Tell President Biden: Cancel student debt

After months of delays, it’s official. The federal government plans to resume loan repayment for federal student borrowers at the beginning of May—though the current pause on repayment is likely one of the reasons we’re seeing any economic recovery at all. Over the past two years of the pandemic, salary freezes, furloughs, and contract nonrenewals have hurt the faculty and staff who make our colleges run. With the latest wave of COVID-19 cases, it’s clear that further action is needed to protect higher ed workers and the broader economy.

Tell President Biden: We need action on the student debt crisis.

The mammoth Build Back Better Act’s investments in social programs appears to be on ice indefinitely, threatening President Biden’s ability to fulfill the vision he laid out on the campaign trail. But Biden still can deliver on the promises that he made to struggling student loan borrowers, not just by further delaying payments, but by canceling all student debt.

The Department of Education has delivered important reforms this year to help struggling borrowers, in particular those defrauded by for-profit colleges and those with permanent disabilities. Of particular note, the department unveiled a special waiver period to address problems with the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program (we’ll be sharing more resources for AAUP members soon).

But the president hasn’t acted on his power to cancel or reduce federal student loan balances. Not only is the power of forgiveness confirmed by lawyers at the Department of Education and external legal organizations, but his predecessor already used it to pause student loan repayment.

There’s no reason to wait any longer. Given the ongoing impacts of the pandemic, borrowers deserve certainty on the question of debt cancellation.Can you tell President Biden to cancel student debt?

Thank you for taking action.

In solidarity,
Kaitlyn Vitez, AAUP Government Relations

University of Georgia System Dismantling Academic Tenure?

In an unprecedented action, the board of regents of the University System of Georgia (USG) in October voted to adopt changes to its post-tenure review policy that make it possible to fire tenured faculty without a dismissal hearing, a clear attack on academic freedom and tenure. Today the AAUP released a report on the case.

The report, Academic Freedom and Tenure: University System of Georgia, outlines the USG administration and board of regents’ flagrant violation of long-established standards on tenure. The new USG policy effectively abolishes tenure in Georgia’s public colleges and universities by allowing a system institution to dismiss a tenured professor for failing to remediate deficiencies identified through post-tenure evaluation without affording a hearing before a faculty body in which the administration demonstrates cause for dismissal. Without this academic due process, tenure does not exist.

The report also finds flagrant violations of AAUP standards of academic governance. Under those standards, the USG faculty should have played a primary role in developing any changes to the system’s post-tenure review policy. Instead, the USG administration and governing board initiated, pushed through, and imposed a new faculty evaluation policy without meaningfully involving the faculty and over the strong objections voiced by the system’s critical faculty governance bodies.

In a series of letters between Acting Chancellor Teresa MacCartney and the AAUP, MacCartney, presumably speaking for the regents, takes the position that tenure in the University System of Georgia has survived the regents’ revisions to the post-tenure review policy. But she does so by disregarding the generally accepted understanding of academic tenure, which cannot be separated from academic due process. Absent academic due process, the report states, tenure in the USG survives in name only.

At its next meeting, the AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure will formulate a recommendation on censure based on the findings in this report. This recommendation will go to the AAUP’s governing Council, which will vote on whether to add the USG to the Association’s list of censured administrations. Censure, however, is not inevitable. As always, the AAUP would welcome a resolution that honors its recommended principles and standards. In this case, such a resolution would entail the restoration of the due-process protections of tenure to the USG post-tenure review policy.

Here’s the link to the report again. We will keep you updated as the situation develops.

In solidarity,
Charles Toombs, Chair, AAUP Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure
Professor of Africana Studies, San Diego State University

Next steps to secure a New Deal

New Deal for Higher Ed.

In the coming days, the US House of Representatives plans to vote on a pared-down version of the Build Back Better Act, which carries a host of critically needed investments in universal preschool, infrastructure, and climate resiliency—but at the last minute in negotiations, despite the efforts and input of so many of our members, most of the new investments in higher education have been cut from the legislation.

It goes without saying that we are disappointed in these developments. The Build Back Better Act funds essential financial aid programs, but fails to deliver on the reforms we need. The provisions in the original Build Back Better Act would have been a fundamental and transformative reset to how public higher education is funded. For decades, and particularly during the Great Recession, we’ve watched as states slashed funding to colleges and universities. Administrators doubled down on austerity plans, chased corporate sponsorship and Wall Street financing, and relied ever more on underpaid contingent workers to keep campuses running. Meanwhile, federal student aid failed to keep pace with rising tuition costs. All these trends are unsustainable, and the pandemic only served to accelerate them. We launched the effort to secure a New Deal for Higher Education to ensure stable and sustainable investment in our institutions and their workers, and to serve the public good.

We were enthusiastic and supportive of the original plan for a federal-state partnership, intended to reverse the trends of disinvestment. In this new version of the Build Back Better Act, we’re pleased to see a significant increase in Pell Grants, new investments at minority-serving institutions, and a new competitive grant program to improve student retention and completion rates, but we also know that these programs will send more money into a broken financial aid system in desperate need of reform. We will be working toward getting Congress to move a reformed funding model forward in some fashion in the coming years. If you took action on this critical bill, by sending a letter to your member of Congress, calling them, or even meeting with their staff, thank you for your activism.

Right now, with the 2022 elections on the horizon, we know what we need to do: build consensus among current and future lawmakers on the need for reforms to promote shared governance and address the contingency crisis, in addition to more funding for our institutions and students. We need to keep organizing and bringing our colleagues into this movement to fundamentally change higher education.  

This is just the beginning and we will continue fighting as hard as we can for a New Deal for Higher Education. Now is the time to join us for the next stages of this ambitious campaign, including putting pressure on President Biden to offer debt relief to student loan borrowers. Sign up for our New Deal list now to be in the loop on next steps.

In solidarity,
Irene Mulvey, AAUP President

Violations of Academic Freedom at the University of Florida

The AAUP condemns in the strongest possible terms the decision by the University of Florida to deny permission to three University of Florida (UF) faculty members to provide expert testimony in a major voting rights case challenging Florida Senate Bill 90.

UF’s infringement of the academic freedom rights of professors Sharon Austin, Dan Smith, and Michael McDonald sets a dangerous precedent by allowing partisan politics to impede on the right and duty of faculty to share expertise for the public good. Faculty members are routinely called upon to provide expert testimony on matters of all kinds. In fact, all three of the UF faculty members who were denied permission to assist the plaintiffs have provided expert testimony in lawsuits in the past. This makes last week’s rulings by the university all the more dubious.

The written denials sent from assistant vice president Gary Wimsett justified the denial because the “activities are adverse to [the university’s] interests.” This “justification” is inconsistent with the university’s mission “to share the benefits of its research and knowledge for the public good.” The hypocrisy is breathtaking. These decisions reek of inappropriate political interference and are completely indefensible.

When a politician attempts to use the power and pressure of the state to silence scholars with expertise on any matter of public concern, it is incumbent upon the university administration to stand firm, insist on institutional autonomy and push back with the strongest possible defense of academic freedom. Universities exist to foster the independent search for knowledge and truth, and to disseminate this in support of the public good. When the university twists itself to serve the partisan interests of a politician, as appears to be the case here, the university has abandoned its mission, undermining any claim to be working in support of the common good.

UF’s decision constitutes an egregious violation of faculty members’ academic freedom and is almost certainly a violation of their free speech rights as citizens. The AAUP stands in solidarity with these scholars in accordance with our mission statement to advance academic freedom in American colleges and universities. We affirm their right to provide expert testimony and will provide whatever assistance we can to support them in their efforts.

You can find the statement on the AAUP website here.

In solidarity,
Irene Mulvey, AAUP President

Lawsuit Challenges Classroom Censorship

Yesterday, a group of plaintiffs including the University of Oklahoma chapter of the AAUP filed a lawsuit challenging an Oklahoma law, known as HB 1775, which severely restricts faculty at public universities and K–12 public schools in the state from teaching and talking about race and gender in the classroom.

Oklahoma is one of eight states that have passed similar legislation seeking to suppress discussion about race and gender in the classroom. This is the first federal lawsuit facially challenging one of these statewide bans—that is, arguing that the law is unconstitutional as it is written, not only as it has been applied. The lawsuit argues that HB 1775 chills students’ and educators’ First Amendment right to learn and talk about these issues, and also prevents students from having an open and complete dialogue about American history.

The enactment of HB 1775 has already harmed teachers and students. In public universities, professors fear sanctions for continuing to teach material related to race, gender, and sexual orientation, and some professors have restructured their pedagogy to avoid such topics. Oklahoma school districts have instructed teachers not to use terms including “diversity” and “white privilege” in their classrooms, and have removed important works of literature such as To Kill a Mockingbird and Raisin in the Sun from a list of “anchor texts.” Multiple Oklahoma public schools have also scaled back or eliminated diversity, equity, and inclusion trainings.

In the words of Michael Givel, president of the OU-AAUP chapter, the law “directly curtails academic freedom in public universities in Oklahoma. It has a chilling effect on academic freedom as it can and has purposely targeted Oklahoma public school teachers and administrators from imparting a complete history in our schools, free from censorship or discrimination. Curriculum decisions and what is taught in a college classroom for the promotion of a balanced education are unequivocally protected from outside political requirements and interference. University professors are not sock puppets for the biased ideological agendas of elected politicians.”

The groups are asking the court to declare the law unconstitutional under the First and Fourteenth Amendments and are urging the court to issue a preliminary injunction.

This lawsuit was filed in the United States District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma by the American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of Oklahoma, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and pro bono counsel Schulte Roth & Zabel LLP.

More information about the wave of bills seeking to suppress teaching about race can be found on the AAUP website here. More information about this lawsuit can be found on the ACLU’s website here.

In solidarity,
Risa Lieberwitz, AAUP General Counsel