Labor Day 2021 feels very different from Labor Days past. Even more, Labor Day 2021 feels very different from what many of us started looking forward to last spring, when we were rolling up our sleeves to get vaccinated. COVID-19 still represents a global public health crisis, the Delta variant is more contagious and more virulent, hospitals in many locations are full and turning patients away, more children are at risk of very serious illness or death, and there is no end in sight. It didn’t have to be this way.
The way to end the pandemic is with collective action. In some states, however, we see governors and legislatures doing exactly the opposite of what needs to be done: banning mask mandates indoors—effectively guaranteeing that the virus will continue to spread, will continue to sicken and kill people, and will have ample opportunity to mutate into another more deadly and more contagious variant against which our current vaccines may be less effective.
In far too many of our colleges and universities, instead of dealing with the reality of a more contagious variant and how that will spread through a population that is not fully vaccinated, we see magical thinking and plans being put into place as if the pandemic is effectively over. Colleges and universities are uniquely positioned to be places where the best science and the most effective requirements and guidelines—based on the expertise of public health faculty—should be put into place. Our institutions of higher education should be leading the way out of the pandemic. I am dismayed at the lack of leadership in many of our institutions and in mid-August called for administrations to do everything possible to ensure the highest level of health and safety, and to follow the guidance of public health experts to use every available tool to protect students, faculty, staff, and neighboring communities from further spread of COVID.
In today’s message, I want to go further and encourage AAUP members everywhere to use all legal and appropriate levers of accountability in order to make the workplaces safe. I am heartened by the spirit of solidarity I see nearly every day when faculty refuse to passively accept unsafe working conditions being imposed on a campus, but use their collective voice to object and to demand better. In addition to our call to administrators, we have many resources for faculty to consider as they organize to demand that public health be prioritized over the bottom line and the magical thinking behind a premature “return to the on-campus learning experience.” I hope these resources, which include AAUP’s special report on COVID-19 and Academic Governance, are useful to you as we organize, advocate and work together for a safe present and a strong future for higher education.
Let’s be clear: the fight for a safe working environment as we begin the new academic year is our fight since it is inextricably linked to genuine shared governance and collaborative decision making, and to academic freedom in the classroom and on campus. Faculty are the ones taking all the risks in our classrooms. It is outrageous for a faculty member to find herself in a position where she needs to consider the probability of bringing the virus home where it might be responsible for the death of a vulnerable family member. When the administration isn’t making the best decisions for the institution, it’s the faculty’s responsibility to stand up, speak out and do all they can to ensure that the core academic mission is carried out in the most effective way for the circumstances. As AAUP president, I thank you for your work in this regard. I am privileged to represent members of the AAUP as we work together during these very trying times.
Aside from the resources AAUP has put together to help faculty during the pandemic, our work continues on a number of other fronts:
Race and Higher Education: Under my leadership the AAUP is engaged in a multi-faceted long-term initiative to better understand the role of racism in higher education and within the AAUP. We will continue to update you as this work progresses. In particular, the AAUP staff has developed a series of resources to address legislative interference, typically at the state level, in the teaching of the role of racism in US history and society.
The New Deal for Higher Education: As part of our focus on racial justice and social justice we remain committed to fighting for a New Deal for Higher Education. The AAUP continues to press for reform of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. With the impending passage of the American Families Plan, we are now embarking on a campaign to double Pell Grants, secure tuition-free community college, and give grants to four-year institutions to quickly and effectively bring an affordable, high-quality education within reach of all students. Stay tuned for more coming this fall.
For those seeking useful data to organize and advocate for faculty, I urge you to look at two recent major reports by the AAUP. This year’s edition of the always highly anticipated Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession does not disappoint. The report examines long-standing economic crises in higher education, declining fiscal support, overreliance on contingent faculty, growth of administrations, and spiraling institutional debt, while also delving into some of the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. The AAUP Research Department also published a second report on data collected from the 2021 AAUP Shared Governance Survey, the first national survey on shared governance since 2001.
I encourage you to make the most of the AAUP as a resource in these trying and perilous times, and let us know how we can help you. We stand united.
Irene Mulvey, AAUP President