Academic Freedom and Tenure: Nicholls State University (Louisiana)1

Academe, November/December 2008 | Go to article overview

Academic Freedom and Tenure: Nicholls State University (Louisiana)1


I. Introduction

This report concerns notification by the Nicholls State University administration to Ms. Maureen Watson that it was terminating her services in May 2007, one day prior to the expiration of her twelfth consecutive annual appointment as a full-time faculty member in the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science.

Nicholls State University, a comprehensive, regional institution serving soudi-central Louisiana, was founded in 1948 as Francis T Nicholls Junior College of Louisiana State University. In 1956, Nicholls was separated from Louisiana State University by an act of the Louisiana legislature and began operating as Francis T. Nicholls State College. It granted its first bachelor's degrees in 1958. Another act of the state legislature, in 1970, changed the name of the college to Nicholls State University, and in 1974 it joined the newly formed University of Louisiana system. Governed by a fifteenmember board of supervisors and led during the events of concern by system president Dr. Sally Clausen, the university system has seven universities under its authority, in addition to Nicholls State: Grambling State University, Louisiana Tech University, McNeese State University, Northwestern State University, Southeastern Louisiana University, University of Louisiana at Lafayette, and University of Louisiana at Monroe.2 The eight together enroll over 84,000 students.

Named after a Confederate general who served two terms as governor of Louisiana, the institution is located in Thibodaux, the heart of "Cajun Country," approximately fifty miles southwest of New Orleans and sixty miles southeast of Baton Rouge, on a 210-acre campus that was once the site of an antebellum plantation. During the 2007-08 academic year, the university had nearly three hundred full-time instructional faculty. It enrolled approximately 4,900 full-time and 1,200 parttime undergraduate students and 650 graduate students. Ninety-five percent of the student body comes from Louisiana. The university has been accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools since 1964.

Dr. Stephen T Hulbert, the institution's fourth president, has served in that capacity since 2003. He has a doctoral degree in education from the State University of New York at Albany. He previously served as chancellor of the University of Montana- Western and as commissioner of higher education under the Rhode Island Board of Governors of Higher Education.

II. The Case of Ms. Maureen Watson

Ms. Maureen Watson earned her master's degree in applied mathematics from Nicholls State University in 1996, after having completed her undergraduate work there in 1989. She joined the Nicholls faculty in 1995 as a full-time lecturer in the mathematics department and was promoted to the rank of instructor in 1999. Over the years she routinely taught introductory and intermediate mathematics and statistics courses, and was active on several department and university committees.

On May 18, 2007, Ms. Watson was called to a meeting with department head Scott Beslin, who informed her that she would not be offered an appointment for the 2007-08 academic year. According to Ms. Watson, Professor Beslin told her that she was not being retained because of budgetary constraints and a concern expressed in a Southern Association of Colleges and Schools report regarding an excessive number of Nicholls graduates teaching mathematics in the department.3

Seeking confirmation of the reasons for the decision, Ms. Watson wrote to President Hulbert on June 25 to request an explanation. Replying on July 10, the president stated that " [w]ithin the University of Louisiana System, and more specifically, at Nicholls State University, an appointment at the instructor rank carries no obligation for, or promise off,] renewal"; that the university is not required to provide a reason for nonrenewal; and further, that it is "institutional practice not to provide a reason when appointments are not renewed. …

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