Laid-Off UT-Brownsville Faculty Sue, Claiming School Ignored their Tenure Rights

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A water tower marked for UT-Brownsville and Texas Southmost College
Beth Cortez-Neavel

Three former professors filed a federal lawsuit late Thursday morning against the University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College, escalating a two-year battle over tenure rights between faculty members and the schools.

The two schools—one a state-funded university, the other a community college—are splitting after a 20-year partnership that’s become strained in recent years as the separate entities argued over budgets and other decisions.

As the Observer reported in May, the separation has left some faculty members without the jobs they’d been guaranteed years earlier. Others have been re-hired but without tenure. The schools announced their separation in November 2010, but aren’t scheduled to completely split until August 2015.

Last year, laid-off nursing professor Karen Fuss-Sommer told the Observer: “I’m a dedicated employee, have been a dedicated faculty member of our institution from the day I stepped on that campus, and this is how it ends for me.” Now, she’s one of three former faculty members suing to get their old jobs back, with tenure, at Texas Southmost College, along with back pay and benefits.

According to the terms of the schools’ original partnership, if the schools ever split, Texas Southmost could re-hire the faculty given a pink slip from UT Brownsville.-Tenured faculty who’d been with the schools since 1992 would be guaranteed similar jobs with tenure at Texas Southmost.

But that’s not what happened when the schools began their divorce.

Last year, UT-Brownsville President Juliet Garcia told the Observer her school had to cut staff to match a student body projected to shrink as the schools split. UT Brownsville has shed more than 360 of its 518 faculty members so far (the school is also in the midst of combining with UT-Pan American into the new UT-Rio Grande Valley).

This week’s lawsuit, filed with the help of the Texas Faculty Association and the Texas State Teachers Association, came after a U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission investigation resulted in a “right to sue” letter saying the schools refused to cooperate with the commission to mediate charges of discrimination.

A TSTA press release said Fuss-Sommer, Juan Antonio Gonzalez and Dorothy Boven were fired using a process that gave non-tenured faculty members priority over tenured faculty, and went against University of Texas System rules. The suit claims that process was especially hard on faculty members over age 40, and was an “artificial, arbitrary, and unnecessary barrier to employment.”

“All tenure is a right to due process and you can’t be let go without good cause,” Texas Faculty Association Executive Director Mary Aldridge told the Observer. “They didn’t do either. These people have been there for decades and they just washed them.”

Although Texas Southmost has hired Fuss-Sommer, Gonzalez and Boven according to the original partnership agreement, the professors no longer hold tenured positions and have taken a pay cut. The three have lost retirement benefits, including health and life insurance policies and, the suit claimed, suffered “damage to both their professional and personal reputation.”