COVID-19 and Academic Governance

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Published May 2021.

Executive Summary

This report details an investigation of the crisis in academic governance that has occurred in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, with a focus on eight institutions: Canisius College (NY), Illinois Wesleyan University, Keuka College (NY), Marian University (WI), Medaille College (NY), National University (CA), University of Akron, and Wittenberg University (OH). AAUP governance investigations are conducted under the aegis of the Association’s standing Committee on College and University Governance by AAUP members who have had no previous involvement in the cases under investigation. The investigating committee is charged with independently determining the relevant facts and the positions of the principal parties before reaching its findings.

For American higher education, as for almost every other aspect of life and livelihood in the United States, the arrival of the COVID-19 virus in early 2020 was a cataclysmic event. Within a matter of weeks, instruction moved online, meetings and conferences were canceled or transferred to platforms such as Zoom, residence halls were evacuated, and athletic and hospitality facilities were closed. As the first wave of the virus spread, the longer-term impact of the pandemic began to be felt, and many institutions faced dire challenges in the 2020–21 academic year. While the financial impact of the pandemic presented a sudden and unforeseeable challenge at most institutions, at others it exacerbated conditions that had been festering long before COVID-19. This report does not dispute the financial challenges faced by colleges and universities in the pandemic, especially the small, private, tuition-dependent institutions that most of this report concerns; nor do we contest the fact that, in the first wave of the pandemic, some decisions, such as to conduct all business remotely, had to be made expeditiously. 

The investigation on which this report is based, however, was prompted largely by opportunistic exploitations of catastrophic events. Some institutional leaders seem to have taken the COVID-19 crisis as an opportunity to turbocharge the corporate model that has been spreading in higher education over the past few decades, allowing them to close programs and lay off faculty members as expeditiously as if colleges and universities were businesses whose CEOs suddenly decided to stop making widgets or shut down the steelworks.

These problems are widespread and this report is unavoidably incomplete. As soon as news of this investigating committee and its charge was released, faculty members from a wide range of institutions contacted the AAUP’s staff with accounts of similar developments on their campuses, and as the committee reviewed information about the eight institutions under investigation, news reports continued to pour in about the financial effects of the pandemic on other institutions. This report, then, should be understood as illustrative rather than exhaustive. 

Although variations among the eight institutions make generalizations difficult, the investigating committee offers, by way of conclusion, the following general findings and recommendations.


  •  The COVID-19 pandemic has presented the most serious challenges to academic governance in the last fifty years. The colleges and universities included in this investigation are by no means the only institutions that witnessed dramatic board and administrative action regarding governance since the pandemic began.

  • Faculty members at the investigated institutions faced the dilemma of either participating in ad hoc governance processes they knew to be flawed in the hope of shaping their outcomes or refusing on principle to participate at all, thereby allowing administrators and board members to move forward without them. 

  • Sudden, unilateral decisions by governing boards or administrations to set aside an institution’s regulations, in whole or in part, amount to declarations that agreed-upon rules and procedures—which should obtain under all conditions—can be discarded altogether in moments of crisis. But over the long term, sudden decisions to revise faculty handbooks unilaterally—whether made by administrators or trustees—are possibly even more corrosive, since the disaster-management procedures enshrined in those revisions will become permanent aspects of the governance of the institutions that adopt them, and they may seem all the more legitimate for that. 

  • Force majeure‒type clauses in collective bargaining agreements, faculty handbooks, and faculty contracts or letters of appointment provide administrations with a nuclear option that nullifies all the other financial exigency‒related provisions of those documents.

  • At most of the institutions under investigation, restoring or maintaining financial health was the board and administration’s rationale for abandoning institutional regulations, disregarding fundamental principles and practices of academic governance, discontinuing academic programs, and terminating tenured appointments—yet financial exigency was not declared at any of the eight. The reluctance to do so is not new. The AAUP’s 2013 report The Role of the Faculty in Conditions of Financial Exigency pointed out that “most colleges and universities are not declaring financial exigency even as they plan for widespread program closings and terminations of faculty appointments.”

  • The investigating committee encountered scant evidence that the governing boards and administrations of the investigated institutions terminated the positions of the affected faculty members based on considerations that violated their academic freedom; nevertheless, the committee did encounter overwhelming evidence that tenure—and, thus, academic freedom—faced a frontal assault at these institutions and many others in the wake of the pandemic.

  • The policies and procedures at the investigated institutions were generally adequate, yet boards and administrations, in the interest of rapid decision-making, chose to ignore, revise, or circumvent them, including those relevant to areas where the faculty exercises primary responsibility.

  •  Association policies and regulations regarding institutional governance, financial exigency, academic freedom and tenure, and academic due process remain broad and flexible enough to accommodate even the inconceivable disaster. We found no evidence that relevant AAUP-supported policies failed in any of the cases under investigation. Indeed, at most of the institutions included in this investigation, those policies were never given a chance to demonstrate their efficacy, either because they did not exist in institutional regulations or, more commonly, because they were unilaterally abandoned by the administration and governing board. 

  • Academic governance has been under severe pressure since the onset of the pandemic. Though it would be premature to say that we have entered a new era of institutional governance in advance of what some observers are calling “the great contraction” in American higher education, the evidence already before us suggests that this has been a watershed moment. There is no question that many colleges and universities are in financial distress, and many more will face daunting challenges in the next decade. The question is whether robust shared governance will survive those challenges. 

Primary Recommendation

Governing boards, administrations, and faculties must make a conscious, concerted, and sustained effort to ensure that all parties are conversant with, and cultivate respect for, the norms of shared governance as articulated in the Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities.  The Statement on Government was jointly formulated in 1966 by the AAUP, the American Council on Education, and the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. It makes the case that effective institutions of higher education practice “joint” or what has come to be called “shared” governance, which, in practical terms, means (a) that no important institutional decision is made without the participation of the governing board, the administration, and the faculty and (b) that each institutional component has decision-making authority based on its primary responsibilities. The faculty has “primary responsibility” and thus decision-making authority “for such fundamental areas as curriculum, subject matter and methods of instruction, research . . . and those aspects of student life which relate to the educational process” as well as for matters related to faculty status—that is, “appointments, reappointments, decisions not to reappoint, promotions, the granting of tenure, and dismissal.” As shared governance is practiced at most reputable institutions of higher education, the administration and governing board accept faculty recommendations in these two broad areas “except,” as the Statement notes, “in rare instances and for compelling reasons which should be stated in detail.” 

Additional Recommendations for Faculty

  • When faculty members opt to participate in a makeshift governance process, they should do so under the same conditions that govern their participation in the standing governance structure: they should be elected by the faculty rather than appointed by the administration, and they should be free to discuss the body’s work with their colleagues and report regularly to them.

  • Faculty members, especially those serving in their institution’s faculty senate or similar representative body, should be exceptionally vigilant about changes to handbooks that may change the character of academic employment at their institutions irrevocably.

  • Faculty should steadfastly oppose the inclusion of force majeure clauses in collective bargaining agreements, faculty contracts and letters of appointment, and faculty handbooks.

  • Faculty should be centrally involved in deliberations about exigency; they should also object to any attempt to introduce new categories of financial crisis that would circumvent AAUP-supported standards on financial exigency.

Read the complete report.  Jump to Introduction | Canisius College | Illinois Wesleyan University | Keuka College | Marian University | Medaille College | National University | University of Akron | Wittenberg University | Concluding Observations and Recommendations