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Some institutions took the COVID-19 crisis as an “opportunity to turbocharge the corporate model,” says a new report from the American Association of University Professors. Without declaring financial exigency, they laid off faculty members “as expeditiously as if colleges and universities were businesses whose CEOs suddenly decided to stop making widgets or shut down the steelworks.”

This phenomenon isn’t unfamiliar to the AAUP. The organization made similar observations about certain New Orleans-area institutions following the disaster that was Hurricane Katrina. So much so that the AAUP warned early on in the pandemic that COVID-19 could erode shared governance, via administrations flouting their own institutional policies.

More than a year after that warning, and following an investigation into what the AAUP interpreted as some of the biggest violations of faculty rights during COVID-19, the AAUP today published its resultant report. Beyond condemning eight separate institutions -- a list that that AAUP says is illustrative, not exhaustive -- for their actions over the last year, the document concludes that this is a “watershed moment.”

In that sense, now is the beginning of a new era for higher education, not the end of particularly difficult chapter, according to the AAUP. And faculty members must be vigilant.

Professors ‘Should Absolutely Be More Alert’

“There is no question that many colleges and universities are in financial distress, and many more will face daunting challenges in the next decade,” the report says. “The question is whether robust shared governance will survive those challenges. For that to happen, governing boards, administrations and faculties must make a conscious, concerted, and sustained effort to ensure that all parties are conversant with, and cultivate respect for, the norms of shared governance.”

Michael DeCesare, professor of sociology and co-chair of the AAUP committee that led the investigation, said Tuesday that “adverse personnel actions will, unfortunately, continue to be taken unilaterally by administrations and boards against faculty members even after we get past the pandemic,” if less frequently than in the past year.

In response, he said, “faculty members should absolutely be more alert to challenges not only to tenure at their institutions, but to academic freedom and norms of academic governance and due process.”

Quoting the report, DeCesare recommended that professors insist on meaningful involvement in major budgetary decisions, closely monitoring proposed changes to faculty handbooks, rejecting force majeure-type provisions in collective bargaining agreements and other documents that relate to the faculty, and “vigorously objecting to any attempt to introduce new categories of financial crisis that would circumvent AAUP-supported standards on financial exigency.” According to widely followed AAUP-backed principles (or at least they were widely followed prior to the pandemic), institutions may only lay off tenured faculty members for purely financial reasons in cases of true financial exigency.

Most institutions mentioned in the report responded to requests for comment, insisting that the actions they took over the last year were all in the best interest of their respective institutions, particularly their institutions’ finances.

The AAUP report says that the association recognizes that the “financial impact of the pandemic presented a sudden and unforeseeable challenge at most institutions.” Yet at others, the report says, “it exacerbated conditions that had been festering long before COVID-19” and led to “draconian measures.”

In New York State

Three of the eight colleges that the AAUP investigated are in New York State. At Canisius College, which laid off 20-some professors, most of them tenured, this year, the AAUP found that administrators “neither declared financial exigency and followed the requisite procedures nor undertook a deliberative, faculty-led process of academic restructuring based on educational premises.” Instead, the AAUP said, Canisius “embarked on a hasty course of cuts and changes hoping for cost savings and improved enrollment, retention and graduation rates.”

While some observers might consider such a strategy “entirely reasonable,” the AAUP found, a declaration of financial exigency “acknowledges an extremely dire financial situation.” Admission of financial distress could arguably worsen a bad financial situation, discouraging potential students from applying, the report says, but in staking out a “nonexistent middle ground,” Canisius “bypassed faculty governance and mired the institution in division at a time when unity was critical.” The administration also “disregarded the expertise of the faculty when most needed, ignoring established systems of evaluation and making ad hoc changes to the undergraduate curriculum based on hope rather than on an evaluative process,” according to the report.

At Keuka College, the AAUP found that the governing board and administration unilaterally suspended critical portions of the Faculty Handbook, closed academic programs and departments, and terminated faculty appointments, all in violation of the principles of academic governance set forth in the AAUP’s joint "Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities."

The committee further found that Keuka’s governing board and administration took such actions without declaring financial exigency or affording academic due process to tenured faculty members, contravening the AAUP’s 1940 "Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure." Ultimately, the AAUP says, Keuka “damaged, if not destroyed, the college’s tenure system and the academic freedom it protects.”

Regarding Medaille College, the investigation found that the administration and governing board violated the principles of shared governance by suspending the Faculty Handbook and imposing a new one, discontinuing programs and eliminating faculty positions without meaningfully involving the faculty. The investigating committee also found that Medaille violated the provisions of the AAUP's 1940 statement by "effectively abolishing tenure at the institution."

Colleges Elsewhere

At Illinois Wesleyan, the AAUP found that the administration and governing board closed four academic programs and terminated nine tenured faculty appointments in ways that deviated from AAUP-supported principles. The university didn’t engage in “adequate communication” regarding the possibility that an academic program review might result in terminations of tenured appointments, and it failed to honor existing provisions in the Faculty Handbook about the faculty’s “primary responsibility” for curricular decision making, the AAUP said. Illinois Wesleyan also failed to make “every effort” to find another suitable position within the institution for a displaced faculty member.

At Marian University in Wisconsin, which the AAUP describes as a “university that has experienced financial problems for some time,” administrators suddenly suspended its normal processes and ignored “any obligations to observe AAUP-supported governance standards to facilitate making quick personnel changes, including appointment terminations.” The AAUP found that many pandemic-era changes had been considered previously and that the crisis provided an “alternative explanation” for “what may have been long-standing goals of cost-cutting, achieving ‘lean operations,’ and reducing student choices -- in short, hastening the arrival of the corporatized university.”

AAUP-supported standards of shared governance and academic freedom, meanwhile, “serve different ends than those of the corporate university: improving educational quality by bringing professional expertise to bear on curricular decision-making and by protecting academic freedom though academic due process and tenure,” the committee wrote.

In a case featuring a “trinity of egregious violations of widely accepted governance standards,” the AAUP found that National University in California abrogated faculty contracts, suspended its own faculty policies and unilaterally replaced an elected faculty senate with a university senate. Now, the AAUP said, traditional academic governance at the university “has been plunged into an abysmal condition.” Professors there previously referred to what was happening an "anti-faculty coup."

At the University of Akron in Ohio, the investigating committee said, the administration invoked the force majeure provision of the faculty contract and terminated appointments for scores of full-time faculty members, many of whom had tenure, and “disregarded AAUP-recommended standards designed to ensure meaningful faculty participation in academic decision-making and to safeguard academic freedom and tenure under financially exigent circumstances.”

Regarding Wittenberg University, also in Ohio, the AAUP found that it began an academic program review process that “circumvented established faculty governance policies and procedures; suspended unspecified sections of the faculty manual that would have interfered with their plans to close programs and eliminate faculty appointments; and discontinued eight programs and terminated two tenured appointments without meaningful faculty involvement and in disregard of widely accepted academic standards.” These are “unilateral actions with devastating consequences for academic governance at the institution,” according to the committee.

Institutions Respond

Keuka in a statement denied that its adverse personnel actions were “unilateral,” as alleged in the AAUP report, saying it held town halls and other events to discuss the changes. The college planned for a 10 to 25 percent decline in enrollment revenue going into fall 2020 as a result of the pandemic, it said, and the AAUP was wrong to assert that this “did not come to pass.” Keuka said it in fact experienced a 24 percent decline in enrollment revenue between fiscal years 2020 and 2021, and the college, “which is dependent upon tuition, room, and board,” was only able to navigate that drop through the cuts.

The AAUP “appears to be either unable or unwilling to accept the fact that difficult measures, which included elimination of positions held by tenured faculty members, allowed Keuka College -- and many other institutions across the U.S. -- to achieve the financial position necessary to successfully navigate the pandemic’s impacts,” Keuka said.

Medaille said it would not be responding publicly to the AAUP’s report.

S. Georgia Nugent, president of Illinois Wesleyan, said in a statement, “Notwithstanding the AAUP’s obvious lack of impartiality, the university cooperated fully with the investigation process. The university strongly disagrees with the AAUP’s investigative findings. The university adhered to the guidelines of the AAUP throughout last year’s academic program review process. We remain committed to continuing collaborative efforts with our university community to bring new vitality to the future of liberal arts education at Illinois Wesleyan.”

Michelle Majewski, president of Marian in Wisconsin, said she was “disappointed” in the report, which “attempts to undercut the rationale behind our decision to eliminate nine programs by emphasizing the lack of data presented to them, and those whose positions were cut, rather than acknowledge that it would be unreasonable and inappropriate for us to disseminate that information to anyone, while also ignoring the extraordinary circumstances brought on by the pandemic that forced the decision to be made.”

David W. Andrews, president of National, said that the AAUP presented “an incomplete version of events -- and inaccurately reconstructs collaborative decisions that have occurred over the course of many years, often with extensive faculty participation, feedback and notification.” The changes discussed in the report are “part of our long-running five-year strategic plan, which has been approved by our Board of Trustees.”

Gary L. Miller, president of the University of Akron, said in a statement that the faculty there, working with the administration and “guided by a bargaining agreement approved by all parties, have navigated the financial, educational and health crisis of the pandemic with extraordinary courage and creativity.” Miller added, “We hope the national AAUP will respect and honor the decisions their local members made in responding to the important issues of our time.”

‘A Crisis in Academic Governance’

Mary Rose Kubal, president of the AAUP’s New York State Conference and an associate professor of political science at St. Bonaventure University in New York, is among a group of New York-based professors who will hold a news conference on the report today. Asked why three of the eight colleges highlighted are in New York, Kubal said it’s possibly because there are so many small, private colleges in that state. Institutions with that profile were “financially challenged long before the COVID-19 crisis,” she said, “and because they are tuition driven and rely on income from room and board, they took quite a hit during COVID-19, with students off campus.”

Faculty members at private institutions are also very limited in their ability to organize, she added. And “without a contract it is easier for administrations to violate provisions in faculty handbooks.” At the same time, she said, faculty members within the state also tend to have connections to the AAUP, allowing the organization to respond to their reports of tenure and governance violations.

As for how much COVID-19 has eroded faculty rights, Kubal said tenure in particular has been “gradually eroded over the past three decades or more” and that the pandemic “is just a convenient excuse for administrations to take measures to decrease or eliminate tenure on their campuses. This is quintessential ‘disaster capitalism,’” she added, quoting the AAUP report.

Kubal said she has no doubt that violations of shared governance, tenure and even academic freedom will continue post-pandemic. Yet she said that professors are increasingly organizing to defend these “long-held and vital principles.” Kubal also argued that campuses where shared governance is working and where tenure is respected are weathering this emerging new normal “better than those where these principles break down.”

Hopefully, she said, “administrations and governing boards will come around to the fact that shared governance when done right creates healthy institutions that can best serve our students and communities.”

The AAUP’s report says that the most obvious connection between the institutions studied is “years of preexisting financial difficulties caused primarily by stagnant or declining enrollments at small private institutions coupled with, at public institutions, ever-lower levels of state funding.” But even in the face of these challenges, and despite the institutions’ rationales for doing what they did during COVID-19, AAUP-supported policies about shared governance did not fail. Instead, in most of these examples, those policies “were never given a chance to demonstrate their efficacy, either because they did not exist in institutional regulations or, more commonly, because they were unilaterally abandoned by the administration and governing board.”

The last year represents a “crisis in academic governance,” the report concludes. “The COVID-19 pandemic has presented the most serious challenges to academic governance in in the last 50 years.”

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