We are heading into a new academic year in turbulent times. The coronavirus global pandemic has drastically altered our lives, our jobs, and the lives of our students and our staff colleagues, with no end in sight. The murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, among others, and now Jacob Blake fighting for his life in Wisconsin, have put systemic institutionalized racism in the United States into stark relief.
In the past few weeks, we have seen a number of colleges and universities move ahead with reopening in person for the fall semester. Rather than relying on scientific expertise regarding the pandemic and the likelihood of transmission in a residential campus environment and its surrounding community, administrations and boards of trustees have engaged in magical thinking. Few institutions appear to be doing enough testing, and, somehow, they expect all students to follow strict rules at all times. Reopening decisions are being driven by the bottom line instead of the health and safety of students, faculty, staff, and all campus workers.
The outcomes from these decisions and the lack of planning behind these decisions was predictable: a spike in cases on campus; the difficulty in feeding and housing students who must quarantine; the deficiency in mitigating risks for others due to a lack of testing and robust contact tracing; and a hasty retreat to remote learning, sending potentially infected students back to their families and communities. For most administrations and boards, the top priority is the bottom line. They continue to embrace the corporate model and to further a decades-long assault on higher education as a common good.
Disturbing instances of blatant police violence against and harassment of Black people, including on our campuses, continues. Just within the last few weeks, a Black faculty member at Santa Clara University reported that campus police knocked on her door and demanded proof that she lives in her own house, after harassing her brother as he worked on a laptop outside.
The problems we face are serious and will not be easily resolved. Some good news is that faculty are mobilizing across ranks and with other academic workers and students to forward antiracist activism and to ensure that hastily implemented austerity measures do not become the new normal. Here are just a few examples of faculty activism that are making me optimistic this Labor Day week:
- After a long, intensive campaign by a broad coalition of faculty, students, staff, and alumni at Portland State University, the administration has agreed to disarm campus police.
- The national AAUP has convened a working group to draft a report on the role of police on campus, including whether it is appropriate for institutions of higher education to have their own police forces; how systemic racism affects campus policing; changes needed to ensure that campuses are safe and welcoming for diverse peoples, especially Black, indigenous and other peoples of color; and how AAUP chapters and members can best work in solidarity with student groups, community social justice organizations, and unions on this issue.
- Our faculty union at Rutgers University has been working closely with a coalition of other campus unions to center racial justice and to ensure health and safety and to negotiate with the administration on proposed cuts. “This is not something that naturally occurred,” one chapter leader told the Chronicle of Higher Education. “It’s a big investment and big strategic change to decide to build power together.”
- The George Mason University AAUP chapter brought to light the fact that several Virginia universities entered into no-bid contracts with a company to provide students with COVID-19 tests that are not approved for that use.
- New memberships in the AAUP are up this summer, signaling a new wave of campus activism. At our August meeting, the AAUP Council authorized charters for twenty-five new or reactivated AAUP chapters.
This Labor Day week, I ask you to join me and other AAUP members in recommitting to doing the hard work of ensuring that higher education is a public good available to all in this country. You can share our Labor Day graphic to help spread the message that solidarity will see us through.
P.S. And remember to check out the resources and information on our racial justice and coronavirus pages.