Jesuit College Workers Unite

New alliance of workers and students across Jesuit institutions joins together to protest cuts that they argue undermine their colleges' unique educational missions.

December 1, 2020
 
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Marquette Hall at Marquette University

An alliance of faculty, staff and graduate student unions; American Association of University Professor chapters; and student organizations has come together to support a new petition opposing “the rash of austerity-driven layoffs, firings and program eliminations occurring and under consideration by Jesuit institutions across the United States.”

The move comes at a time when Jesuit liberal arts institutions, like their secular counterparts, are under increasing financial duress due to declining enrollment and funding and compounded by the economic fallout of the pandemic. Faculty and staff at the Catholic institutions have grown increasingly worried as their institutions have responded with belt-tightening measures once considered unthinkable.

“As far as I know, this hasn’t ever happened before, that workers have come together under the banner of Jesuit colleges and universities,” said Sarah Kizuk, a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at Marquette University in Wisconsin, and one of the petition organizers. “This is the first time that workers are coming together to advocate for the [importance] and uniqueness of Jesuit education and the fundamentals of a liberal arts pedagogy that are built into our institutions.”

Jesuit colleges generally have strong commitments to liberal arts education and social justice, values that the petition organizers see as being threatened. The petition cites the Jesuit concept of cura personalis, or care for the whole person.

“This principle implies a commitment to the nurturing and care of the spirit, intellect and body of the students and workers who make up these great institutions,” the petition states. “Measures that eliminate or undermine disciplines core to the liberal arts and that fire workers in the midst of a global pandemic imply a commitment to the bottom line, not to the people that make up our colleges and universities.”

The Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities declined to comment on the substance of the petition.

“AJCU acknowledges the concerns of the faculty who have initiated the Anti-Austerity Coalition for Jesuit higher education, but are unable to comment on personnel issues at individual institutions,” the association said in a brief statement to Inside Higher Ed.

The petition lists a number of actions underway at Jesuit universities, such as cuts to staff and faculty positions, including tenured faculty; efforts to weaken tenure protections; furloughs or pay reductions for staff; cuts to retirement benefits; and cuts aimed at humanities and social science disciplines “that form the core of Jesuit education.”

Petition organizers cited several specific examples, including recent layoffs of staff and faculty, including tenured faculty, and undergraduate program cuts at Canisius College in New York; deep cuts to staff and faculty positions under consideration at Marquette; and proposed changes to the Faculty Handbook at John Carroll University in Ohio, which American Association of University Professors chapter president Simon Fitzpatrick argues would constitute a “de facto elimination” of tenure protections. AAUP standards hold that tenured appointments can only be terminated for cause “or under extraordinary circumstances because of financial exigency.” The proposed changes would introduce a new, less drastic category of financial stress -- “budgetary hardship” -- that administrators could claim in order to lay off tenured faculty.

Some Jesuit colleges are facing significant financial stresses that are being exacerbated by the pandemic: Marquette, for example, is forecasting a $45 million financial shortfall over the next fiscal year.

“We are continuing to evaluate and discern our next steps as we plan for a successful future, which includes the important process of engaging our university community,” a Marquette spokesman said. “Universitywide collaboration, innovation and Ignatian discernment are vital to Marquette’s successful future and the ability to sustain our mission of a commitment to academic and research excellence, and continue to be a leader in Catholic, Jesuit education.” ("Ignatian" is a reference to St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order.)

Prasad Venugopal, an associate professor of physics at the University of Detroit Mercy, said petition organizers recognize colleges are experiencing significant financial stresses.

“I know that faculty and staff and students who are a part of this coalition will be accused of not really paying attention, that we’re in the middle of multiple crises -- underenrollment, demographic [shifts], the pandemic,” he said. “The petition recognizes that but asks that the way we work through these crises is through the values of a Jesuit education.”

Venugopal emphasized the need for transparency and shared governance.

“There needs to be a commitment to preservation of jobs, and in particular to ask what is the impact of job cuts and salary cuts,” he said.

Tanya Loughead, the AAUP president and a professor of philosophy at Canisius College, said she hopes the alliance puts new pressure on Jesuit colleges to protect their educational missions.

"The No. 1 thing that we hope to come out of this alliance is administrators and boards of trustees at Jesuit schools -- but not only Jesuit schools but at universities across the nation -- start to see that workers and students and faculty are talking to one another, and we don’t like what they’re doing," she said. "We will stand up for our universities."

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