From the Editor: What the Pandemic Has Revealed

By Michael Ferguson

This issue of Academe arrives at a precarious moment. COVID-19 continues to devastate communities throughout the country, but the rollout of vaccines and the inauguration of a president who respects science offer hope that an end to the pandemic may be in sight. In higher education, the disruptions of the past year have brought severe financial challenges and provided cover for new efforts to undermine academic freedom, tenure, and faculty governance. At the same time, as Irene Mulvey notes in her president’s column, our present crisis has created an opportunity to envision a better, “new normal” in the pandemic’s wake.

The articles in this issue examine long-standing problems within higher education—blind spots, inequities, deficiencies in policies and practices—that the COVID-19 crisis has thrown into relief. These “preexisting conditions” have been exacerbated by the pandemic, but they require more than short-term fixes.

The issue opens with a pair of articles that draw attention to problems often overlooked in discussions of the pandemic-era shift to remote teaching and learning. Jonathan Poritz and Jonathan Rees, experts on educational technology, identify multiple threats to academic freedom and intellectual property in the use of online tools and teaching platforms. To protect the faculty’s prerogatives during the pandemic and beyond, they argue, AAUP policies must be fully and explicitly applied to online settings—and codified in faculty handbooks or collective bargaining agreements. Martina Svyantek, Scott D. Dexter, and Ashley Shew highlight another issue in the online classroom that deserves closer faculty attention: accommodations for students with disabilities. They lay out steps that all faculty members can take now to make their courses more accessible and their campuses more inclusive.

The uneven effects of the pandemic have also added urgency to calls for action on gender and racial inequities in higher education. Glenn Colby and Chelsea Fowler, in an article that reviews AAUP resources and recent data as well as institutional initiatives, make the case for addressing gender disparities in a broader context of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Similarly, Simon Feldman and Afshan Jafar argue that institutions should seize this moment to make permanent changes to tenure and promotion standards that too often disadvantage faculty of color and women. Their experiences at Connecticut College, which recently revised its policies to address structural biases and inequities, can provide a blueprint for faculty members elsewhere.

Our concluding feature delves into “what has become the gravest challenge to academic freedom,” in the words of author Henry Reichman: “the steady erosion of the tenure system and the concomitant and explosive expansion of contingent, frequently part-time faculty employment.” The vulnerability of the majority of the faculty—seemingly the most intractable of higher education’s preexisting conditions—has only deepened during the past year. The prospects for the profession’s future, as Reichman writes, will depend on the willingness of faculty members of every rank and status to join the fight to defend the AAUP’s founding principles.