A Christian University’s Unchristian Treatment of a Tenured Philosophy Professor


A tenured associate professor of philosophy who had received ratings of “excellent” in her annual reviews each year for the past decade, whose classes are always full or overloaded, who teaches extra courses, and who gets great student reviews in those courses, has been fired.

The professor is Leigh Johnson, who up to just recently was associate professor in the Department of Religion and Philosophy at Christian Brothers University (CBU), a Catholic university in Memphis, Tennessee.

Her case serves as a warning to faculty at small universities and colleges: extreme measures to address financial problems at your school may come out of the blue; in the panic that ensues, procedures may not be followed; it may be the case that financial exigency is used as a cover to make changes that would otherwise be noticed as objectionable; and the financial hardship threatened by a faculty member’s job loss may be used to pressure them into hiding what has happened—even at a Christian university based on the ideas of someone they approvingly quote as saying, “God desires all of us to come to the knowledge of the truth.”

[with apologies to Da Vinci]

In September 2023, David Archer, the then-President of the University*, declared a “condition of financial exigency” and began the process of terminating tenured faculty. (There is some question as to whether this was done properly. According to the Faculty Handbook at CBU, one may not simply declare financial exigency. The administration is first required to establish “a condition of financial difficulty” which involves various procedures and steps to be taken before “financial exigency” can be invoked, and, according to a source at CBU, it is not clear that these procedures were followed.)

CBU’s accreditor, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges had placed CBU on “monitoring” for the past two years, and at the beginning of December placed the school on probation, “the most serious public sanction imposed by the SACSCOC Board of Trustees short of loss of accreditation.” According to SACSCOC, CBU

failed to demonstrate compliance with the Principles of Accreditation, namely, Core Requirement 4.1 (Governing board characteristics) and Standard 13.3 (Financial responsibility)… These standards expect an institution (1) to have a governing board that… exercises fiduciary oversight of the institution; and (2) to manage its financial resources in a responsible manner.

In December, Professor Johnson was informed by Archer that she was one of the faculty being terminated at the end of the following term. She was offered a 7-month severance package that included a non-disclosure agreement and other restrictions on what she may say about the university and her firing. It’s worth noting that the exigency severance policy of the university does not condition receipt of severance on consenting to be stifled. It says:

If less than the usual notice is given, provision shall be made for severance salary commensurate with the length of past and potential service, insofar as possible.

Why was Johnson in particular fired? To this day, it is not clear. The evidence suggests her performance at her job was well above average, and with her overloaded courses and extra teaching, she was far from a financial drain on the university. Johnson shared with me an audio recording of her meeting with Archer. It is striking that in the meeting, Archer appears to acknowledge that Johnson’s particular termination did not contribute to relieving the university’s financial problems, which would seem to undermine any justification for firing her.

Johnson appealed the decision. She says:

I immediately filed an appeal of my termination to the Faculty Review Committee after my meeting with then-President David Archer, which was the next step available to me. Over the following six weeks, the Faculty Review Committee repeatedly delayed and delayed, without justification or explanation, refusing to give my case a hearing. Despite my insistence on having a hearing scheduled and their promise that I would be heard, they postponed my hearing until less than 48 hours before I was legally obliged to sign CBU’s severance agreement, effectively denying me due process. 

Under duress, and with no other options available to me, I signed the severance agreement on January 22, [2024]. However, I had a 7-day period to rescind my signature. I used that time to retain legal counsel and I retracted my signature within the 7-day rescission period allowed to me. I was convinced, and remain convinced, that CBU’s decision to terminate me was illegal and discriminatory, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep well at night having signed their agreement, which required me to forfeit any right to sue or appeal, as well as any right to speak on my own behalf about the details of my termination.

She notes that of the nine tenured faculty offered the severance agreement, she was the only one who refused to sign it. She adds:

Since then, they have done everything they could to harass and intimidate me, including trying to prevent me from teaching my last class (with the aid of police), trying to prevent me from collecting my belongings from my office (with the aid of campus security), and withholding my earned but unpaid salary.

Philosophers Mitchell Aboulafia (Manhattan College) and Catherine Kemp (John Jay College, CUNY) launched an effort to raise money for Professor Johnson’s legal expenses. You can read about it and donate to it here.

The episode regarding the last class is astounding. On April 21st, Professor Johnson posted on social media:

Starting my final week in the classroom tomorrow. It’s been a good 20yr run and I think I made a positive impact on at least a few hundred students’ lives. Plan on going out with a bang. [firecracker emoji]

Here’s Johnson’s account of what happened on Friday the 26th, the last day of class:

I’ve always loved the last day of classes. Hearing from students about what they learned and how they changed. Finally getting to answer lingering questions and tie up loose ends, making the “big” connections. Thanking students for being a part of the very special kind of community that a class is. Delivering that last motivational, inspirational lecture. It’s a very special day.

This past Friday was not only the last day of the semester, but my last day in the classroom after almost 20yrs of teaching, the last 10yrs at Christian Brothers University. I only had two classes, at 10am and 11am, and I was excited to end this part of my life on a high.

And then things got weird.

At the start of my second class, I was pulled by the Dean (Tawny Tullia) from my classroom and told “this will only take a minute.” She walked me down the hall to her office, where I was met by one of the VPs (Ron Brandon) and a *police officer*. Brandon told me to have a seat—I didn’t—because he needed to discuss something with me. He asked if I wanted to have anyone else present. I informed everyone in the room that (a) I didn’t know what this was about so had no way to determine if I needed someone else present, and (b) my 11 o’clock class just started and whatever this was about needed to be quick.

Brandon showed me a copy of my post from Monday morning (pictured below), which I posted on both Facebook and Twitter, and asked me to “explain.” It wasn’t clear to me what there was to explain. He suggested that my post indicated I was a threat to campus, and then I saw where this was going.

I calmly asked everyone present if they were familiar with the very common turn of phrase “go out with a bang,” meant to indicate a celebratory end to something. They all said yes. Brandon claimed that I punctuated my post with a “stick of dynamite,” indicating I was a threat. I pointed out that the emoji was a firecracker, commonly used to indicate “bang,” and noted that I did not have time to explain emojis because, at this point, I was already several minutes late to my class, and my students were still sitting in there wondering why I had been removed by the Dean to speak to the VP and police. So, I said, “are we done here?”

We weren’t.

Brandon again instructed me to take a seat—I didn’t—and said he needed help “wrapping his head around the meaning of this post.” Since he had already agreed to understanding my meaning of the phrase “go out with a bang,” and since he had already been corrected on the dynamite/firecracker emoji error, I informed him there was nothing else I could say that would make it any clearer. I asked the police officer if he thought I was a threat. He shrugged and deferred to Brandon. I asked Brandon if he thought I was a threat. Brandon said he said he needed “more explanation.” I reminded them that I had a class to teach and students waiting, and Brandon told me they were going to “have someone cover my class.” The policeman told me that I “needed” to have a seat.

I said no, I am going back to teach my last class. If they wanted to wait there until I was done, I would come back afterwards, and if they wanted to search my bag or car in the meantime, they were more than welcome to do so. Then I left and went back and taught my last class.

The fact that I was allowed to just walk out of the meeting and back into my classroom is all the evidence necessary to know that literally no one believed I was a threat. What Brandon and Tullia wanted was to remove me from my classroom under suspicious circumstances and leave students with the impression that I had done something unsavory (or perhaps criminal), knowing that would be my last impression on the campus. I’m guessing the police presence was meant to intimidate me into complying with this plan. It was not a very well thought out plan.

Given CBU’s current financial and accreditation crisis, their current vacuum of leadership due to the sordid scandals surrounding upper administration, and their rapidly-drowning reputation, it’s almost laughable that they’d want to devote time and energy to yet another circus show like what they did to me on Friday. ALMOST laughable.

It wasn’t laughable, though. It was a disgrace. It was petty, venal, mean, and retaliatory. The only thing any member of the faculty or administration should have said to me on Friday is “thank you.” Full stop.

I’m proud of myself for walking out of that nonsense and going back to teach my last class. I told my students what was happening when I returned to the classroom and they were, rightfully and as expected, shocked and outraged. But “shock and outrage” is never what I want to leave students with at the end of a course, so I shook it off, asked them to shake it off, and we had a great final session anyway.

(And, yes, in case you were wondering, Brandon and the police were still waiting for me when I got out of the second class. He tried to re-start the whole conversation over with the same implied suggestion that I was a danger to the campus. I told him this entire affair was insulting to all of our intelligences, and I left again with exactly zero interference from law enforcement… as serious threats to campus safety are often allowed to do lol.)

I’m not religious, but I’ve always treated the classroom like a sacred space. Wondrous and inspiring things happen there when trust is built, risk is embraced, and difference is respected. I have loved every single minute of my time inside of the classroom, and I will miss it terribly.

I’m sad that CBU tried to steal that from me, but happy I refused to let them do so.

The fundraiser for Professor Johnson’s legal expenses is here.


* Archer, the president of CBU, resigned from his presidency abruptly in April, 2024 “after several days of rumors.”

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John Protevi
26 days ago

Thank you for publicizing this very disturbing case. I have donated to the legal expenses fund and I hope others will too.

Cal
Cal
26 days ago

Bravo! I’m proud that you stood up for yourself too and I can only dream of having the courage and presence of mind it would take to do the same in that situation. Your response to the farce only underscores what a loss your departure is for the university.

Dean
Dean
26 days ago

Dave Archer was fired for having an affair with a colleague who he then promoted to VPA and then to Provost!

Leigh isn’t the only one who got pushed out. Thirty other faculty and staff (many of them tenured) were fired as well.

Before that, a system of bullying and intimidation existed at CBU. It was propagated by the previous President (Jack Shannon). He was also fired due to multiple affairs with women who worked under him.

The former VPA (Paul Haught) put friends and family in positions of power and bullied others until they left. Together Archer, Shannon, and Haught weaponized the HR department and built an institutional culture where faculty and staff were treated like second class citizens if they weren’t friends, family, or sexual partners.

Unbelievable
Unbelievable
Reply to  Dean
26 days ago

Archer’s affair was “discovered in perhaps the most idiotic way possible”: https://www.reddit.com/r/memphis/comments/1c8q2oa/skinny_on_cbu/l0huemc/

Cathy
Cathy
Reply to  Unbelievable
26 days ago

Can’t make this stuff UP!

Assistant Professor
26 days ago

Many conditions of the severance agreement might have been non-enforceable, given the NLRB’s 2023 ruling in Mclaren Macomb. https://www.nlrb.gov/news-outreach/news-story/board-rules-that-employers-may-not-offer-severance-agreements-requiring

It sounds like this college is circling the drain. I hope Johnson can find meaningful work elsewhere.

Geoff
Geoff
26 days ago

I assume that, in her comments, Johnson meant to say that she signed the severance deal on Jan 22, 2024? Otherwise the timeline here doesn’t seem to make sense..

Michael Scott
Michael Scott
26 days ago

“I DECLARE BANKRUPTCY!”

Grad Student #223
Grad Student #223
25 days ago

Have other people noticed that colleges misuse the labeling of employees as “threats to the college” via untenable interpretations of those employees’ expression with some regularity? It’s happened at the school I’m currently at with (admittedly violent, but clearly non-directed) political speech, and Christian Coons at BGSU, if I’m remembering correctly, was also barred from his campus for being a threat even though there were no details about how he was a threat.

MAK
MAK
25 days ago

I did some adjuncting at CBU during COVID, and Leigh kindly shared her course material with me. From an outsider perspective, the CBU Department of Religion and Philosophy was very pleasant to work with, and I was impressed by the diligence of the students and their open appreciation of the opportunity to be at CBU.
I’ve only had a few brief, but collegial interactions with Leigh. I’m shocked by what CBU has done.

another
another
24 days ago

I’m really sorry to hear that this has happened. But am not that surprised. I had had a somewhat similar experience at a tiny Catholic school: for admin reasons I was “fired”, and that was handled in such a way that (1) all students had left campus already (they really liked me; some even came back afterwards to protest); (2) I had a police officer watching me packing up my office, on the day of. I went to campus on that day knowing nothing. I find it very appalling that these things still occur.