Higher education in the United States is experiencing a crisis in academic governance. Many institutions faced dire challenges in the 2020–21 academic year; for some, the pandemic exacerbated long-festering conditions. At other institutions, governing boards and administrations opportunistically exploited the pandemic. They used it as an excuse to put aside established academic governance processes and unilaterally close programs and lay off faculty members.
That’s the conclusion of a report we are releasing today: Special Report: COVID-19 and Academic Governance.
Visit the AAUP Facebook Page today at 12 ET to watch a brief Facebook Live presentation on the report.
It’s the report of an investigation, which we chaired, focusing on eight institutions: Canisius College (NY), Illinois Wesleyan University, Keuka College (NY), Marian University (WI), Medaille College (NY), National University (CA), University of Akron, and Wittenberg University (OH). But as soon as news of this investigation was released, faculty members from a wide range of institutions contacted the AAUP’s staff with accounts of similar developments on their campuses, and news reports continued to pour in about the financial effects of the pandemic on other institutions. The crisis is widespread, and our report should be understood as illustrative rather than exhaustive.
What We Found
- Faculty members faced the dilemma of either participating in flawed ad hoc governance processes or refusing on principle to participate at all.
- Governing boards or administrations made sudden, unilateral decisions to set aside institutional regulations.
- Sudden decisions to revise faculty handbooks unilaterally may be even more corrosive, since these revisions will become permanent aspects of governance.
- Force majeure-type clauses in collective bargaining agreements, faculty handbooks, and faculty contracts or letters of appointment provide administrations with a nuclear option that nullifies all the other financial exigency‒related provisions of those documents.
- At most of the institutions under investigation, restoring or maintaining financial health was the board and administration’s rationale—yet financial exigency was not declared at any of the eight.
- Tenure—and, thus, academic freedom—has faced a frontal assault at these institutions and many others in the wake of the pandemic.
- The policies and procedures at the investigated institutions were generally adequate, yet boards and administrations chose to ignore, revise, or circumvent them.
- AAUP policies and regulations regarding institutional governance, financial exigency, academic freedom and tenure, and academic due process remain broad and flexible enough to accommodate even the inconceivable disaster.
- This has been a watershed moment. 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 question is whether robust shared governance will survive those challenges.
What We Must Do
The best way to protect and preserve shared governance is through concerted efforts by your chapter on your campus. This work is not quick or easy, but it can be effective, and the consequences of not doing it are dire.
- 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 as articulated in the Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities that was jointly formulated in 1966 by the AAUP, the American Council on Education, and the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges.
- Faculty members should be vigilant about changes to handbooks that may change the character of academic employment at their institutions irrevocably.
- Faculty should steadfastly oppose the inclusion of force majeure clauses in collective bargaining agreements, faculty contracts and letters of appointment, and faculty handbooks.
- Faculty should be centrally involved in deliberations about exigency; they should also object to any attempt to introduce new categories of financial crisis that would circumvent AAUP-supported standards on financial exigency.
That’s the conclusion of the special report we are releasing today: COVID-19 and Academic Governance.
Michael Bérubé, Pennsylvania State University
Michael DeCesare, Merrimack College; chair of the AAUP’s Committee on College and University Governance