Austerity Is Not a Jesuit Value

Organizing to defend the educational mission.
By Gerry Canavan, Nathan Ellstrand, Samuel Harshner, Samantha Iyer, Maggie Levantovskaya, Tanya Loughead, Dianna Taylor, and Prasad Venugopal

We, as organizers in the Jesuit Higher Education Labor Coalition, are concerned by the rash of austerity-driven layoffs, firings, and program eliminations now occurring or under consideration at Jesuit colleges and universities across the United States. These measures are particularly troubling in light of the Jesuit charism of cura personalis, or “care for the whole person.” This principle implies a commitment to the nurturing and care of the spirit, intellect, and body of the students and workers who make up these institutions. Measures that eliminate or undermine disciplines at the core of the liberal arts and decisions to fire workers in the midst of a global pandemic imply a commitment to the bottom line, not to the people who make up our colleges and universities.

Of the eight universities included in the AAUP’s recent investigation into the crisis in academic governance that has occurred in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, one, Canisius College, is Jesuit and Catholic, and another, Marian University, is Catholic. The report of the investigation, COVID-19 and Academic Governance, identifies a number of other Catholic and Jesuit institutions that “witnessed dramatic board and administrative action regarding governance since the pandemic began,” among them John Carroll University, Marquette University, Saint Leo University, and the College of Saint Rose. Still other institutions, like Santa Clara University and Fordham University, have implemented their own austerity measures, without regard for principles of shared governance or in response to unionization efforts. The administrative culture that has overtaken these Jesuit institutions is moving them away from their mission.

Any private university, whether religiously affiliated or not, gains significant advantages from its status as a nonprofit institution. Such institutions don’t pay income or property taxes, and they have access to low-interest borrowing through the municipal bond market. Our institutions also received money under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act to offset losses related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Private and religious universities received these benefits precisely because they provide a public service: they exist to serve the common good. However, the financialization of contemporary universities—that is, the subordination of their educational mission to goals such as the growth of endowment investment and real estate development—has been pronounced, no less at religious institutions than at other private universities.

The Jesuit Higher Education Labor Coalition arose out of a multitude of groups on many campuses that formed in opposition to this disturbing trend. All of our colleges and universities have faced austerity budgeting, including aggressive cuts to the humanities, which constitute a core component of the Jesuit tradition. Likewise, we have faced significant layoffs, workload increases, reductions to retirement contributions, attacks on tenure and faculty governance, and aggressive opposition to unionization, even as our administrations have announced costly new initiatives, planned for new buildings, hired new athletics coaches, created more upper-administrative positions, and formed new private police forces. Such initiatives clearly contradict the logic of penny-pinching and belt-tightening that characterizes nearly every other aspect of university operations. The financialization of the higher education sector has long been manifest, with progressive organizations like the Roosevelt Institute raising warning flags about the process for years.

More and more frequently, private universities are betraying their educational mission, ignoring the needs of students and faculty members and focusing instead on return on investment and “workforce flexibility.” To get a sense of this shift, one need only follow the money. As Gregory Svirnovskiy reported in a recent article for Vox, institutions like Yale and Princeton now spend more on fees to financial consultants than they do on financial aid. Other universities, like Johns Hopkins, started the pandemic with dire budget projections only to end the year with a budgetary surplus. Administrators are following the “shock doctrine,” to borrow the term coined by Naomi Klein, using real-world crises to pursue long-held plans to disempower faculty and staff.

Finances at private universities can be difficult to unpack. Unlike state institutions, they are not required to disclose budgetary information to the public. Nonetheless, disclosure of audited financial statements is required for nonprofits that issue bond debt, and all nonprofits must file an IRS Form 990 that includes information such as the salaries of the highest-paid university executives. While college and university leaders will inevitably claim that these figures do not tell the whole story, 990 submissions must follow federally approved accounting procedures, unlike the self-reported financial statements and budget documents that private universities regularly produce.

Whatever form budgetary distress takes, the solutions implemented by our boards and upper administrations have a common end result: weakening the power of workers in higher education. Whether the purported problem is long-term demographic decline of likely enrollees or short-term distress caused by the pandemic, the answer is to bust unions, weaken shared governance, and eviscerate tenure. Shared governance and unions are the first and last lines of defense to protect academia’s educational mission. The financialized university requires the elimination of all forms of worker power. Across our colleges and universities, senior administrators too often put the health of their institution’s investment portfolios ahead of the well-being of faculty and staff and ahead of the education of our students.

Faculty and staff must resist this devaluation of the university’s academic mission. Too many administrators are captured by the logic of the financial markets, and this distortion is clear in their pronouncements. Universities are, in effect, becoming hedge funds with tuition revenue streams. Only the people committed heart and soul to the mission of higher education have the clarity of purpose and power to save higher education from the forces now attempting a coup.

Unjust Hierarchy

At the heart of many of these problems is an unjust hierarchy that has recently taken over in many American universities, including Jesuit ones. Boards of trustees have taken power that is not theirs. Faculty members are the experts in educational matters, and a university is an educational institution. Boards of trustees, by contrast, are not filled with academics (in fact, many or most trustees come from the legal or business sector). If colleges and universities stand for the importance of knowledge and the idea of “expertise,” then it follows that the experts in making academic decisions are the academics. Trustees and administrators who have never been faculty members do not possess the expertise to make wise decisions about educational priorities. This is why the 1966 Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities, jointly formulated by the AAUP, the American Council on Education, and the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, specifies that faculties, administrations, and boards must work together to manage a university—with the faculty bearing the primary responsibility for matters having to do with education. At Jesuit universities today, little of this comanagement exists, and boards and administrations therefore are making many unwise decisions.

The increasing pay and number of administrators are other frequently cited problems. More and more, university pay structures mimic the unequal pay structure of for-profit corporations, with presidents and coaches often being paid astronomically more than professors, especially adjunct professors, who now teach the majority of credit hours at American universities. Such inequality of both power and money makes a mockery of Jesuit social justice teaching.

Actions by upper-level administrators and boards of trustees at our colleges and universities violate principles of Catholic social teaching (CST). According to these principles, which are supposed to define our institutions, human beings possess inherent dignity and rights and are fundamentally social. Given this understanding of what it means to be human, CST emphasizes caring for the poor and vulnerable, protecting the earth, fostering the common good, and acting in solidarity with others. It also insists that people should be able to shape the conditions of their community and their own existence and that governments and other institutions are responsible for ensuring the well-being of all. These aspects of CST intersect with and underscore the importance of a final principle: economic justice requires recognizing and fostering the dignity of work and the rights of workers.

Administrations and boards have tried to justify their actions by arguing that ensuring the financial health of institutions must take precedence over all other concerns. If a college or university is forced to close its doors, they assert, then concern about the treatment of the people who comprise the institution will be moot. But this argument fails to recognize the interconnectedness of CST principles. Budgetary problems must be addressed in ways that uphold—or at the very least do not violate—CST in its entirety. In sacrificing the well-being of faculty and staff, and even pitting us against one another (contingent faculty versus tenured and tenure-track faculty, faculty versus staff) while at the same time maintaining or increasing the number of well-paid upper-level administrative positions, preserving expensive athletic programs, and bolstering the power of boards, our administrators and trustees have undermined CST and the academic integrity of our institutions in the service of a further, egregious violation of economic justice. As Gerald J. Beyer makes clear in his recent book, Just Universities: Catholic Social Teaching Confronts Corporatized Higher Education, principles of CST are not simply tools that Catholic colleges and universities use for external analysis; they must be internally applied as well. “Doing justice in the world,” Beyer writes, “does not exonerate Catholic institutions from promoting justice and human rights within their walls.”


Pope Francis once called the imposition of national economic austerity measures the “new colonialism” that “always tighten[s] the belts of the workers and the poor.” In the context of higher education, budget cutbacks and program closures have a disproportionate impact on women and people of color. During the early months of the pandemic, multiple Jesuit universities laid off contracted food-service and custodial staff, overwhelmingly women of color, leaving them without health care during a global health crisis and forcing them to scramble for unemployment benefits. The pope recently recognized the injustice of such measures when he called upon governments and institutions to protect the “needs of the most vulnerable workers” and their right to work with “decent and dignified working conditions,” which include living wages and health benefits.

A similarly dire situation faces vulnerable workers within the faculty ranks. Contingent faculty—adjuncts and full-time non-tenure-track faculty members—and graduate student employees make up more than 70 percent of the academic instructional workforce. They often make poverty wages and lack job security and benefits, especially if they are nonunionized. These vulnerable workers are among the first to be laid off during financial crises, and they are more likely than their tenured and tenure-track colleagues to be women and people of color. A 2015 survey of Jesuit universities conducted by the Service Employees International Union’s Faculty Forward campaign found that only 23 percent of faculty members on contingent appointments believed their compensation was “fair and competitive.” Fifteen percent reported that they had to rely on public assistance programs to make ends meet. Furthermore, when colleges and universities eliminate programs in the humanities, as we have seen occur at Canisius, Marquette, John Carroll, and other Jesuit institutions, they not only undermine the historic educational mission of the Jesuits but also target disciplines in which women and faculty of color have greater representation. Marquette’s public response to the unionization efforts of its contingent faculty was a telling example of a corporate model of higher education: “Marquette’s current operating model of utilizing a mix of tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty,” a university representative declared, “helps control costs, maintain flexibility and offers our students unique perspectives.”

In 2018, the provost at Boston College, which has long challenged the rights of graduate student employees to organize and form unions, claimed, with no evidence, that “graduate student unionization in any form undermines the collegial, mentoring relationship among students and faculty that is a cornerstone of this academic community.” The administration of Loyola University in Chicago, in its continuing refusal to officially recognize and bargain with the Loyola Graduate Workers’ Union, makes similar claims that “graduate students perform a primarily academic role.” Yet both universities, along with other Jesuit and non-Jesuit Catholic institutions, are invoking their religious character to seek exemptions from federal law. Santa Clara University agreed to explore the possibility of an in-house election for its adjunct and lecturer faculty but, in the process, employed the services of Littler, a notorious union-busting law firm. After a year of negotiations, SCU failed to offer its non-tenure-track faculty an agreement that aligns with the National Labor Relations Board’s process for ensuring a free and fair vote on unionization, thus indefinitely deferring the election. The opposition to unionization by all of these institutions undermines Pope Francis’s message about the “essential role” of unions in protecting “the dignity of work and the rights of workers, especially in promoting inclusion” in society.

If Jesuit institutions, as the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities claims in its statement on racial justice, share a mission to “use our collective voices as a lever for justice and the common good,” including in the struggles against racism and economic exploitation, then they would do well to act in accordance with a vision that recognizes the “importance of living wages and the right of workers to a dignified workplace” where employment practices reflect not just a calling toward an abstract faith but one that takes “conscious responsibility” for the promotion of social and economic justice.


The COVID-19 pandemic has aggravated an existing crisis across institutions of higher education, making clear the need for worker solidarity both within and across campuses. Ironically, by putting on full display the systemic problems we face in higher education, the crisis has also created the potential for solidarity movements to confront them collectively, by encouraging us to talk to one another and form interinstitutional ties. Emerging from a petition circulated in January 2021, the Jesuit Higher Education Labor Coalition seeks to build such a long-term interuniversity movement to demand just alternatives to the current project of unending austerity. Jesuit institutions share a common educational mission and a communitarian tradition in which to ground our arguments.

We see our Jesuit coalition as only one affinity group within a growing national movement at Catholic as well as other institutions to demand a system of higher education built on the principle of “care for the whole person”—including students, staff, and faculty. Lenders, construction firms, college ratings services, business leaders on boards of trustees, and other groups all have the leverage to shape university policy by creating incentives that have nothing to do with the creation or dissemination of knowledge. But by unionizing, demanding a meaningful voice in governance, and forming alliances with other university workers, faculty members can draw our universities back toward their indispensable educational missions. When we as workers act in solidarity around a just cause, there isn’t a force that can stop us.

Gerry Canavan is associate professor of English at Marquette University, Nathan Ellstrand is a PhD candidate in history at Loyola University Chicago, Samuel Harshner is adjunct instructor of political science at Marquette University, Samantha Iyer is assistant professor of history at Fordham University, Maggie Levantovskaya is lecturer in English at Santa Clara University, Tanya Loughead is professor of philosophy and women’s and gender studies at Canisius College, Dianna Taylor is chair of the Department of Philosophy at John Carroll University, and Prasad Venugopal is associate professor of physics at University of Detroit Mercy. The authors write on behalf of themselves as individuals and as organizers in the Jesuit Higher Education Labor Coalition and do not claim that their statements represent the views of their respective institutions or those of any faculty organizations to which they belong.