Shared Governance Unionism and the Fight against Austerity in the Age of COVID-19

A different kind of disaster opportunity.
By Johanna Foster and Marina Vujnovic


As COVID-19 continues to wreak devastation for millions in what has now been two years of unrelenting crisis, faculty, students, and staff in higher education are also witnessing, in real time, a reenergized academic labor movement across the United States. As was the case during the Great Depression and other eras of crisis, the pandemic has exposed deep-seated social inequalities and spurred a new labor awakening. Whether confronting administrations over failures to institute lifesaving COVID-19 health and safety protocols or organizing around such issues as campus free speech, campus policing, tuition hikes, budget cuts, or the dismantling of liberal arts programs, these emergent social movements can be understood as linked together in resistance to the corporatization of higher education that has rapidly accelerated since the pandemic began. 

Austerity and Disaster Opportunism

A key tactic in this almost half-century hijacking of higher education by entrepreneurial elites has been the deployment of a neoliberal narrative of “austerity” by higher education administrators and their allies in state houses and corporations. Scholars have variously characterized these efforts to capture the knowledge commons, which have occurred in public and private colleges and universities alike. The Marxist geographer David Harvey, in his 2003 book, The New Imperialism, wrote of the “accumulation by dispossession” resulting from the privatization of public goods and the concentration of wealth. Ka-Ho Mok and Anthony Welch, in the introduction to their 2003 edited essay collection, Globalization and Educational Restructuring in the Asia Pacific Region, describe a “structural adjustment in education” resulting from the spread of corporate culture and managerialism. And Naomi Klein, in her 2007 book, The Shock Doctrine, charted the workings of “disaster capitalism,” in which crises become opportunities for the imposition of austerity and market ideology. Indeed, in our forthcoming book, Higher Education and Disaster Capitalism in the Age of COVID-19, we engage the voluminous work on capitalism and higher education and discuss the well-documented ways that universities have been corporatized and transformed by entrepreneurial imperatives. All analyses point to a new chapter of a very old story. At the center of that story are the disastrous entanglements of the capitalist class, intellectuals, state actors, and professional-managerial functionaries who, fully embedded in academic life, now unabashedly proclaim that higher education is an industry and practice the increasingly literal business of reproducing class, race, and gender inequalities.

Additionally, the pandemic has laid bare both old and new realities of US higher education. As the political scientist Clyde Barrow mapped out more than three decades ago in Universities and the Capitalist State, our higher education system has been adapted to accommodate the shifting political needs of private interests. One feature of this political accommodation is the growing reliance on constructed narratives of continuous crisis that “necessitate” austerity measures. Austerity, in turn, provides a rationale for the commandeering of the nonprofit educational sector, and its deployment is a hallmark of a corporatization regime that further entrenches a two-tiered system: the privilege of a traditional liberal arts experience for the elite, and largely vocational training for everyone else, now at a price that can approach the cost of attending a quasi-elite college or university. As the pathways for social mobility through higher education are narrowed, Black and brown students, families, and communities bear the greatest burden, in ways that are not incidental.

The narrative of austerity as response to a particular kind of crisis is familiar to many in higher education by now. Indeed, the extent to which neoliberal administrative policy and practice follow a playbook would be comical if it were not so tragic; canned corporate sales pitches, such as those from the educational technology sector that promote new grading or lecture-recording technologies that purport to improve teaching, are shamelessly passed off to faculty, staff, and students as homegrown initiatives to meet organic needs of campus communities. This process of “franchising” higher education, whereby a centralized parent company sprouts corporate satellites (to use education researcher Philip Altbach’s metaphor), resembles the dismantling of independent media that began thirty years ago: an initial phase of corporate acquisition to “save” local institutions is followed by a second phase of hedge fund scoops, labor cuts, and shifts to digital platforms for greater returns on investments. In both sectors, narratives of scarcity and sacrifice are central. In the pandemic context, references to “right-sizing,” “protecting the brand,” “focusing on the value propositions,” “meeting consumer needs,” and “all being in it together” have permeated the language used by presidents, provosts, and deans just as they have at local media outlets, where franchised media scripts are dressed up as independent news. The full story is more complex than this, of course, but in both contexts, austerity measures are embedded in an audit culture that reduces complex qualitative social relations to quantitative performance metrics borrowed from financial accounting. The politics and methods of attacks on the university are driven by contemporary crises of capitalism that are racialized and gendered, and they deal crushing blows to faculty, staff, and students from marginalized communities.

Waning of Shared Governance

The rise of an elite managerial class governing most higher education institutions in the United States, and perhaps even globally, is a well-documented aspect of neoliberalism that has profoundly influenced the structure and the function of higher education. More specifically, the acceptance and the spread of audit culture in higher education has led to an erosion of faculty governance as decision-making authority has shifted from the faculty to a management class primarily concerned with financial interests and metrics. This process has exposed weaknesses in traditional faculty governance and poses challenges to the faculty’s ability to organize and resist austerity politics.

A recent national survey on shared governance by the AAUP shows that the overall involvement of faculty in institutional decision-making has declined in recent decades, even if, in some instances, faculty participation in decisions related to personnel and curricula has increased. One of the greatest losses is in the faculty’s decision-making role with respect to budgets, as it is precisely through budgets and a lack of budget transparency that university administrations wield power over decision-making at all levels. While the survey offers a mixed picture of the state of academic governance, other measures of faculty experience tell us that faculty today generally have only an indirect influence over budgetary decisions, primarily through budget requests made to chairs and deans. Faculty have pushed for greater involvement in decision-making about college and university budgets through faculty governance bodies, often meeting explicit pushback from an ever-changing cadre of vice presidents, provosts, and presidents. Budgets, in the context of austerity politics, are used to rationalize program cuts, to oppose replacement lines for retiring tenured faculty, or to deny new tenure-track positions. 

Similarly, while the survey offers evidence that faculty still do have authority over decisions related to the curriculum, the push for new academic programs often comes from administrators rather than faculty. At times, appointments are made and new buildings are planned or built before faculty governance bodies have approved or even discussed them. Once the plan for new programs reaches the faculty, many feel that their “hands are tied”—budgets have been allocated and “investments” have already been made. Faculty members who do not wish to appear to be “uncollegial,” or to “waste the university’s money,” or to act in ways that will “reflect negatively on the faculty,” face subtle or overt pressure not to reject programs that are largely intended to train people as professionals for work within a corporate structure.

Administrations at many American colleges and universities are also controlling the curriculum through the budget as an “austerity response”—by making strategic choices about how to reduce or increase the size of student bodies. It is now routine for faculty to be briefed on “demographic cliffs” and the threat of ever-shrinking incoming classes. Strategic plans in some cases explicitly state that an institution has suspended efforts to increase undergraduate enrollments and instead is investing in efforts to expand graduate programs, most of which will now be taking place online. This pseudo-austerity is then closely tied to strategic goals, not to the lack of funds. In this way, higher education austerity measures for faculty members can look quite different depending on whether one teaches at a community college or a four-year institution, on whether one teaches primarily at the undergraduate level in liberal arts programs or primarily on the graduate level or in graduate professional programs, and on whether one teaches full time, is tenured or on the tenure track or on a contingent appointment, or is a graduate student employee.

Administrative union-busting is another manifestation of the decline of faculty governance in the context of austerity politics. Administrators often argue that unions are not a part of academic governance even though a large number of governance issues at colleges and universities are contractual, not the least of which are matters of reappointment, tenure, and promotion. Administrations frequently suggest that because a faculty is unionized, true shared governance is not possible, as the very existence of a union on campus means that management is relieved of what we would define as the ethical and moral obligations of transparency in matters of institutional governance, including budgetary transparency. Such assertions not only pit faculty bodies against each other but also reveal additional threats to faculty governance. For instance, our own review of faculty governance matters across a range of campuses suggests increasing administrative interest in faculty legislation and processes, as management attempts to control the outcomes of curricular and program decisions regardless of whether they have an impact on budgets. Administrations have a real fear that recognizing faculty authority and autonomy might diminish their expansive control of the university enterprise—fear that is operationalized in efforts to chip away at the little that is left of faculty governance.

An “Educational Structural Adjustment”

Among the range of challenges to our ability to organize and resist austerity politics in the face of increasing corporatization, vocationalism, and financialization in higher education are the serious vulnerabilities within the structure of faculty governance itself that administrations have exploited. The structural relationship between faculty councils or senates and faculty unions—each of which is constrained by its own mission, structure, and legal mandates—is one such area of vulnerability. For example, the fruits of our intellectual labor are not “mandatory subjects of bargaining” under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which means that academic unions are limited by labor law and by academic principles and traditions, including values and norms of science (and other types of knowledge and creative work) that are antithetical to the privatization of knowledge creation. What faculty-controlled entity is able to protect the results of our intellectual labor from being owned and controlled by corporate agents within and outside the academy now? And who protects the curriculum from being owned and controlled by nonfaculty agents? If faculty councils and senates will not, or cannot, organize against the theft of the curriculum, and if they are unwilling to work with faculty unions to negotiate protections for the fruits of our labor as “permissible subjects of bargaining,” then the battle against austerity will be lost for faculty, for staff, and for our students, as will be any idealized notion of higher education as a central institution for democratic societies.

Even prior to the pandemic, academic capitalists, or those whose primary goal is to profit from higher education, and a professional class of academic managers exploited these structural gaps in the system of faculty governance. As neoliberalism has devoured higher education over the course of the past half century, private interests have filled a desperate need for assistance created by corporate elites themselves. As a result, our faculty governance structures, operating in institutional settings that now feel to many like occupied territory, have not kept pace with what looks to us like a kind of educational structural adjustment, even if we haven’t yet thought about it in that way. Left with existing shared governance models that may no longer be able to adequately confront the challenges of neoliberalism, faculty, students, and staff can increasingly feel a tragic kinship with those who have experienced structural adjustment disasters around the world and in other sectors in the United States.

This structural “loophole” or “misalignment” in our academic governance system is an Achilles heel in the current austerity context. If we do not acknowledge and tackle this problem, administrators will continue their “divide-and-conquer” strategies of pitting unions against faculty councils and senates or of working under the radar to bust unions through alliances with faculty councils and senates.

Again, austerity politics are a central contributor to this misalignment. Arguably, some administrations are seeking not just to downsize and diminish the power of the faculty through a familiar “capitalist takeover” tactic but largely to rid higher education of actual faculty members altogether, if faculty are understood to be members of a professoriate with professional autonomy, access to tenure, and a major role in shared governance. Now more than ever, we must close the gaps in the division of labor between faculty councils or senates and unions. Faculty must resist further corporatization using all the mechanisms we have at our disposal, and many faculty councils or senates do not have enough structural power to protect our academic missions without organizing. Faculty unions, too, will need reinvigorated strategies if we are to win strong contracts amid the ongoing assaults of hypermarketization and corporate consolidation.

Shared Governance Unionism

The good news is that faculty, staff, and students across the country are getting organized. Each week, it seems, we read yet another inspiring story about pandemic-era organizing, and in many instances these are also stories about antiausterity writ large, even if they are not explicitly framed that way in the coverage or by activists themselves. Take as an example Harvard University’s graduate student union strike to pressure the administration to offer fair wage increases: even though Harvard reported a $238 million surplus for 2020 along with incredible growth in the endowment, and despite the fact that an increase in wages for student workers would create only $3.5 million in additional annual cost, the administration used an austerity narrative to justify its opposition to the union’s demands before finally conceding.

On our own campus at Monmouth University, where we have an AAUP collective bargaining chapter as well as a faculty council, faculty, staff, and students have been organizing around austerity politics in coalition and separately since before the pandemic, including in a recent, successful contract campaign. Although our prepandemic organizing against the corporatization playbook had barely gotten underway before we faced the headwinds of the COVID-19 crisis and a new round of disaster austerity politics, we had time enough to generate momentum. Prior to the pandemic, our chapter had already taken initial steps to redefine ourselves as a shared governance union (as opposed to a service or business union), which entailed educating our membership about the revived academic labor movement in the United States and its relationship to the labor struggles of all workers, to the struggles of our students, and to social justice movements within and beyond our campus. It also meant educating our faculty about the importance of organizing as the primary mechanism for building power. While not discounting the essential role of contract negotiations and contract enforcement through grievances, we worked to resist the individualistic model of some service unionism that has taken root in the US labor movement since the massive backlash against American democratic socialist unionism began in the 1940s. In this same context, just before the pandemic, we had begun to incorporate an explicit resistance to austerity framing in our union’s capacity-building work around health-care access and equity and had started a gender salary equity campaign that would extend into a pandemic-era contract campaign (and that continues today in a postsettlement stage). One of our first actions as a redefined union was drafting a letter of solidarity, signed by nearly 75 percent of our members, in support of our staff union local in its contract fight for a livable salary. We also reached out to the New Jersey AAUP conference to learn what other chapters were fighting for or against, what strategies had met with success, and what lessons we could learn from colleagues elsewhere, including at Rutgers, where a groundbreaking victory on pay equity had made national headlines. 

On top of this, our AAUP bargaining chapter and our faculty council had taken two deliberate steps in fall 2019 to address the structural gaps between the faculty union and the faculty council. First, union and council leadership sought, where possible, to organize joint campaigns on issues symptomatic of deepening corporatization. For example, in 2019 our faculty council passed a resolution, also championed by our AAUP bargaining chapter, against online program management corporations—private, third-party entities that manage online learning platforms and often have influence over the curriculum, faculty appointments, marketing, and other areas in exchange for a cut of student tuition, which can exceed 50 percent. Second, the faculty leadership took a step toward greater institutionalized solidarity between the union and the faculty council by agreeing that the executive committee of each body would include an ex officio representative from the other. 

Once the pandemic hit, our AAUP chapter worked with faculty council leadership to protect shared governance in the university’s COVID-19 response and in planning for the return to in-person instruction. Together, the faculty leadership resisted the administration’s attempt to impose “HyFlex” or “BlendFlex” teaching, which would have required faculty to create and teach online and in-person versions of each course simultaneously. We surveyed the faculty about their concerns regarding the implications of these modes of instruction for faculty workload and student learning and organized a campaign to educate faculty about the origins of the HyFlex model as a corporate higher education product reimagined and marketed by enrollment management and educational technology firms. The faculty council, with the support of the union, would later incorporate language about acceptable teaching modalities into a revised university distance-learning policy. In turn, the faculty council supported the union’s work during negotiations to ensure that the university would not adopt HyFlex as a mode of instruction except through negotiated agreement with the union. In all of this, a campus-wide conversation about the ties between corporatization, disaster austerity, and the professional autonomy of faculty members was made possible in new ways. A similar collaboration between our faculty council and our AAUP chapter helped win strong new intellectual property language in the collective bargaining agreement during a time of extraordinary power grabs for control of the fruits of faculty labor across the country. 

In another example of shared governance unionism, the faculty union’s #RestartSafeandSound campaign secured faculty rights to choose to teach remotely for the 2020‒21 academic year and also achieved temporary modifications to the collective bargaining agreement to protect faculty job security in matters of evaluation, tenure, and promotion. As part of this work, the union educated faculty members about narratives of austerity and crisis in order to head off any administrative claims that enrollments would plummet and finances would suffer severe hits without a return to in-person instruction. Our union again called on the support of faculty colleagues at other New Jersey AAUP chapters, who shared resources, including contract language, on which we could model our proposals for faculty choice. Here, too, the union was openly supported by our faculty council, whose leadership worked in partnership with the union to connect pandemic issues to larger crises of corporatization—a public antiausterity framing that was the first in recent memory on our campus. 

We also worked to support joint efforts by faculty, staff, and students to advance a multipoint agenda to address systemic racism on campus and to support student organizers who were campaigning to ensure that the university was distributing funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Recovery, and Economic Security Act fairly. Subsequently, we were able to push successfully for vaccine and mask mandates by midsummer, before the Delta variant emerged as a threat. All of this work was shaped by union‒faculty council solidarity and the formal structural realignment of the two bodies, by outreach to unionized staff and student groups, by our reliance on union allies across the state, and by the deliberate public framing of issues in the context of antiausterity. Together, these efforts set the stage for increased faculty power on campus during the pandemic and for a contract campaign victory that belied the narrative of fiscal crisis. 

We would also go on to win a strong contract that included salary compression victories as part of our #Equitymatters@MU campaign to begin to address gender and racial pay equity; an agreement for a formal salary equity study; and a labor-management committee to address equity, diversity, and antiracism in hiring and promotions. We won a health-care premium freeze and were able to form a coalition with our staff union to work on health-care issues affecting all employees. Included among the campaign victories was one particularly culture-shifting initial step toward addressing the mechanisms and consequences of racialized and gendered neoliberalism in the academy: an agreement to consider redefining academic service to include the emotional work and other invisible labor that disproportionately falls on faculty of color and women faculty in their efforts to advance the equity missions of the institution, including through the day-to-day work of supporting students who are directly affected by intersecting inequalities, whether at predominantly white institutions or not. We also have highlighted occupational gender segregation across disciplines and its direct relationship to gender salary inequities in ways that have resonated widely and may serve as a model for other campuses.

Toward One Resistance

Amid the larger national landscape of campus activism, these experiences have given us a different way of looking at the challenges of organizing during the pandemic. During the pandemic, faculty across the country have been radicalized in a way that we have never seen before in our academic careers. This radicalization has provided openings for traditional faculty organizing as well as opportunities to organize around the pandemic. While there are obvious obstacles to organizing in a time of masking, social distancing, and quarantining, virtual organizing has allowed faculty members who had previously not been involved with the union to participate in unionism in an online space. Faculty parents could participate in the union while at home with their children. Faculty members who would normally travel long distances to campus could attend a virtual union event about contract bargaining without the added burden of rearranging their commute. Those who were not yet ready to challenge administrators face-to-face could get comfortable with the idea of typing questions and comments into a chat during a president’s online town hall or displaying a union logo as a Zoom background at campus-wide meetings. This kind of virtual organizing taught us that unionists can use technology to connect with one another in new ways—we can make room for different methods of speaking up, sticking together, and building power even when we are physically apart. We learned that by doing so, we could make unionism more accessible to more faculty members, build our movement, and help faculty gradually move from smaller to bigger actions. By the time our contract fight had come to a close, nearly all of our members had taken some sort of union action. Equally important, together we learned a set of valuable lessons that we can take with us beyond the pandemic and into a better world that we are building together. 

Other observers have commented on this different kind of “disaster opportunity,” and we see even further opportunities for organizing, namely, the chance to shore up the protective structures of shared governance, including the move toward a greater shared governance unionism. That work should include a sharper focus on opportunities to revisit the US Supreme Court’s 1980 Yeshiva decision (which deemed tenured and tenure-track faculty members at private institutions “managerial” and thereby excluded them from the right to unionize under the NLRA) in the context of the National Labor Relations Board’s 2014 Pacific Lutheran decision (which opened the door to faculty unionization at private institutions where corporatization has undermined the faculty’s decision-making authority). We should also continue to seek out partnerships with K‒12 labor activists and with faculty in “right-to-work” states, and we should focus on connecting faculty councils or senates and faculty unions with nonunion groups, student groups, and other unions on campus and in the community.

Finally, we must recognize that the larger crisis of corporatization in academia is not just about higher education but fundamentally about the crisis of capitalism, and that means connecting a reignited academic labor movement to the larger labor movement. As Nancy Welch has reminded us in her essay “Educating for Austerity,” it also means speaking openly about the need for faculty members to identify as workers—and as workers who will need to organize if we are to resist an austerity politics that continues to allow higher education administrators to perennially claim that the coffers are nearing empty, that they “must” extract still more labor from all of us time and again, as we face crises real or imagined. The time is now to reshape the narrative of resistance into one that directly takes on the ideologies and practices of austerity and makes plain that there must be “one resistance” to the corporate university. The pandemic has widened the window of opportunity for us to see the corporate machinery more clearly and to organize a better defense.

Johanna Foster is associate professor of sociology and the Helen Bennett McMurray Endowed Chair of Social Ethics at Monmouth University. She is also the president of the Faculty Association of Monmouth University, a collective bargaining chapter of the AAUP. Marina Vujnovic is professor of journalism at Monmouth University. She is the former two-term chair of the faculty council and served on the council’s executive board for nearly a decade. The authors write on their own behalf and do not claim that their statements represent the view of their institution or of the faculty organizations to which they belong or have belonged.