Today, hundreds of thousands of faculty members face financial uncertainty. They were promised student loan forgiveness in exchange for years of public service. But after rising to the moment and transforming their teaching methods during a global pandemic, faculty have been left behind.
That is why the AAUP is partnering with the Student Borrower Protection Center and the American Federation of Teachers to host a webinar highlighting what faculty need to know about managing student loans, how to access the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program, and how to get involved in a campaign to restore the promise of PSLF. Register here.
The webinar will feature first-hand testimony from faculty about their struggles with student debt, and the opportunity for participants to ask questions about their student loans. Join us on Tuesday, September 21, from 4:00-5:00pm EST, and please amplify in your networks!
Even if you cannot attend the webinar, you can share your story as a public comment. Now, for the first time ever, the US Department of Education is asking faculty, especially those who work part-time or on a contingent contract, to share their stories about public service and debt forgiveness. Working part-time on short-term contracts, often at multiple institutions, compounds the pervasive issues in student loan servicing.
This is our chance to make the case directly to President Biden that the PSLF program is broken and that only sweeping action to deliver debt relief can right a decade of wrongs by the student loan industry—wrongs that have particularly hurt contingent faculty. We need more of our colleagues to speak up about the issues faced by contingent faculty, so that the Department of Education can prioritize fixing them.
Thanks for sharing your story—and I hope to see you on Tuesday!
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.
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.
I write to you today, as voter registration deadlines fast approach, with an urgent call to action. These are extraordinary times and much is at stake. Since its founding in 1915, the AAUP has never endorsed a candidate for office or engaged in partisan political activity. What the AAUP has done in its one hundred- and five-year history is defend and protect academic freedom, promote shared governance, and advocate for the economic security of individuals who teach and research in higher education. These are interconnected necessities to ensure that higher education serves the common good. Most of the time, the AAUP has responded to attacks on higher education exceptionally well, and sometimes we have not lived up to our mission and our founding principles. Now, we find ourselves in a moment to which we must respond with clarity and strength.
There is no downtime in the 24/7 news cycle. There is a constant and yet depressingly unpredictable stream of fresh outrages to process. Our national leadership’s response to the global pandemic is incompetent, at best, and borders on malevolent. We have the highest number of deaths by far of any country. As I write, our death toll is over two hundred thousand, a number which, based on modeling of the pace of spread in March 2020, was suggested as the total number of deaths we would have from the virus, and there is no end in sight. The resulting hit to the economy and the real-world implications for people who are unemployed or underemployed and for small businesses is no less than devastating. As a nation, we may—at long last—be willing to begin to reckon with systemic and institutional racism, but this is likely only due to the fact that instances of brutality and racism, long hidden, are now being captured on video and broadcast. It’s not possible to look away anymore.
Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell announced that he would have the Senate vote on President Donald Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court before some people had heard that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had passed away. At least he saved us the effort of having to speculate if he would respect the precedent he put into place during the Merrick Garland confirmation fiasco. “Of course he wouldn’t. What did you expect?” is a very common response I hear from my cynical friends and colleagues. I view that kind of cynicism as cognitive protection, a form of self-care that is completely understandable. It’s a lot more painful to acknowledge that Mitch McConnell views you and all of your fellow citizens as chumps, but that acknowledgement may help us to see this moment with clarity, and respond with the needed action and strength.
Just days after Donald Trump’s election took many of us by surprise in 2016, the AAUP’s national leadership issued a statement in which they suggested that a Donald Trump presidency might be “the greatest threat to academic freedom since the McCarthy period.” They supported this suggestion with concrete examples from Trump’s campaign and predicted that a Trump presidency could bring a chilling effect on the rights of students and faculty members to speak out, make it difficult for universities to attract students and scholars from other countries and to engage in the international exchange of ideas, and attempt to cripple public employee unions by overturning their established right to collect fees from the nonmembers they must serve.
Despite the fact that every one of their predictions came true, I would argue that my colleagues got things wrong in that they seriously underestimated how bad things could get. Anti-intellectualism, long a thriving subculture in the US, is now the currency of our leaders. Temperatures will get cooler and the coronavirus will just disappear, according to the president. Reasoned arguments, logic, science, evidence-based conclusions, data-driven strategies, the currency of the academy, are all for chumps. In this bizarro world, it’s hard to know what’s real, and that’s the administration’s goal.
The attacks on education by the government are particularly egregious. Certainly, partisan controversy regarding the teaching of US history is nothing new, but the level of government pushback directly aimed at the Pulitzer Prize winning 1619 Project, complete with the announcement by President Trump of a competing “1776 Commission” to “promote patriotic education” and a grant supporting “the development of a pro-American curriculum that celebrates the truth about our nation’s great history” is an outrageous government intrusion into curricular matters. Trump’s recent attack on critical race theory is a fresh attack on expert knowledge and an inappropriate intrusion of politics into scholarship which puts a bulls-eye on the backs of researchers in this field. When, in a good faith effort to begin to address systemic racism at Princeton, university president Christopher Eisgruber acknowledged that racism is embedded in the university structures and history, Trump’s Department of Education initiated an investigation to determine if Princeton’s nondiscrimination and equal opportunity claims since 2013 may have been false as a result of its “admitted racism.” These are only the outrages that involve education, and all happened this month.
Let’s be clear that our problems did not begin with the current occupant of the White House. Our problems are the result of decades of the neoliberal agenda, privatizing what should be public systems and worsening income inequality. But they have been exacerbated by the Trump administration. AAUP president Rudy Fichtenbaum called it spot on when he wrote in early 2017:
The Trump presidency will be neoliberalism on steroids. The transformation of higher education into a highly stratified, for-profit business aimed at serving the interests of the wealthy and America’s corporations will accelerate under the new administration. The goal of creating an educated citizenry will be subordinated to the demands of wealthy and corporate interests, and academic freedom for faculty, students, and researchers will consequently be under attack.
All this was certainly evident in how universities have responded to the pandemic. Faculty had little or no say on how our institutions responded or on re-opening decisions, and administrations more often than not made decisions driven by finances and external political pressure over public health and the common good.
In this election, democracy as a concept is on the ballot. A well-functioning democracy requires respect for rules and standards, and respect for the rule of law. A vibrant democracy demands an educated citizenry and a free press. We need to vote for norms and standards, the rule of law, racial justice, social justice, and decision making with integrity based on reasoned arguments and expert knowledge. We need to vote for a living wage, for access to health care, for access to affordable high quality public higher education as a common good. To be silent now is to be complicit.
Vote, volunteer, organize. Find allies and build a movement for change. Join the AAUP, if you’re not already a member. Honor Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg by following the advice she gave to her audience when she received the Radcliffe Medal at Harvard University in 2015, “Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.”
The American Association of University Professors has authorized an investigation of the crisis in academic governance that has occurred in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, with a focus on seven institutions: Canisius College, Illinois Wesleyan University, Keuka College, Marian University, Medaille College, National University, and Wittenberg University. Given the comprehensive nature of the undertaking, the investigating committee may decide to discuss relevant situations at additional institutions. The report, to be released in early 2021, will reach findings on whether there have been departures from AAUP-supported principles and standards of academic governance, as set forth in the Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities and derivative AAUP policy documents, but it may explore other issues as well, such as the effects of unilaterally imposed mass layoffs on academic freedom and tenure, the enrollment and financial challenges facing many institutions, and the impact of these challenges on higher education, especially the humanities and liberal arts.
Since March, the AAUP has received numerous complaints from faculty members detailing unilateral actions taken by their governing boards and administrations to dictate how courses are taught, to suspend key institutional regulations, to reduce and close departments and majors, to compel faculty members to teach in person, and to lay off long-serving faculty members. In most cases, the stated basis for the actions was the need to deal with pandemic-related financial shortfalls.
This investigation will be unique in the annals of the AAUP. The AAUP conducted another omnibus investigation in 2006 of mass terminations at five New Orleans universities following Hurricane Katrina, and in 1956 the Association issued a celebrated report, Academic Freedom and Tenure in the Quest for National Security, reviewing the attacks on academic freedom that had occurred at eighteen institutions during the McCarthy era. These investigations and reports, however, dealt with issues of academic freedom and tenure, not with issues of academic governance.
AAUP governance investigations are conducted under the aegis of the Association’s standing Committee on College and University Governance by AAUP members who have had no previous involvement in the cases under investigation. The investigating committee is charged with independently determining the relevant facts and the positions of the principal parties before reaching its findings. The committee’s draft report, if approved for publication by the parent committee, is distributed to the administration and the relevant faculty bodies for comment and correction of fact. The AAUP takes these comments into account when preparing the final report.
The investigating committee is co-chaired by Michael Bérubé of Pennsylvania State University and Michael DeCesare of Merrimack College, chair of the AAUP’s Committee on College and University Governance. Additional members are Ruben J. Garcia, of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas; Pippa Holloway of the University of Richmond; Susan Jarosi of Hamilton College; and Henry Reichman, of California State University, East Bay, chair of the AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure.
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.”
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.