Washington College AAUP Chapter

By Kelly Hand

An AAUP chapter was first formed at Washington College in 1949, but it had been long dormant when faculty members began to organize last summer in response to the financial crisis at the small liberal arts college in Chestertown, Maryland. Certified by the national AAUP Council in August 2020, the AAUP Washington College chapter (AAUP-WC) is one of many new advocacy chapters established since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Unionization is a long-term goal for most Washington College faculty members, who face legal obstacles to collective bargaining at private institutions, but organizing as an advocacy chapter has empowered them to act rapidly and effectively in the short term. The chapter succeeded in reversing the administration’s decisions to release two tenure-track faculty members in the fall and eliminate additional positions in the spring and in working with the administration on alternative solutions to the college’s fiscal challenges.

Like other advocacy chapters that have mobilized against administrative overreach during the pandemic, AAUP-WC is insisting upon meaningful shared governance and a faculty voice in securing their institution’s future. As the college launches a search for a new president, the chapter is calling for an open process with faculty, staff, and student representation on the search committee.

We learned more about AAUP-WC from members of the chapter’s executive committee.

What key issues motivated faculty members to form a chapter?

By early 2020, the college was experiencing a fiscal crisis resulting largely from declining enrollments. Though demographic changes may be a primary cause, long-standing instability and turnover in the college’s leadership exacerbated the problem. The faculty had a growing sense that their voice was being marginalized in important decisions that affect the viability and fiscal health of the college, and they wanted a more meaningful seat at the table with the board and administration.

In spring 2020, the board of visitors and governors dismissed the president, and the provost and dean subsequently resigned. The interim president subsequently appointed is the college’s sixth president in eleven years, and the search for a seventh is underway. From 2010 to 2018 the college had nine vice presidents of advancement and six directors of admissions. The turnover has had devastating economic and reputational consequences for an institution dependent on tuition and donations.

Following the onset of the pandemic, the board indicated a need to rapidly downsize the college’s instructional staff. By the end of spring semester we lost, through contract nonrenewal or nonreplacement of faculty lines, approximately fourteen faculty FTE (more than 10 percent of our teaching workforce), with the board signaling further and more aggressive reductions to both tenure-track and tenured faculty beginning in fall 2020. Concurrently, the administration also announced the termination of the college’s contributions to our retirement plans, cuts to our health-care benefits, and the elimination of various stipends.

While faculty were distressed about threats to job security and equitable compensation, our greater collective concern was that shortsighted decisions could damage the educational mission of the college, impoverish the student experience, and make us less competitive in recruiting and retaining talented faculty. We were dismayed that decisions were not being reached through our existing committee structure. Throughout the summer months, faculty met in both small and large groups to discuss the issues and propose solutions. We decided to revive the AAUP chapter at the college to strengthen our collective voice and to advocate for stronger shared governance.

What challenges and opportunities did you encounter in organizing faculty members?

The Washington College chapter reactivated during the pandemic and has yet to have any in-person meetings. Organizing faculty exclusively through electronic media, including emails, messaging platforms, and virtual conferencing software, has some predictable challenges. The biggest downside has been the lack of informal engagements like hallway conversations, coffee-hour gatherings, and lunch meetings. The absence of face-to-face communication hinders our ability to hold small-group meetings that enable colleagues to express themselves more freely than in large meetings. It’s difficult to engage the newest members of the faculty, especially those who joined us this academic year.

But there are notable opportunities, as well. Virtual conferencing software made it possible to gather the majority of the faculty during the summer months, when most of us are typically off campus for research or vacations. Messaging platforms, new to many of us and more convenient than email, facilitated asynchronous conversations. These technologies allowed us to engage with colleagues on leave or sabbatical and with several faculty emeriti. The voices of these colleagues have contributed immensely to the conversation.

How have AAUP resources helped you to define and work toward your chapter’s goals?

The erosion of shared governance has been a long-standing problem, but it reached a crisis point when the board unilaterally decided to dismiss the president in June 2020 and mandated austerity measures that disregarded financial exigency procedures articulated in our faculty handbook. The administration also indicated that, after initial cuts in the fall semester, it would pursue additional faculty terminations through our established procedures for program change, despite admitting that such program change was explicitly for financial (not educational) reasons. Because these decisions conflicted with procedures established to protect academic tenure and faculty participation in institutional governance, we wanted to focus conversation on those principles, which were informed by AAUP guidelines.

We drew upon AAUP reports and statements as we drafted communications, leaning on AAUP recommendations and best practices to support and strengthen our positions. We circulated statements among colleagues and administrators, reiterating these principles whenever possible in discussions with administrative leaders.

The interim president, who came on in September 2020, indicated that he was familiar with AAUP guidelines as a former faculty member and supported them. However, this expression of support was not enough to stop the board’s mandate to reduce the number of tenure-line faculty members while ignoring our established procedures. Christopher Simeone, director of the AAUP’s Department of Organizing and Services, helped the AAUP-WC with organizing our response to the administration and shaping our communication with faculty and the larger campus community. Our immediate goal to stop the proposed termination of tenure-line faculty appointments in violation of our official procedures initially failed, but we then succeeded when the interim president in December 2020 reversed the decision made in October. Our longer-term goal has been to strengthen the foundational principles of shared governance at the college.

After the board announced a presidential search to replace the interim president, AAUP-WC organized a discussion about AAUP guidelines regarding presidential searches, with the AAUP’s Hans-Joerg Tiede joining us as a guest speaker. This session was open to all faculty and academic staff, and the robust turnout generated thoughtful, ongoing conversation on which we plan to build through additional opportunities to educate and discuss shared governance issues, including faculty responsibility in financial decisions and relations with the board.

What is your vision for making AAUP-WC and Washington College sustainable in the long term?

We are a young chapter, formed amid financial and health crises. Our first semester was focused on promoting unity among faculty and rapidly responding to the administration’s potentially catastrophic policy decisions. As these threats have begun to subside, we are shifting our energies toward promoting faculty-wide conversations about the college’s future and welcoming others in the college community into that dialogue. We hope to see the reinstatement not only of staff members who are central to the college’s mission but also of retirement contributions, stipends, and annual cost-of-living adjustments. We also continue to seek recognition as a union and to promote the opportunities unionization would bring to increase transparency, equity, shared governance, and accountability at the college. A sustainable institution needs to provide financial stability to the employees who educate and support students.

While all those involved in institutional decision-making want the best for our college’s future, it is clear that we need deep structural changes and positive, sustainable alternatives. The next step is to envision, and then build collectively, a college that is innovative, principled, inclusive, and exciting. Our hope is that AAUP-WC can support and catalyze this undertaking. We can draw on the national AAUP’s educational resources, connections with colleagues at other institutions, and our own institutional talent to articulate a visionary plan for Washington College’s long-term sustainability.

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