The Colorado Court of Appeals ruled today that tenured professors at Metropolitian State College in Denver may have priority over non-tenured professors in the event that the college lays off professors in the future.A 1994 employee handbook for professors gave tenured professors priority over non-tenured professors in college layoffs. But, when Metropolitan State College was reorganized under 2002 legislation that split it off from the Colorado State Colleges system, a new employee handbook was drafted and went to press in 2003.
The new employee handbook cut back on the rights of tenured faculty facing dismissal for cause or as a result of layoffs from the college. Five tenured professors and the Colorado Federation of Teachers, their union, challenged the changes in court.
The only ruling made in favor of the professors at trial was a ruling that the president had the burden of proving grounds for dismissal for cause, as a matter of contract interpretation.
The court of appeals went much further. It rejected the college’s claim that it could modify the employee handbook as it wished. The court left some procedural changes in the new handbook in place, but affirmed the trial court win of the professors on dismissals for cause.
Most importantly, the court of appeals set forth a much more generous test to determine if the tenured professors were entitled to priority in layoffs than the trial court had applied. While not reaching a specific conclusion, the court of appeals held that if professors had relied upon their protection from layoffs and the public interest in academic freedom was import vis-a-vis flexibility for the college, that the trial court, under a balancing test, should give tenured professors priority in the event of a layoff. It sent these questions to the trial court for further examination.
It is too early to tell if the trial court will ever get a chance to take up the issue. The court of appeals has clearly defined many of the issues, and the college will now have to weigh the certainty that the tenured faculty will be extremely unsatisfied if they fight tenured faculty protection from layoffs in light of this new decision, against their odds of getting what they want in the trial court in a much more rigorous analysis. The college may decide to continue to fight the case, or may decide that discretion is the better part of valor and settle it.