Friday, May 28, 2021
The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) issues a Special Report, Covid 19 and Academic Governance. The news is not good. We law professors had a rough ride after 2008's Great Recession, but most law schools were able to ride out the storm and most law schools are now steering towards calmer waters. Meanwhile, smaller colleges and universities are taking on a lot a water as a result of the pandemic, and the report sadly evidences that contracts and tenure do little to protect faculty when educational institutions founder.
The title of this post is a quotation from a university administrator, allegedly in the service of "disaster capitalism." That is, some university administrations may have used the pandemic as an excuse to eliminate programs and faculty that were not carrying their weight in terms of revenue generation. Saying the quiet part loud, academic administrators welcomed the opportunity created by the pandemic. They invoked "act of God" provisions to close departments and terminate tenured faculty members, and they tossed aside existing faculty handbooks, replacing them with new ones written by administrators with limited faculty input. The result may be a permanent adjustment of university governance that will make it -- wholly unsurprisingly -- more resemble corporate governance, with power concentrated in the hands of university administrators, while faculty governance is constrained, especially with respect to financial matters.
The AAUP document is illustrative rather than exhaustive. It reports on an investigation into eight institutions. While the investigation was ongoing, the AAUP was inundated with reports of similar developments at other institutions, but the report remains focused on eight: Canisius College (NY), Illinois Wesleyan, Keuka College (NY), Marian University (WI), Medaille College (NY), National University (CA), University of Akron, and Wittenberg University (OH).
The report makes for sobering reading. There seems to be something of a playbook that administrations follow. Faculty as a whole respond rather timidly, voicing their objections but ultimately acquiescing as their colleagues agree to severance or early retirement. They have little choice, as courts tend to back administrations, who can rely on "financial exigency" or "act of God" provisions in faculty handbooks, and tenured faculty members have few options if they lose their jobs. The AAUP acknowledges that educational institutions face significant financial challenges, and the report does not suggest that there is an alternative to cutting programs and terminating tenure lines. Rather, it admonishes these institutions for failing to follow AAUP procedures and guidelines for doing so with the involvement of and input from faculty.
The AAUP tacitly acknowledges that it has a problem. According to the report Kenneth Macur of Medaille College wrote to his faculty on April 15th, “I believe that this is an opportunity to do more than just tinker around the edges. We need to be bold and decisive . . . . A new model is the future of higher education.” That new model does not include the tenure system as we currently know it.
The report indicates that AAUP reached out to Dr. Macur seeking an interview.
In his May 12 response, the president declined a request for an interview by the investigating committee, submitting instead a three-page statement, which claimed that Medaille “has no affiliation or relationship with the AAUP, does not have a faculty chapter of the AAUP, and does not have any faculty listed as members on the AAUP’s website. The AAUP does not govern, accredit, or have any authority over Medaille College.” It is symptomatic of the current state of affairs in American higher education, we believe, that a college president would declare his intention to dismantle tenure at his institution to the Wall Street Journal but refuse to participate in an investigation conducted by the AAUP.
In such circumstances, all AAUP can do is name and shame, but it is not clear if that approach will be effective. One would hope that being the focus of an AAUP report would serve a disciplinary function on such institutions, but they seem willing to take the risk, and most likely consequence of negative publicity would be declining enrollments and more cuts to faculty and staff.