Moving beyond Crisis

How the Hampshire College AAUP chapter built solidarity and avoided faculty layoffs.
By Michele Hardesty

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

Some faculty members at Hampshire College joked, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit our campus, that at least we had the advantage of being accustomed to crisis. Moreover, given our recent experience, we knew how to organize. In spring 2019, a coalition of faculty, students, alumni, parents, and staff had fought back against the previous president’s merger plans and won. In the fallout of that crisis, which included a decision not to admit a full fall class and extensive staff layoffs, Hampshire’s AAUP chapter negotiated an agreement with the interim president that avoided massive faculty layoffs. Tasked with reducing the faculty salary pool by 50 percent in mere weeks, AAUP-HC negotiated terms that allowed the college to reduce costs through voluntary concessions by individual faculty members—incentives for retirement, short-term leaves of absence with a right to return, and temporary reduced FTE with full-time benefits.

In spring 2020, the college faced not a merger but a pandemic. COVID-19 had brought multiple shocks to Hampshire’s revenue streams and endowment; it imperiled the college’s ambitious multiyear plan for recovery, and it threw any negotiations that our chapter had planned on behalf of the faculty into uncertainty.  We now confronted a new crisis—and we would be asked for more concessions.

By the end of May, the AAUP-HC’s negotiating team—of which I was a member, as well as being a chapter officer—had come to a tentative agreement with the administration that again avoided layoffs, instead getting reductions through a one-year faculty salary cut and a voluntary separation program that offered an ongoing affiliation to Hampshire. The agreement also included deep cuts to senior administrative salaries and a 50 percent cut to the president’s salary. The faculty, operating as a body and in working groups, designed, debated, and voted to approve a temporary salary cut model, progressively scaled, that did not cut faculty salaries that fell beneath the entry-level salary for an assistant professor in our equity salary scale. The average cut was 7 percent.

So, how did we do it?

September 2019 had arrived with a promising new president, thirteen first-year students, a $60 million fundraising plan, and an ambitious, bottom-up project led by students, staff, faculty, and alumni to re-envision our curriculum, thus reenergizing admissions for fall 2020. Our fall convocation event was called “Launch.” By the end of the semester, that curricular project had blossomed into cohort-based models of study called learning collaboratives. Coming into the 2019‒20 academic year, I and others on the reconstituted AAUP-HC Steering Committee knew we would need to return to these issues of faculty employment, so we focused our energy there.

The steering committee strategized, held membership meetings, developed proposals, and circulated surveys in order to figure out how we would meet another year of reduced revenue while making sure faculty members could come back from expiring temporary positions and discontinue onerous voluntary FTE reductions. The chapter surveyed non-ten-year-track faculty—Hampshire College does not have traditional tenure, though it does have a “regular” faculty track that involves promotion and reappointment on ten-year cycles—and worked hard to build a chapter that represented all faculty members. In March 2020, we assembled a four-person negotiating team. We needed to work out these questions of budget and concessions once again, but we also wanted to put forward proposals of our own—the concessions could not be all on our side. We proposed senior leadership salary reductions as a precondition for continued faculty concessions; protections for approved sabbaticals and for basic faculty conference and research funds; and transparency, equity, and due-process protections for faculty members on short-term contracts. When the pandemic hit, we were able to fold in the AAUP’s guidelines on responding to COVID-19 and bring those to the table. Just like last year, whatever we had to face we would face together. And as we had the previous year, we strove to practice collective bargaining and workplace democracy even though we are a nonunion, advocacy chapter.

Fortunately, our new president did not repeat the mistakes of his predecessor; to the contrary, he willingly came to the table, agreed to transparency, and complied with AAUP guidelines. While he put layoffs on the table, he also granted the faculty the ability to make an independent assessment about the financial state of the college and to determine whether the budget could be reduced by other means. The executive committee of the faculty nominated the AAUP-HC negotiating team to be a short-term elected governance body representing the faculty, and we approached this role in the mode of collective bargaining: we would not speak on behalf of the faculty but would negotiate proposals supported by the faculty and bring them back to the faculty for ratification. All faculty members except deans, and not just AAUP members, would be able to vote on the ratification.

How did we do all this work in a pandemic? On Zoom, of course. In full faculty meetings, many of which I facilitated, we strove to put in place clear processes; we stated the goal of the meeting at the outset, divided up agenda items among the steering committee and negotiating team, and made sure different people were filling the roles of facilitator, chat monitor, and notetaker. For weeks on end, an average of seventy faculty members (out of a hundred) would show up to meetings, even deep into June. Being able to log in from home reduced some of the barriers to attending meetings (though childcare was still an issue), and the chat window meant that faculty members were able to add many more comments and questions—and in fact carry out parallel and intersecting conversations—that would not have been possible in person. We used these meetings to share information, get feedback and conduct quick polls, explain the status of the negotiations, organize working groups, and eventually present tentative agreements for ratification.

Although we won victories, they left scars. Our victories affirmed the passion and creativity of Hampshire’s faculty, a quality shared equally by the college’s staff and students—our willingness to fight, to dig in, to find unlikely solutions. But these victories did not address the sense that our creativity and passion were being extracted from us at a very high cost. These victories also meant that many of our colleagues could not or would not stay at Hampshire, or that they would be working on other campuses in short-term positions when the pandemic hit. These victories did not restructure the institution around workplace equity, and in their wake the faculty became whiter and less international.

As part of the negotiated agreement between the administration and the faculty, we formed a working group at the end of the spring to find ways to make our workload more equitable and, when possible, to reduce it. Yet our devotion to this work, to Hampshire students, and to this college that we all build together, all the time, makes it hard to put limits on the work, especially if it means a student won’t be served or the work will fall on a faculty or staff colleague. We need an institutional culture that values faculty and staff labor without always increasing demands on it.

To have that kind of institutional culture, we must move beyond crisis. I don’t want us to be constantly fighting for survival against layoffs and worse—I want us to thrive. What would that look like?

Michele Hardesty is associate professor of US literatures and cultural studies at Hampshire College. She has served as vice president and secretary/treasurer of the Hampshire College AAUP chapter and was a member of the chapter’s spring 2020 negotiating team.