In rare decision, Nebraska regents fire tenured faculty member at UNL


HR King
May 29, 2001
The University of Nebraska Board of Regents took the rare step of terminating a tenured faculty member’s employment Friday.
In a unanimous vote, the board supported a recommendation to end the continuous appointment of Julie Stone, an associate professor in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Department of Biochemistry.

The move marks the first time in a decade regents have taken what is widely considered in academia to be an extraordinary step to dismiss a faculty member with tenure.
Generally, faculty members with tenure protections can be fired for cause under extreme circumstances and after being afforded an opportunity for a hearing.

Stone, 58, was the subject of an October 2020 complaint filed with a Special Academic Freedom and Tenure Committee by NU President Ted Carter after other biochemistry faculty said “she lacked the professional competence expected of a tenured faculty member.”

The vote of the biochemistry faculty was also backed by an outside attorney, who said there was reasonable grounds for terminating her employment, according to the action item considered by the regents.

The six-person committee met in November 2021 to consider the case, and several formal hearings were conducted in January 2022 to collect testimony and evidence from both the university and Stone.
After reviewing its findings, however, the committee sent its conclusions in March without giving Stone a chance to respond, as is required under university procedures. Following a delay, a final report and transcript were later submitted in August recommending Stone’s employment be terminated.

Regents were originally scheduled to consider the termination in September, but the agenda item was pulled at the last minute after Stone asked for a new hearing — a request that was ultimately denied — before it once again came before the board this week.

Stone, speaking to regents during the public comment period of Friday’s meeting, said a poor relationship with a previous biochemistry department chair and an unwelcoming work climate led to the complaint against her.
Like other faculty members in the biochemistry department, Stone’s appointment was 80% research and 20% teaching. The molecular biology course she taught three days a week for many years was a key class for biochemistry majors, as well other students in other science majors.

Eventually, she told regents, the previous department chair gave her course to another faculty member and put her in charge of several lab classes, which raised her teaching load to two to three times that of some of her colleagues, even as the appointment technically remained the same.
The shift in duties caused her other work and research to suffer, she said, and in protest, Stone stopped completing the annual “activity insight form” required by employees, which asks them to detail their teaching, research and outreach work throughout the year.

Doing so resulted in several “unsatisfactory” marks on Stone’s record, she said in a phone interview after the meeting.

“I was still doing research, teaching, everything I should have been doing,” she said. But the “unsatisfactory” notes on her annual reports eventually formed the basis of a “post-tenure review,” as well as the professional competency hearing that was ultimately unfavorable to her.
During Friday’s meeting, Stone admitted to regents her protest was “not only foolish and clearly ineffective” but also “childish and stupid,” and she pleaded with regents to reconsider the action to end her employment, pointing to what she described as a flawed process.

“I never stopped doing my job. I stopped being valued for what I do,” she said.
Another member of UNL’s faculty — Rebecca Cahoon, a lab manager at the Center for Plant Science Innovation — spoke in support of Stone and asked regents to consider the long-term implications of firing a tenured faculty member, which would send a red flag to faculty members in Nebraska and elsewhere.

“The larger question of how this decision actually serves the University of Nebraska will come under the microscope, as all its members from this community of scholars have a very vested interest in protecting the academic freedom that is critical to the healthy and proper functioning of the university,” Cahoon told the board.
Following a closed session that lasted about 20 minutes, the board unanimously agreed to the committee’s recommendation to end Stone’s continuous appointment.
There was no discussion before regents took a vote.
Stone, who is scheduled to teach a course in the spring with more than a dozen students registered, said she hadn’t been told when her employment would end at UNL.

A UNL spokeswoman said Friday evening the university couldn’t discuss personnel matters.

Stone said the termination of her tenure was news to many of her colleagues and students Friday.
She kept the matter quiet for two years — to the detriment of her own health, she said — to avoid burning any bridges at the university, but also wanted to fight to stay in a position she says she’s passionate about.
Other faculty members who face a loss of employment choose to quietly resign rather than go through the whole process that ended up before the regents, as hers ultimately did.
“I’m glad that, at least, some sort of decision has been made,” she said. “This has been very painful.”