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How the AAUP Helped to Save Guilford College

The power of creative grassroots organizing.
By Richie Zweigenhaft

With declining enrollments, Guilford College was in financial trouble before the pandemic. It was not the only institution dealing with the double whammy of previous financial woes and COVID-19, and it was not the only institution where the administration and governing board seized upon this double whammy as an opportunity to use questionable tactics that threatened to erode shared governance and tenure protections. In May 2021, the AAUP published a report based on the widespread attacks on faculty governance and tenure protections that have taken place during the pandemic. It highlighted eight institutions that, as the report put it, had used the pandemic as an “opportunity to turbocharge the corporate model.” It went on to assert that these institutions had laid off faculty members “as expeditiously as if colleges and universities were businesses whose CEOs suddenly decided to stop making widgets or shut down the steelworks.”

Fortunately, Guilford was not one of them.

I am convinced that Guilford barely escaped this AAUP list of dishonor because of the extensive and creative efforts of our newly energized AAUP chapter. One of the many actions taken by the chapter was a virtual teach-in on October 21, 2020, that inspired the formation of a group called Save Guilford College (SGC). SGC ultimately included thousands of alumni and friends of the college, in addition to faculty, staff, and students. Guilford has not (yet) gone over the cliff, but, to mix my geographical metaphors, it is not out of the woods. In my view, the AAUP and SGC deserve a great deal of credit.

Before the Deluge

For a number of years prior to the pandemic, Guilford’s president and board of trustees had not shared with the faculty (or any other campus constituencies) detailed budgets. When the virus hit, what was already a dire situation became a crisis, and the scope of the economic challenges facing the college became more apparent. The faculty and staff knew that the board had borrowed a good deal of money. But they were shocked and dismayed to learn just how much debt the college had incurred without the kind of broad community discussion that once would have been expected. Between 2016 and 2018, the college, with an endowment at the time of about $70 million, had borrowed $73 million. As the college began preparing its 2021‒22 budget, it needed a big chunk, over $5 million (more than 10 percent of the annual budget) to pay the debt service on the money borrowed. Faculty and staff were even more upset to learn that, because the college had already reached its borrowing limit, the board had been willing to use the campus’s 335 acres of woods as collateral to secure some of these loans.

For the previous few years, Guilford College had a nominal chapter of the AAUP, with a handful of dues-paying members and a handful of other faculty supporters. We kept the chapter going, in part because I, then serving as the chapter’s president, naively believed that the very existence of an AAUP chapter on campus functioned as a deterrent. No college, especially a somewhat progressive one like Guilford, with its admirable Quaker values, wanted to be scrutinized by the AAUP for violating principles of academic freedom and shared governance. I therefore thought, and sometimes said, that the college’s senior administrators would not do anything especially egregious. I was proven wrong about this assumption a few times.

In December 2019, as financial matters and questions about the college’s leadership had become more worrisome, I tried to reactivate our dormant chapter, with the support of an adjunct faculty member who had been quite active in the AAUP chapter where he previously taught, and who turned out to have valuable organizing skills. We held a meeting with interested faculty, and some of those who attended were willing to assume leadership roles (I was approaching seventy-five and thinking about retiring). Little did we realize that a newly formed AAUP chapter would play such a crucial role in saving the college.

Round One: Furloughs

The spring and early summer of 2020 were especially chaotic at the college. We were in the first year of a new block calendar, with two three-week intensive sessions, during which students took only one class that met each day for three hours, and two twelve-week sessions, during which students took three classes. The new calendar had been imposed by Jane Fernandes, the president, against the wishes of the faculty, on the recommendation of an outside consultant group that in recent years had encouraged a number of other colleges to adopt similar calendars (with mixed results). Guilford was also in the first year of a new curriculum that the Fernandes administration had pressured the faculty to adopt. Some students were on the old curriculum, and some were on the new one. Both the calendar and the curriculum had caused considerable confusion. Moreover, it remained unclear whether classes in fall 2020 would have to take place online, when students would be allowed to return to the campus, and what kinds of hybrid options might be possible.

On April 2, 2020, the president announced that the next day 133 full-time and part-time staff members (about one-third of the college’s workforce) would be placed on furlough for two months; these furloughs were subsequently extended to July 31. There was no published list of who was being furloughed; some employees learned of their furloughed status through reports in the media, others learned through emails, and many were not sure whether they had in fact been furloughed. I learned that the campus minister had been furloughed only when I received this message in response to an email: “Thank you for contacting me. I am currently on furlough and am unavailable.”

On May 17, the provost and vice president for academic affairs, who was in his third year at Guilford, abruptly announced his resignation. He did not give a reason, but I assumed that he was unhappy with the direction in which the college was going. In part because of this resignation, and with the encouragement of members of the now-active AAUP chapter, the clerk’s committee (which is the executive committee of the faculty) decided to survey all tenured, tenure-track, non-tenure-track full-time, and part-time faculty teaching that semester to assess the level of confidence in the college’s administration, especially the president. In response to a question that asked how faculty would respond to a vote of no confidence in the president, 55 percent replied that they would “definitely” vote no confidence, and another 22 percent replied that they would “probably” do so. A report based on the survey concluded that “most faculty lack confidence in President Fernandes’ competency, leadership skills, [and] financial literacy and are frustrated with the lack of transparent communication, ethical leadership, and commitment to shared governance.”

On June 26, with clear evidence that she had so little faculty support and presumably also had less and less support from the board, Fernandes announced her decision to step down.

Round Two: Terminations

On July 1, when Fernandes was still in office and the search for her replacement was underway, forty-five members of the staff were let go, as were five visiting faculty members. Adding insult to injury was the process by which the administration handled the terminations. Some of those who lost their jobs were given only a few minutes to collect their things, were escorted off campus, and were told that they could not return to campus without permission. That is, they were treated as if they were, or might become, criminals. Perhaps following the advice of the college’s lawyer, or maybe just following the trend of colleges to treat employees as they often are treated in the corporate world, the college had adopted this practice some years earlier. In addition to being told they could not return to campus without permission, many employees were required to sign nondisclosure agreements in order to receive severance pay.  

Many in the larger Guilford community were especially upset because such treatment violated the college’s oft-professed commitment to Quaker values. In one letter to the board, a group of emeriti faculty emphasized that nondisclosure and nondisparagement agreements make “a travesty of Quaker values.” They concluded that “believing that integrity requires speaking when led to do so, without malicious intent and truthfully, how can a person sign in good faith such a travesty of Quaker values? We urge the board to rescind these conscience-insulting requirements.” The clerk’s committee also called for an end to such practices: in a June 6 memorandum sent to the board, it asked the college to “release parties at Guilford bound by non-disclosure agreements related to potential claims against the College.”

The board was inundated by emails about the shoddy treatment of those who were furloughed or who received letters of termination, about who might make a good interim president, and about a range of other issues. One open letter to the board, signed by nine hundred alumni, encouraged the college to save money by cutting the pay of all administrators who made more than $100,000 (“Executives making six-figure salaries should not ‘reduce’ employees barely making a living wage without first slashing their own salaries to $100,000, at most”). The board also received emails and letters from the executive committee of the Friends Association for Higher Education, the general secretary of the American Friends Service Committee, the American History Association, and AAUP members and chapters throughout the state of North Carolina. Some of those who wrote to the board submitted their comments as letters to the editor or as guest columns in the local newspaper. The board was getting lots of mail, and Guilford was not getting good press.

Using the services of the Registry, an organization described by Inside Higher Ed as “an interim professional matchmaking organization that helps college boards fill presidential and administrative vacancies,” the board appointed as interim president Carol Moore, a former high school teacher and biology professor who had served as president of three colleges over the previous decades, including Burlington College in Vermont (which subsequently closed) and Columbia College in South Carolina (from which she had retired three months earlier for “family and health reasons”).

So, with the provost having resigned suddenly and unexpectedly, the president having announced that she was leaving her post, the board having hired a new unknown interim president whose specialty was trying to save colleges from going under, and the board only recently having revealed just how much money the college had borrowed (and the size of the college’s annual debt-service payment), it felt like Guilford was heading toward the cliff.

Things soon got worse.

It did not take long for us to see that Moore had an agenda. Because of the college’s pressing debt, she had no doubt that paying the bills would require cutting programs and terminating the appointments of many faculty and staff members. In preparing for the immediate cuts that she saw as inevitable, she took some perfunctory steps to include faculty in the decision-making process. On a very tight timeline, she asked each department to submit a report that detailed its contributions to the college. Although these reports were to include narrative assessments, the key data were the number of majors and average class sizes.

She then asked the curriculum committee and the clerk’s committee to use those reports to determine which programs and departments were to stay and which were to go. Both committees challenged her assumption that cutting was the only way to save money, even in the face of an immediate economic crisis, and instead the two committees proposed a lengthy list of alternatives. In an email, the chair of the curriculum committee encouraged the faculty to contribute to an emerging list of “creative ideas that don’t involve laying off faculty.” The final list that the committee submitted to Moore included implementing an early-retirement program, asking faculty members if they were willing to take a voluntary unpaid year’s leave, and asking if they were willing to teach and be paid at a two-thirds rate. The list also included proposals capping all salaries as well as proposals for progressive cuts to the salaries of the highest-paid administrators. Moore responded by belittling these efforts. As a reporter for the Wall Street Journal put it, “Dr. Moore said she asked for faculty input, and ‘they sent a nice note back saying don’t cut anything.’”

Round Three: The Ax Falls

The ax fell in early November 2020, when Moore proposed to the board that the college eliminate nineteen majors. These included many in the humanities and social sciences (history, political science, economics, philosophy, religious studies, creative writing, sociology/anthropology, community and justice studies, peace and conflict studies, and modern languages) as well as majors in the sciences (forensic biology, chemistry, geology, and physics). She also announced that the appointments of another twenty-seven faculty members, nearly a third of the faculty, would be terminated, including sixteen who were tenured. Among those who were to lose their jobs were some who held endowed professorships, some who had won teaching awards, and four long-term visiting professors who had each been teaching full time at the college for more than a decade. Eight of those designated for release had been at the college for more than twenty years, three for more than thirty years.

According to the college’s handbook, and according to AAUP-recommended standards, tenured faculty appointments cannot be terminated for financial reasons unless the institution declares “financial exigency.” Otherwise, administrations could use what may be financial challenges but not a bona fide crisis to terminate the appointments of tenured faculty members. Moore and the board worried that a public declaration of financial exigency would create bad press that could hurt enrollment and might lead to problems with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the college’s accrediting agency. At this point the chair of the board had only praise for Moore and her plan. He told a reporter for the local newspaper that he was impressed that she had taken “such decisive action so quickly,” and he said, apparently speaking for the board, “We’re very pleased with Carol’s leadership.”  

On November 11, 2020, less than a week after the termination letters were mailed, the faculty voted no confidence in Carol Moore, the first time this had happened in Guilford’s 183-year history. Guilford’s faculty also took the unusual step of voting no confidence in the “leadership of the board” (which rankled some board members a great deal). These votes were not even close: 94 percent voted no confidence in the president, and 93 percent voted no confidence in the leadership of the board.  

A Newly Energized AAUP Chapter

The newly energized chapter of the AAUP hit the ground running. The members of the chapter had begun to meet regularly by Zoom. Soon there were thirty-six dues-paying members (more than one-third of the full-time faculty), far more than ever before—evidence of not only effective organizing but also the immediacy of the crisis. Typically, between fifteen and twenty-five people joined our meetings to discuss rumors, to deconstruct what was actually happening, and to plan for future actions. The group worked hard to publicize not only that many academic and nonacademic programs were at great risk of being reduced in size or eliminated and that many employees had been or soon would be furloughed or have their appointments terminated, but also that the processes employed had violated AAUP-supported standards, the college’s own official guidelines, and professed Quaker values.

In addition to sending letters to the editor, press releases, and individual and group letters to Guilford presidents Fernandes and Moore and to the board, AAUP members came up with some creative ideas that generated considerable publicity both locally and nationally. For example, after the second round of terminations, in early July, the AAUP chapter arranged for a symbolic protest on campus in which rows of empty chairs were placed outside one of the campus buildings, each chair bearing the job title of a member of the faculty or staff whose appointment was being terminated. The photo was widely shared on social media, and when the Chronicle of Higher Education ran an article in November 2020 titled “Colleges Have Shed a Tenth of Their Employees since the Pandemic Began,” it used the Guilford chapter’s photo to introduce it. In another creative move, the chapter put together a “most-wanted” poster that included the smiling faces of “Guilford Faculty Targeted for Termination.” This, too, made its rounds on social media. In these and other ways, Guilford’s AAUP activists used social media to share widely our alarm about the college’s direction with students, faculty, staff, alumni, parents, and others who care about Guilford.                

However, none of the actions taken by the AAUP chapter was more important or had a greater influence on subsequent events than the Zoom teach-in that we sponsored on October 21, 2020. By this time chapter members, and everyone on the staff and faculty, had seen the writing on the wall, but not many people outside the immediate Guilford community were aware of how serious the situation had become. The teach-in, titled “Who Will Save Guilford College?,” was designed to explain the college’s financial crisis and its origins, to delineate the apparent disregard for college handbook procedures, and to discuss ways to correct Guilford’s self-destructive course. Over an hour and a half, various members of the AAUP chapter made presentations on topics related to financial exigency, shared governance, Quaker values, and Guilford’s allocation of money, treatment of employees, and response to its financial emergency.

The teach-in was well-publicized in various college communications and on social media, and, lo and behold, 312 people joined the meeting, including current students and faculty, retired faculty, staff, parents, alumni, and even a few members of the board of trustees.

Among those in attendance was Jessie Starling from the class of 2000, an associate professor of religious studies at Lewis and Clark College. Dismayed by what she learned in the teach-in, she immediately began to contact Guilford graduates she knew. She and another Guilford alumna, Jane Murray, started a Facebook group, choosing the name “Save Guilford College” based on the title of the teach-in. Within a week the group had one thousand members, and two weeks later it had more than three thousand. A few weeks after the teach-in, Starling sent a letter with four hundred other signatories to Carol Moore and the Guilford board of trustees encouraging them to reconsider the drastic changes being proposed. It included the following plea: “We fear that this new ‘version’ of Guilford will be so academically impoverished that it will have lost its credibility as a true liberal arts institution, and it will fail to attract the necessary number of students to even sustain the debt that recent administrations have incurred.”

SGC leaders spoke with those who had worked to save other liberal arts colleges that in recent years had faced possible closures, including Hampshire College, Marlboro College, and Sweet Briar College. They learned from what had worked, and what had not worked, at those colleges.

SGC also developed and communicated to the board a list of short- and long-term demands. Among the short-term demands, for example, was that the board reject the proposals that Moore put forward to eliminate academic programs and that it rescind the accompanying terminations. Among the long-term demands was a call for the college to return to the Quaker-informed processes of shared governance that had always been a hallmark of Guilford.

Money Talks, and So Do Lawsuits

The simple fact that more than three thousand alumni were involved ensured that at least some members of the board were willing to listen to Save Guilford College. A fundraising campaign, run by some SGC alumni who had worked professionally as fundraisers and who trained other volunteers to make phone calls to prospective donors, certainly got the board’s attention. By January 2021, 850 alumni and friends had pledged to contribute $3.3 million over a five-year period—“if the college evolves in a direction we as donors feel we can support.”

If holding the teach-in that spawned SGC was the AAUP chapter’s greatest contribution to turning the situation around, a less apparent contribution was our decision to hire a lawyer to represent the interests of the faculty whose appointments had been terminated. The lawyer sent two letters to Carol Moore. The first, sent on October 13, 2020, warned about the process that she was putting in place without the college having declared financial exigency. The second letter, sent in February 2021, detailed the ways the college had violated its own policies.

Guilford has been sued before, and the trustees probably see lawsuits and the threat of lawsuits as inevitable. Those, however, that generate especially bad publicity (like one a few years ago over Title IX violations) lead the college to try hard to settle. In this case, whether or not the AAUP chapter were to win, the publicity generated by a lawsuit claiming that the college terminated faculty appointments without having adhered to the provisions in the handbook (or the college’s Quaker principles) would not look good. This, along with all the other bad publicity, and the fact that SGC was attracting money from alumni that might otherwise go directly to the college, led some board members—maybe most—to have second thoughts about the path the college was following.

Set Aside?

On January 6, 2021, the board announced that it had decided to “set aside” (a Quaker term) Carol Moore’s November 7 proposal and the terminations she proposed. In a five-paragraph announcement posted on the college’s website, trustees called for “a time of discernment.” This statement offered no apology, nor did it give any clear indication that the November proposals had been rejected—they had been “set aside,” and, presumably, after some “discernment,” they could be brought back.

During this “time of discernment,” the board planned to do two things. First, the college was embarking on an emergency fundraising campaign, the Guilford Forward Fund, that would attempt to raise $4 million by May 31, 2021, and another $2 million by January 31, 2022. Second, the board had established four working teams, led by members of the board and made up of trustees, faculty, staff, and alumni, to identify key milestones related to (1) enrollment stabilization and recruitment, (2) donor challenges and fundraising, (3) faculty and staff collaboration, and (4) constituent engagement.

Another Interim President

In February, ten days after the AAUP lawyer sent his second letter, the board informed the Guilford community that Moore was stepping down as interim president and that Jim Hood had agreed to serve as interim president. Hood is a Guilford alumnus, a long-time member of the English department, a recent clerk of the faculty (the person who has been elected by the faculty to preside over faculty meetings and to represent the faculty in various settings), and a birthright Quaker. People throughout the Guilford community, including those active with the AAUP and SGC, were not unhappy (to put it mildly) to see that Moore was leaving and encouraged by the choice of Hood to replace her.  

The college’s emergency fundraising campaign went well, reaching the goal of $4 million by May 31. The SGC fundraising committee had embarked on a phone-calling effort to persuade those who had previously pledged money (the $3.3 million over five years) now to pony up. Soon the group had $300,000 in a special account it had set up. As a gesture of support for some of the changes that the board had made (not implementing the program-prioritization recommendations and replacing Carol Moore with Jim Hood), SGC released a $25,000 gift on April 6 (the advancement office’s official “Day for Guilford”), and then toward the end of May it released an additional $250,000, the largest gift the college received in this phase of its Guilford Forward Campaign. (Wisely, in early May 2021, when Guilford announced its annual alumni awards, it honored SGC by giving it the “outstanding volunteer award.”)

Once Jim Hood was in office, various cost-saving efforts were put into place as the college planned for the 2021‒22 budget. Many had been on the lists of ideas that the curriculum committee and the clerk’s committee had submitted to Carol Moore back in October. Some faculty took an early retirement option. Others took voluntary unpaid leaves. Yet others chose to reduce their teaching load, and their salary, to two-thirds. As Hood reported in a message to the community, about $1 million had been cut from the payroll because ten tenured faculty members had resigned, four more had retired, four were taking a year of unpaid leave, and nine had agreed to take pay cuts in exchange for reduced workloads. As he explained, contrasting his approach with that of the previous interim president, “We have gotten those savings through a voluntary program instead of by imposition. It was done in a collaborative manner, and that’s a really great accomplishment.”

The budget approved for the 2021‒22 academic year had a surplus of about $1.3 million, but that was only because of about $7 million that came in from various programs, especially in loan forgiveness money from the federal government as part of the Biden administration’s Payback Protection Program. The next budget, for 2022‒23, is likely to pose major challenges, especially if enrollment does not improve.

When Hood was hired to serve as interim president, plans were already in place for a presidential search, this one led by AGB Search, another firm. The board brought two finalists to campus in late August, after the fall semester had begun. In early October, the college announced that one of them, Kyle Farmbry, had been appointed and would become Guilford’s tenth president on January 1, 2022.

Conclusions

Over the next decade, many small colleges will close, and Guilford may be one of them. Major changes in the way faculty and staff are treated, effective leadership from the new president and other senior administrators, and successful promotion of the institution leading to higher enrollment are all necessary for long-term survival.

Even if the college does not ultimately survive, many faculty members whose positions were slated for termination still have those jobs, at least for the foreseeable future; many on the board have become willing participants in discussions about necessary changes; and the college has bought some time and thus gained a fighting chance to survive intact.  

In May, the AAUP chapter held its last Zoom meeting of the 2020‒21 academic year. The group selected officers for the coming academic year, thanked one another (profusely) for the invaluable emotional and professional support they had given to each other throughout a very stressful time, and said farewell to those members who had decided either to retire early or to leave for jobs at other institutions (three of the four AAUP officers would not be back in the fall). One person lamented that the AAUP chapter still was seen by some in the Guilford community, including some members of the board, as a group of disgruntled academics, and she noted wistfully that the group had gotten little credit for the valuable role it had played. I responded that I was convinced that if it had not been for the AAUP, especially our chapter's teach-in and the threats of a lawsuit, Guilford would not have brought a halt to the dreadful path it was on, one that seemed destined either to bring the college down or to save it in a way that would have rendered it unrecognizable. Based on that conversation, I concluded that the story of the valuable role the chapter played should be told, not only to give credit to those who worked so hard to save the soul of the college but also to encourage others at other institutions, when faced with what looks like impending doom, to believe that activism can work.

This article has been adapted from the final chapter of Richie Zweigenhaft’s Jews, Palestinians, and Friends: 45 Years at a Quaker College (Sort of a Memoir) (second edition, 2021). It is published here with permission from Half Court Press.

Richie Zweigenhaft, Charles A. Dana Professor of Psychology, emeritus, at Guilford College, is the coauthor (with G. William Domhoff) of three books on the American power elite and is the coeditor (with Gene Borgida) of Collaboration in Psychological Science. Prior to the publication of Jews, Palestinians, and Friends, his most recent book was GEEZERBALL: North Carolina Basketball at Its Eldest (Sort of a Memoir).

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