State of the Profession: Twin Crises

By Michael Bérubé and Michael DeCesare

More than a year into the pandemic, we are facing the worst crisis in academic governance in decades.

We offer this blunt assessment as cochairs of the AAUP committee that investigated departures from AAUP-recommended standards of governance at eight institutions: Canisius College, Illinois Wesleyan University, Keuka College, Marian University, Medaille College, National University, the University of Akron, and Wittenberg University. These eight are by no means alone in witnessing governance violations since the onset of the pandemic. Indeed, the investigating committee’s report, which will be published in May, discusses disturbing developments at several other institutions, including the State University of New York system, Marquette University, Ithaca College, five universities in Pennsylvania’s state system, and the six universities that comprise the Kansas state system.

The violations that occurred across the institutions we formally investigated are as deplorable as they are brazen: the unilateral actions of administrations and governing boards to abrogate faculty contracts, to revise or suspend faculty handbooks, to replace elected faculty bodies with ad hoc governance groups dominated by administrators and appointed faculty, to terminate faculty positions and eliminate academic programs and departments, and to deny faculty members their right to academic due process.

These actions were typically taken under the guise of responsible fiscal stewardship. However, the committee was forced to question whether the boards and administrations of the many institutions that faced financial difficulties prior to the pandemic adequately met their fiduciary and managerial responsibilities during those years. If they had, the effects of the pandemic would not have been nearly as painful.

Our investigation led to several other conclusions. Among them is that the preexisting policies and procedures at the investigated institutions were generally adequate, yet boards and administrations, seeking to be “nimble” and rapid in their decision-making, chose to revise, suspend, or circumvent them, including those relevant to areas of primary faculty responsibility. In addition, force-majeure clauses in collective bargaining agreements (or faculty handbooks) provided administrations with a nuclear option that nullifies all the other provisions of such documents and, when upheld by binding arbitration, left faculty members with no recourse or grounds for appeal. This confirmed that the AAUP is right to hold that invoking force majeure instead of declaring financial exigency is inimical to principles of faculty governance and academic freedom.

At most of the institutions we investigated, restoring or maintaining financial health was the board’s and the administration’s stated rationale for taking the actions they did—yet financial exigency was never declared at any of the eight. Instead, boards and administrations eliminated academic programs and faculty positions in response to a bleak, but not exigent, financial outlook. What’s more, a number of other institutions are currently attempting to establish an alternative, less stringent category of financial crisis called “budgetary hardship,” which would empower administrations to terminate even tenured faculty appointments without a hearing if doing so were deemed necessary to eliminate a projected revenue shortfall.

Finally, tenure—and, thus, academic freedom—has endured a frontal assault across the country. Kansas is the latest battle site. In a unanimous vote at the end of January, the state’s board of regents, which governs six universities, approved a policy extending through next year allowing for “emergency” terminations and suspensions of faculty positions—including tenured positions—as a response to financial stress. The previous policy entailed declaring financial exigency in order to terminate tenured faculty appointments, a process consistent with AAUP recommendations. Under the regents’ new policy, no declaration of financial exigency is necessary, and faculty members whose appointments are terminated or suspended would not be entitled to a hearing. Whether Kansas will prove to be a bellwether remains to be seen. Even if it does not, however, the institution of tenure has experienced severe attacks in recent months.

The past year has brought crises in both public health and academic governance. We will undoubtedly overcome the former. Without sustained organization and action by faculty members across the country, it is not at all certain that we will emerge unscathed from the latter.

Michael Bérubé is Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Literature at Pennsylvania State University. Michael DeCesare is professor of sociology at Merrimack College and chair of the AAUP’s Committee on College and University Governance.