National University System headquarters in Torrey Pines. Courtesy of the university system

National University “summarily fired” about 50 full-time professors last year and as many as six associate vice presidents in the past week as part of a makeover that led the private nonprofit to be sanctioned Wednesday by a national professors group.

So says NU history professor Alexander Zukas, a 28-year veteran of the La Jolla-based system of colleges and programs, backed by an investigative report from the American Association of University Professors.

AAUP letter to National University (PDF)

“At least one person was fired Monday and given almost no notice,” he said in a phone interview. The woman’s email was cut immediately and she was denied access to her office.

Also out — but for reasons unclear — is university President David Andrews.

A day after NU announced his sudden resignation Tuesday, the Washington-based AAUP informed the school it had been sanctioned for a “trinity of egregious violations of widely accepted governance standards.”

According to its letter, the AAUP said NU, Andrews and its Board of Trustees took actions “in flagrant disregard of widely accepted standards of academic governance.”

These included:

  • Making unilateral changes to the school’s governance structure without respecting the primacy of the faculty’s judgment in relation to general educational policy.
  • Merging all 11 National University system libraries into one central library absent meaningful consultation with the faculty or the library staff.
  • Closing several significant academic centers throughout California and in Nevada without taking faculty recommendations into account.
  • And pre-empting the faculty’s primary responsibility regarding the discontinuation of academic programs by expediting the decision-making process.

National University officials didn’t respond to requests for comment.

But Zukas, president of NU’s chapter of AAUP, shared emails and other documents that last July helped trigger an investigation of the 50-year-old institution.

Letters and resolution used in AAUP investigation. (PDF)

“What really irritated the faculty is this began in March [2020],” he said, referring to actions taken after Gov. Gavin Newsom’s state of emergency tied to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The governor’s move provided NU “convenient cover” to do a “bunch of nefarious things,” Zukas said.

On May 22, 2020, Zukas and about 270 colleagues were given an ultimatum: Sign a new contract by July 1 or be fired. Some 93% signed “to help us create the future,” said a July 1 letter from Andrews.

(The school is now left with 201 professors, Zukas said. About 15-20 took a buyout that offered a year’s severance pay. The 50 fired professors were also offered a severance package — including a nondisclosure agreement. “Most took it,” he said.)

Zukas said he was three years into a 10-year contract but saw it torn up. The new contract said he could be fired for any reason within the next two years.

“It became a two-year contract,” he said.

The layoffs were mentioned publicly July 23, 2020, in a guest essay at Academe Blog titled “Anti-Faculty Coup at National University.”

“The Faculty Senate, in one of its final actions of the academic year, voted to send a complaint to the regional accreditor, WSCUC,” said the essay signed by “Alarmed Faculty Members at NU (names not provided out of fear of retaliation).”

It added that Andrews has repeatedly assured the university community that the institution was in sound financial health. “Even prior to the Sanford gift, the university held over $650 million … in reserves (until recently called a ‘quasi-endowment’) and had total assets of over $1 billion.”

On Tuesday, interim president Michael R. Cunningham, chancellor of the National University System, informed faculty and staff that he had replaced Andrews effective immediately but didn’t say why.

Zukas said he was stunned when he got Cunningham’s email.

He also found it strange that Andrews hadn’t written the faculty directly himself — “that’s his MO. He’s also very personable, very friendly…. Was on pretty good terms with faculty.”

Andrews and Cunningham likely saw the sanctions coming, Zukas said, because they got a copy of the AAUP draft report and were asked to correct any errors of fact. (Also: Inside Higher Ed reported on May 26 that AAUP said “traditional academic governance at the university ‘has been plunged into an abysmal condition.'”)

On Thursday, Anita Levy of AAUP told Times of San Diego that her group’s Committee on College and University Governance drafted its statement on National University at its May 5 meeting along with the recommendation to impose sanction. 

“However, the AAUP did not release the statement until after yesterday’s vote of the association’s council,” she said.  “As far as we know, President Andrews and Chancellor Cunningham were not aware of the committee’s recommendation to impose sanction on NU prior to the action of the council.”

The 21-member NU board (including three listed as “emeritus” trustees) were strongly micromanaging the university, Zukas said, “which AAUP frowns upon. Need to stay in its lane” of financial issues and avoid academic ones.

On Wednesday, Levy of AAUP wrote Cunningham: “The governing Council of the American Association of University Professors today voted to add National University to the association’s list of institutions sanctioned ‘for substantial non-compliance with standards of academic government.’”

The 340-word sanctions statement said Andrews last year announced at a virtual “town hall” meeting “the need to take quick and decisive action” amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

That “unilateral action” included abrogation of all faculty contracts in order to issue new ones, suspension of Faculty Policies, issuance of the administration’s own version of the faculty handbook and replacement of existing faculty governance bodies with a new governance structure, said the statement.

But AAUP found NU was suffering no “significant financial difficulty.” It said AAUP’s governing council would be urged to add National University to a list of institutions sanctioned for “substantial noncompliance with standards of academic government.”

A dozen colleges were on the list — with only NU from California.

NU is accredited by the WASC Senior College and University Commission, but the sanctions may represent mainly a PR hit.

The school catering to 15,000 adults is very sensitive about its reputation, Zukas said, “and so I think this does it no service … among academics or potential students.”

In a “Dear Colleagues” letter Wednesday, Zukas said publication of the sanction aims to inform association members, the profession at large and the public that “unsatisfactory conditions of academic government exist at the institutions in question.”

He said NU could be lifted from the list after showing it has remedied the violations.

“Institutions are removed from the list once an AAUP investigative team confirms the evidence that the institution is conforming to the generally accepted standards of college and university government, as set forth in the Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities and derivative governance documents,” he wrote.

Michael DeCesare, a sociology professor at Merrimack University in Massachusetts, was part of the AAUP team investigating complaints against NU.

On Thursday, he told Times of San Diego that the investigating panel, composed of faculty with no connection to NU, was appointed by the AAUP’s executive director based on experience, expertise in governance matters and other relevant factors.

“Our charge was to consider the facts of each case and reach conclusions about the extent to which each institution departed from AAUP-supported standards of academic governance,” he said. “In NU’s case, we found those departures to be unusually severe.”

DeCesare said he was surprised by the “brazenness” of NU’s board and administration in flouting long-standing and widely observed governance principles.

“Their abrogation of faculty contracts alone would appear to demonstrate either a lack of understanding of or disregard for how an institution of higher education is supposed to operate,” he said.

The group’s sanction, he added, could lead to such trends as fewer applications from students to fewer applications for faculty positions.

Michael Bérubé, another AAUP investigator, said most reputable institutions work quickly to rectify practices that got them on the list.

“That’s really the purpose of sanction,” said Bérubé, Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Literature at Pennsylvania State University. “Not simply to name and shame, but to get institutions to do the right thing.”

Faculty concerns about a college restructuring were raised in January 2019, when Andrews wrote in The Weekly Dialogue publication that “while we are financially sound, enrollments have plateaued in most programs and declined substantially in others. At the same time, our student persistence and completion rates continue to have significant room for improvement.”

Andrews concluded: “While I assure you there is no a priori structure lurking in the wings, I do envision substantial changes in our program offerings and academic structure as a result of this exercise.”

Email on “restructuring plans task force” from Adrianna Kezar of USC. (PDF)

Four months later, Professor Adrianna Kezar of the University of Southern California critiqued academic restructuring in a 3,200-word email to Zukas and John Cicero, vice provost of academic and faculty affairs.

She mainly trashed the plan.

She noted the Board of Trustees had concerns about the school’s “lack of efficiency, accountability, competitiveness and flexibility,” but suggested “there are perhaps other mechanisms or approaches to showing responsiveness to concerns than restructuring the entire campus.”

The board also wanted a certain timeline to be able to cut expenses and provide compensation increases.

“It is unclear the restructuring is the best mechanism for meeting this objective,” Kezar wrote.

Her final bullet point: “The administration and faculty should strive to work on the bigger problem of trust, communications and relationship development.”

She said the two groups should use the Restructuring Task Force to set up “new avenues for communication and interaction.”

On Wednesday, Zukas said the Faculty Senate — a forum for airing and channeling gripes — hasn’t met this year.

National University was not in a survival mode financially, he said.

“NU was thriving,” he said.

Zukas said a power play was at work — with university leader Andrews “caught between the faculty, who he really liked, and the board. They’ve never asked the faculty to come to talk to them.” Kind of like feudal lords, he said.

Updated at 4:54 p.m. June 10, 2021

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