advocated for a student who was a victim of sexual assault, when the University was trying to quiet it all down), and Carolyn Sorkin, the wonderful head of the study abroad office…. Wtf Wes

    • What Happened to Dr. Antosz?

      Can we get an update on this. Seems pretty egregious. Unclear if it was a victim of sexual assault Dr. Antosz advocated for or an individual accused. Either way it seems egregious to fire an employee for advocating for a student–at least given the rumors.

  • tl;dr

    tl;dr

  • Ethan Hoffman

    Great article. Bravo for taking on an issue that’s so sensitive and for being honest about the lack of information.

    • Gabe

      Thanks! Greatly appreciated. Would love it if, instead, we actually had information to work off.

      • Ed Chiburis

        According to my
        “supervisor”, I did not work a “40 hour week and was not an
        Administrator”. There was no real “do process” in that my job
        expectations were a moving target and my main responsibilities, managing
        the Chapel, 92 Theater and Pavilion were considered something anyone
        could do and only required minimal effort. I would return in a heartbeat
        if I could answer to an administrator who understands what I do.
        Wesleyan has many Great Students, Faculty, and Staff and I miss All of you! I was very Lucky to have been part of the University.
        Sincerely, Ed Chiburis