Responding to the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Michael Ferguson, David Kociemba, and Sarah Mink

As this issue goes to press, higher education is in the midst of a rapidly evolving crisis. In the span of a few weeks in March, as the outbreak of COVID-19 be­came a pandemic that threatened much of the world, the US system of higher education was upended, with campuses across the country shuttered and hundreds of thou­sands of courses moved online. The consequences for faculty members, students, and institutions have been far-reaching and continue to unfold.

The national AAUP and local AAUP chapters moved quickly to respond to the urgent chal­lenges posed by the pandemic. The paragraphs that follow provide an overview of the AAUP’s work to uphold the core principles of higher education and to support AAUP members in this time of crisis. In the weeks and months ahead, the Association will continue to stand up for academic freedom, for the faculty role in decision-making, for the economic security of the profes­sion, and for the greater good that higher education serves.

Member Resources

At the beginning of March, as the severity of the threat posed by the spread of COVID-19 in the United States was becoming apparent, the AAUP created a web page with coronavirus resources for the higher education community. We regularly update this page,, with links to the latest resources from the AAUP and other organizations. We are also sending AAUP members biweekly email digests with links to new resources and other information related to COVID-19.

To supplement these resources and provide members with expert guidance, the AAUP has launched a series of webinars covering topics such as the impact of remote teach­ing on intellectual property, financial exigency and program elimination, and collective bargaining in times of economic uncertainty. The coronavirus resources page includes links to recordings of past webinars as well as information about upcom­ing ones.

The AAUP has also created a members-only Facebook group, Higher Ed in the Era of COVID-19, to facilitate wider discussion of the changing higher education landscape. This group provides AAUP members a place to share experiences and strategies with their peers.

Statements and Guidance

Although its scope and severity are unprecedented in recent memory, the COVID-19 pandemic is not the first crisis the AAUP has had to address in its 105 years. AAUP principles and standards can provide much-needed guidance during this challenging time. As the crisis has evolved, the Association has issued a series of statements to highlight the issues at stake during the pandemic and remind the higher education community of the faculty’s appropriate role in academic governance. These state­ments are available through links on the coronavirus resources page.

In early March, as the first few universities were closing their doors, AAUP president Rudy Fichtenbaum issued a statement on COVID-19 and the faculty role in decision-making. While applaud­ing these institutions for taking the threat posed by the coronavirus seriously, Fichtenbaum expressed concern about the lack of faculty involvement in some decisions, noting that the AAUP’s 1966 Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities makes clear that “the faculty has primary responsibility for such fundamental areas as curriculum, subject matter and methods of instruction, . . . and those aspects of student life which relate to the educational process.”

The following week, the AAUP, together with its organizing partner the American Federation of Teach­ers, issued a set of principles to guide higher education’s response to COVID-19. This document reaffirmed the fundamental roles of colleges and universities in our society, laid out standards for the treatment of faculty and other employees during the crisis, addressed the effects of the crisis on curriculum and instruction, and highlighted the continuing importance of faculty intellec­tual property and whistleblower protections.

In response to frequently asked questions about the applicability of AAUP principles to new chal­lenges faculty were confronting, the AAUP’s Department of Academic Freedom, Tenure, and Governance issued “AAUP Principles and Stan­dards for the COVID-19 Crisis.” This document reviews AAUP policies as they apply to decisions to shut down campuses, cancel classes, move classes online, alter the academic calendar, replace letter grades with pass-fail or incom­plete designations, and cancel final exams and papers; considers how the faculty can continue to exercise its appropriate role in academic decision-making when faculty bod­ies cannot meet in person; provides guidance for faculty members teach­ing online who are concerned about administrators surreptitiously moni­toring their classroom performance or about targeted harassment; addresses faculty concerns about student evaluations of remote teaching; provides guidance for tenure-track faculty whose progress toward tenure has been delayed by the pandemic; and provides guid­ance to faculty members serving at institutions that are facing increased teaching loads, salary cuts, program reductions and eliminations, and declarations of financial exigency.

The AAUP’s Department of Organizing and Services has provided guidance for collective bargaining members in a quick guide to impact bargaining dur­ing the COVID-19 crisis. This guide outlines changes in working conditions that may be subject to negotiation on campuses with col­lective bargaining chapters, and it includes a sample demand-to-bar­gain letter as well as details about how to write information requests.

In early April, Rudy Fichten­baum invited all faculty members to add their names to a statement of solidarity with the essential workers who are demanding safer working conditions and a fairer economic system. In his message of support, Fichtenbaum wrote, “To our members who are work­ing in hospitals and in health care, to transit and postal workers, to the Instacart and Amazon workers who are demanding safer working conditions and wages as they risk their health to serve customers, to everyone working in stores and in other essential services, to all those who do not have the luxury to stay at home, know this: you are lead­ing the way, and we are with you.”

Chapter Actions

AAUP chapters across the country have adapted their organizing work in the face of new professional and pedagogical challenges and the emotional toll of the pandemic. From the morale boosters of the University of Rhode Island AAUP chapter to the successful campaign by Rutgers University AAUP-AFT to protect librarians, faculty members and chapter staff are demonstrating resilience during the crisis in ways large and small.

Social distancing has not prevented chapters from foster­ing community. AAUP chapters at the University of Connecticut and Appalachian State University have conducted digital town halls. The Colorado AAUP conference has been holding digital mixers. Mem­bers are also coming together to improve workplace safety: chapters at the University of Connecticut Health Center and UConn joined forces to retrofit safety equipment and then expanded their efforts by working with their fellow public hospital unions and local schools and businesses.

The tradition of upholding AAUP standards and defending the profession continues through digital organizing. Early on, the University of Illinois at Chicago chapter, UIC United Faculty, pub­lished a statement on university policies and shared governance. Other AAUP chapters have used websites to share resources with the higher education community. Examples include Rider AAUP’s request for information about the administration’s response to the crisis; a breakdown by the Ohio AAUP conference of how much money individual institutions will receive from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act; and the resources on remote learning shared by many chap­ters. Faculty at institutions with multiple AAUP chapters—like the University of New Hampshire and Emerson College—have pre­sented a united front in discussions with administrators over the rapid changes on their campuses.

Issue organizing and contract campaigns are continuing online during the crisis. Ohio University AAUP scored a victory in late March in its months-long campaign to stave off instructional faculty layoffs after a petition, outreach to legislators, and email-writing campaigns. Miami University of Ohio AAUP and Rutgers University AAUP-AFT both launched peti­tions to protect faculty members serving in contingent positions. The Rutgers petition advocates for health benefits, compensation for the online transition, and cancel­lation of student evaluations of teaching. Hampshire College’s advo­cacy chapter is now in talks with the administration after successful organizing last year helped keep the college open and independent. The United Academics of Oregon State University (UAOSU) and the United Academics of Oregon University both continued presenting member testimonials online for their contract campaigns. UAOSU recently packed a virtual board of trustees meeting; during the public comment period, speakers from the chapter displayed a campaign graphic as their icon while members posted supportive comments in the session chat.

While some unionized chap­ters have decided to extend their contracts for one or two years, bargaining continues at others. UNH Lecturers United finished negotiations just a few weeks before the campus shut down and then ratified the new contract online. Oregon Institute of Tech­nology AAUP, University of New Mexico AAUP-AFT, and UAOSU are all looking to bargain their first contracts. And UConn AAUP and OIT AAUP initiated bargain­ing over the pandemic’s impact on their working conditions.

These are just a few highlights of chapter actions. Please write to [email protected] to share news about your chapter’s work.