Change Can Come Swiftly When We Rally Together

How the Georgia AAUP conference fought for a mask mandate—and won.
By Matthew Boedy

This article is part of a series, "Reflections on Faculty Life in a Pandemic." 

At the Georgia AAUP conference’s meeting at the end of February, the biggest issue on the agenda was a coming revision of our state’s general education requirements. The courses themselves were part of the debate, but the larger issue echoing across the tables in the small room where about twenty-five of us chatted was the top-down approach previously taken by the university system in creating the new curriculum. Sure, there had already been faculty input, but only in response to the changes announced by the system’s leadership. Those of us in that meeting felt unheard, distant from the process.  

Georgia’s statewide university system is led by a governor-appointed chancellor and a board of regents who oversee twenty-six institutions. These people set policies, tuition, and budgets and make decisions about curriculum and courses. The faculty have some say in these matters through senates and our AAUP chapters and state conference, but the process bears little resemblance to shared governance as the Redbook would describe it.

I was elected president of the Georgia conference at that February meeting. Two weeks later, as COVID-19 was spreading throughout the country, I sent out an email introducing myself to our more than four hundred members and expressing the hope that “you all are part of local and perhaps state discussions concerning going fully online.” Three minutes after I sent the message, the system administration announced that we would shut down for two weeks. Four days later, it announced that we were moving online.

What the national AAUP had warned about in a March 9 message to members—that “decisions to close campuses or to move to an all-online model for the short term are being made without adequate faculty involvement in decision-making”—had happened to us in Georgia. And while we were surprised at the loss of a semester, we were not surprised that such a decision came from above. In short, faculty involvement at the highest levels of our state university system is perfunctory at best, and nonexistent at worst.

Information during those first few days and weeks after the shutdown was often contradictory, coming from chapter leaders who had been informed of this or that through communication lines sifted through faculty senate leaders, deans, provosts, presidents, and the system office. While my university had virtual town halls, our administration was waiting, as always, for guidance from the system office.

And so we waited. There were many other things in need of our attention. Many of us had been tossed into online education for the first time—not to mention the other challenges of working from home—and were glued to grim news about the coronavirus’s daily death toll.

At some point in May it became obvious to my colleagues and me that our university system would not institute a universal mask mandate during our upcoming fall semester. Local AAUP members were concerned. But we didn’t know what to do with our angst except send emails to one another, because we don’t have an effective shared governance apparatus at the state level. We have a statewide faculty council populated by current senate leaders on which I sit, in my capacity as the AAUP conference president, as a nonvoting member. And while the faculty council has a routine audience with the chancellor, it plays mainly an advisory function.

So, on June 6 I wrote an email to the chancellor. On a Saturday. From my couch.  

It was a simple plea for a mask mandate.

He replied the next day. Just after 11 p.m. The mandate wasn’t coming, and he stated why: neither the state nor the federal government had mandated masks.

I relayed that weak reasoning in an op-ed I published two days later, without noting the chancellor’s message.

Two days after that, the Chronicle of Higher Education interviewed me. I mentioned the email to the reporter, and from there, the floodgates of embarrassing media attention opened.

Unknown to me at the time, other faculty members at mainly larger institutions were also using their platforms to advocate for a mask mandate. Petitions were circulated, some garnering thousands of names. Academic departments, AAUP chapters, and faculty senates all advocated for masks. The usually slow bureaucracy of faculty organizations turned on a dime toward one goal.

By the end of the month, the calls for a mask mandate had reached a crescendo. And just after the July 4 holiday weekend, the system reversed itself and issued a mandate.

I don’t mean to imply that my email or interview broke the dam. Getting a mask mandate from the university system was an enormous group effort.

But for AAUP members in other states, the important thing to note about our movement was that it did not travel through the organizations created for shared governance. Those governance bodies often reacted to the grassroots ferment among faculty. Together, we forced change from what is routinely a black box for faculty members: the central state office.

What this says about the condition of our system is clear: after the pandemic ends, after we get back into the classroom without masks, we have to change the way we are governed. For now, though, the pandemic has already changed so much. Changed us so much. Maybe it will change the system, too.

Matthew Boedy is an associate professor of English at the University of North Georgia in Gainesville, Georgia. His email address is [email protected].