Precarious Life: Kutztown University Adjunct Kicked to the Curb Right Before Critical Surgery

On Wednesday morning, faculty members at Kutztown University opened their morning email to find a heart-wrenching message from Dr. Amanda Morris, president of the Kutztown chapter of the faculty union, APSCUF. “Good morning, everyone, although there is not much good about it today,” the email began. An adjunct faculty member is in need of “major life-saving surgery,” Morris explained. The surgery itself was not the problem. The problem was that the adjunct faculty member no longer had health insurance. Kutztown University had just fired that faculty member.  The faculty member did not “have enough sick time to cover the estimated time they will be out, which could possibly be the entire semester,” Morris explained. So, with critical surgery right around the corner, one of the universities most vulnerable faculty members is now out of work and without health insurance. 

Morris was alerted to the dire situation by the department chair last Thursday. The adjunct faculty member’s colleagues had already agreed to overloads to cover courses, and that department’s faculty “volunteered to donate their own sick time to alleviate this person’s lack of sick time,” wrote Morris. There was one hitch: Morris would need to secure a local agreement with management that would allow faculty members to donate their sick leave to their colleague. 

Morris never got the chance. In her email, she explained that late Monday afternoon she got the bad news: 

On Monday, the chair of this adjunct’s department wrote me a simple email alerting me that HR had fired this person. Simultaneously, I discovered from another meeting that this person’s benefits were cut off, leaving one of our most vulnerable colleagues without an income and without health insurance a couple of weeks before major life-saving surgery.

Morris told me in an email interview that she immediately contacted the university president, Dr. Kenneth Hawkinson, asking him to call her as soon as possible, which he did. “I explained the situation to him and asked for his help,” Morris told me.  “I asked point-blank for him to please intervene and work with me, to fix this because this decision to fire this individual and leave them without income or benefits right before major life-saving surgery was just wrong.” According to Morris, Hawkinson agreed to look into the matter and meet with her Tuesday morning. 

But Tuesday morning brought more bad news. Morris met with the university president, Dr. Kenneth Hawkinson; the provost, Dr. Anne Zayaitz; and the director of human resources, Sharon Picus. “During this meeting, I could see that all three administrators had notes and directives that appeared to come from the Chancellor’s office and that is how they presented them,” Morris said. “They agreed with me about how awful this situation is, but deferred to the Chancellor’s Office’s decision to not allow them [the local administration] to work a local agreement with me, or at that point, to reinstate the faculty member.” 

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I reached out to the university administration with a series of questions about their decision to fire this faculty member in light of his/her precarious situation. I also wanted to know who issued the order to fire the faculty member and how the administration was planning to square this decision with the university’s newly launched brand campaign, which emphasizes Kutztown University as a “caring community.” Matthew Santos, Interim Associate Vice President of Communications, Marketing & External Affairs, wrote back with the following statement: 

Because this is a personnel issue, university policy prohibits us from commenting on all of the circumstances.   We can share that the State System and President Hawkinson did all they could to accommodate the situation. Dr. Hawkinson and the university administration care deeply about all Kutztown University employees and will help in any way we are able.

I also contacted PASSHE with similar questions. PASSHE’s Media Relations Manager, Kenn Marshall responded simply with:

I understand KU provided a response to your inquiry. Given that the issue involves a personnel matter, I believe that the university’s response is appropriate.

The question remains whether the university administration truly “did all they could to accommodate the situation.” Morris told me she believed that “the State System is concerned with setting a new precedent related to our sick leave benefits. Their position has been consistently presented to me by our state APSCUF labor relations director and by our local administrators.” Put another way, the issue at stake here is about money at the expense of an individual in need of critical care. In her meetings with the administration, it became pretty clear that there was little doubt that a local agreement allowing faculty members to donate sick days to a colleague in need was technically possible, according to Morris. The question was whether there was a will to do it. But in the end, Morris wrote in the email to faculty, “Dr. Hawkinson said he can’t because the Chancellor’s Office said he can’t.”

APSCUF president Ken Mash told Raging Chicken Press that while PASSHE’s decision to fire this faculty member may not violate any existing policy, it’s “heartless.” “I think from their perspective, it costs them money, it’s not in the contract, and it’s opening up a can of worms for other people in the future,” he said. But the fact is, he continued, “you don’t know how do deal with certain circumstances until they come up. If they really wanted to try to find solutions, they would have contacted us to see if we could find a solution. That didn’t happen and they’re really not going to budge on that.” 

Heartless indeed. And despite expressions of concern from Kutztown University’s administration or PASSHE, the cold hard facts are that their decision not to “open a can of worms” is putting a real human being in peril. 

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Kutztown University’s “Mission, Vision, and Purpose” statement lays out the values that are supposed to govern the university’s work. It emphasizes a goal of pursuing the work of the university “within a caring community.” Kutztown University “values the life experiences of students, faculty, and staff to create a caring community on a beautiful campus.” Those values are now being put to the test. What does it mean to be a caring community in practice, not just in words? 

Those values are not lost on the faculty union, however. Even while Morris continues to push for a local agreement to reinstate the faculty member, securing their access to necessary medical care, she is not taking any chances. In order to maintain healthcare, the dismissed faculty member will have to pay $637.67/month in COBRA payments. That is exceedingly difficult, of course, when your employer has just kicked you to the curb and you are going to need at least a couple of months to recover from critical surgery. 

Morris is encouraging faculty members to come to their colleague’s aid by donating to a special PayPal account just set up. On Thursday, Morris sent another email to faculty members with instructions on how to donate [ANYONE can donate to help out. You follow the instructions HERE]. 

“All I want,” Morris wrote to faculty, “is for this individual to be reinstated as a fulltime temporary faculty [member] for the year so they have their benefits and that local management work with me to create a local agreement for us faculty to donate our time to get this person through the semester. I made that plea numerous times and many different ways.” However, the Chancellor’s office has ordered Kutztown’s administration not to work with the faculty union to find a humane solution. And as of this posting, the administration is committed to following orders.

“For my part,” Morris lamented, “I am surprised and saddened that our employer would take such a cold-hearted stand.”

Raging Chicken Press will continue to follow this story. 

 

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