Principles of Academic Governance during the COVID-19 Pandemic

The AAUP's Committee on College and University Governance today issued the following statement:

In response to growing concern over unilateral actions taken by governing boards and administrations during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Committee on College and University Governance affirms that the fundamental principles and standards of academic governance remain applicable even in the current crisis. These principles are set forth in the AAUP’s Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities, formulated in cooperation with the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges and the American Council on Education.

The Statement on Government famously recommends “adequate communication” and “joint planning and effort” (commonly referred to as “shared governance”) among governing board, administration, faculty, and students. A key principle articulated in the Statement on Government is that, within the context of shared governance, the faculty has “primary responsibility” for decisions related to academic matters, including “curriculum, subject matter and methods of instruction, research, faculty status, and those aspects of student life which relate to the educational process.” Although the statement acknowledges that governing boards have final decision-making authority (and may have delegated this power in certain areas to the president), it asserts that that authority “should be exercised adversely only in exceptional circumstances, and for reasons communicated to the faculty.” Under the Statement on Government, decisions to revise (even if only temporarily) tenure and promotion procedures and standards, to elect a preferred method of delivering courses, or to replace letter grades with pass-fail or incomplete designations fall within the faculty’s area of primary responsibility. Even in areas in which the faculty does not exercise primary authority—such as whether and how to reopen campus, budgetary matters, and long-range planning—the faculty still has the right, under widely observed principles of academic governance, to participate meaningfully. No important institutional decision should be made unilaterally by administrations or governing boards.

Nor should administrations or governing boards suspend provisions of faculty handbooks or collective bargaining agreements in reaction to the COVID-19 crisis by invoking “force majeure,” “act of God,” “extraordinary circumstances,” or the like. The AAUP addressed this issue in its 2006 investigation of five New Orleans institutions that terminated the appointments of faculty members in response to the disastrous effects of Hurricane Katrina the previous summer. The investigating committee observed that “the relevant AAUP-supported policies—most notably those that recognize the special challenge of ‘financial exigency’—are sufficiently broad and flexible to accommodate even the inconceivable disaster.”

The investigating committee also found that the LSU Health Sciences Center violated the provisions of Regulation 4c, “Financial Exigency,” of the AAUP’s Recommended Institutional Regulations on Academic Freedom and Tenure. As its title suggests, the purpose of Regulation 4c is to set forth procedural standards for a financial emergency—standards that safeguard academic freedom and tenure and that ensure meaningful faculty participation in decision-making. Obviously, suspending the faculty handbook or specific articles of the collective bargaining agreement for the ostensible purpose of grappling with a disaster but for the real purpose of circumventing these standards is inimical to principles of shared governance and academic freedom.

As the authors of the Katrina report observed,

However cumbersome faculty consultation may at times be, the importance and value of such participation become even greater in exigent than in more tranquil times. The imperative that affected faculties be consulted and assume a meaningful role in making critical judgments reflects more than the values of collegiality; given the centrality of university faculties in the mission of their institutions, their meaningful involvement in reviewing and approving measures that vitally affect the welfare of the institution (as well as their own) becomes truly essential.

The COVID-19 pandemic must not become the occasion for administrations or governing boards to jettison normative principles of academic governance. The Committee on College and University Governance regards such a course of action as not only unacceptable but detrimental to both the effective operation and the welfare of the institution. During this challenging time, the committee calls upon administrations and governing boards, in demonstrated commitment to principles of shared governance, to maintain transparency, engage in “joint effort,” and honor the faculty’s decision-making responsibility for academic and faculty personnel matters as the most effective means of weathering the current crisis.

For more, watch a livestream discussion of the statement with Michael DeCesare, chair of the AAUP’s Committee on College and University Governance and professor of sociology at Merrimack College.

Publication Date: 
Monday, June 29, 2020