By Emma Pettit
In 2011, Benjamin Ginsberg, a political-science professor at the Johns Hopkins University, published The Fall of the Faculty, a blistering argument that
over the previous three decades, administrators without serious academic backgrounds had swelled in number, shrinking the power of professors.
Naveeda Khan, a fellow Hopkins scholar, remembers reading the book but not finishing it. She got the gist and didn’t think she needed to understand “the minutiae,” says Khan, an associate professor of anthropology.
But this summer, she’s reading it again. Both “for knowledge,” she says, “and for strategy.” This is the pandemic era.
In March, leaders had to make unprecedented decisions by the hour. As the virus spread and cases grew, they wrestled with what to do in the fall and how to withstand the impending financial blow. In April, Hopkins announced that salaries would be frozen and retirement contributions would be suspended for the next fiscal year. The president “regrettably expected” layoffs and furloughs in some units.
Hundreds of professors objected, saying the decisions had been made unilaterally. Historically, there’d been this bargain at Hopkins, one professor says, that the administration would govern with a light touch so that faculty members didn’t have to bother with governance themselves. Now, the touch was not so light. (Hopkins’s provost said that faculty members have been consulted in myriad ways since the pandemic began, including through existing shared governance structures.)
Faculty members wrote a letter to university leaders, raised funds for an independent financial analysis, and started reimagining their role at the famously decentralized institution. It was a level of collaboration among instructors that some say they’d never seen at Hopkins before.
That shift is not isolated to Hopkins. Across the country, faculty members are campaigning to be meaningfully heard by the powers that be at their institutions — big and small, elite and open access. They’re laying the bricks of new structures of faculty and staff governance after decades of erosion. In some ways, the pandemic has become this “great leveler,” says Jennifer Fredette, an associate professor of political science at Ohio University. Tenured professors are feeling the insecurity that contingent faculty members have long experienced. A raw deal has reached their doorstep, she says, and they’re now saying, “Nobody deserves this.”
Fredette finds this renewed interest in faculty organizing — especially that it’s happening across the country — energizing. But, she’s quick to add, it’s difficult work.
The pandemic, with the financial pummeling that accompanies it, is a mighty force, perhaps impossible to combat. By the beginning of July, more than 51,000 higher-education employees had already been furloughed, laid off, or had their contracts not renewed, according to Chronicle reporting. Some boards and presidents have acted unilaterally, with little incentive not to. Decades of adjunctification have already thinned the ranks of full-time college instructors and weakened the collective power of the teaching staff — perhaps past a point of no return.
Still, says Fredette, this movement is bigger than one institution. It feels impossible to go backward. “I don’t know how you put the genie back in the bottle.”
After a panicky spring came a summer of fear, anger, and growing resentment. Nationwide, instructors have been denouncing myriad decisions that they say weren’t constructed with shared-governance principles in mind. In some cases, concerns about their own health are going unheeded, they say, as college leaders make tuition-paying students a priority over employee safety.
Faculty groups have criticized austerity measures for affecting the lowest-paid workers first, rather than cutting from the top. The City University of New York’s faculty and staff union is suing the university for not reappointing around 2,800 employees, seeking to rehire those people and award back pay and benefits. Grass-roots protests have cropped at Canisius College, in Buffalo, and Carthage College, in Wisconsin.
Some college boards rubber-stamped the decisions of their leaders. Trustees at Radford University, in Virginia, passed a resolution that gave the university’s president budget-cutting powers to meet “challenges associated with the Covid-19 global health pandemic,” Nonprofit Quarterly reported. Trustees at Ohio University did something similar, ratifying “all staffing, operational, and financial decisions” related to Covid-19 made by the president, The Chronicle previously reported. Faculty in the University of Wisconsin system have cried foul about a financial plan they say is a power grab, the Wisconsin Examiner reported.
At Pennsylvania State University and Purdue University, professors chastised their leadership for largely skirting the professoriate while making plans for the fall semester, including decisions about instruction. Purdue’s president, Mitch Daniels, insisted on national television that Purdue must give it “the old college try” and reopen. Its chapter of the American Association of University Professors said in a press release that leaders had brought “not one single piece of legislation regarding changes to instruction due to Covid-19 to the University Senate, the faculty representative body at Purdue, let alone reopening plans.”
And control over what happens in one’s own classroom seems to vary drastically from campus to campus. Contingent faculty, especially, have far less power to assert their will if they want to work remotely. Protesters staged “die-ins” at Penn State and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and a car caravan at Boston University. At least two faculty groups — one at UNC and another at Appalachian State University — were so alarmed with their institutions’ fall plans that they pleaded publicly with their students not to return to campus. A group of faculty and staff members in the UNC system sued in an attempt to delay the reopening. (After 135 students and staff tested positive for Covid-19 during the first week of classes, UNC-Chapel Hill pivoted to remote instruction.)
In late June, the AAUP warned that the pandemic “must not become the occasion” to “jettison normative principles of academic governance.”
But just how normative were those principles?
Let’s avoid staring through rose-colored glasses. There was never a “golden age” of shared governance, says Christopher Newfield, a professor of English at the University of California at Santa Barbara and author of The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them (2016). The faculty did gain hiring power over their own departments, but not over administrative appointments, and certainly not over finances, Newfield says.
Nevertheless, we’re at a nadir, higher-education experts have argued. It’s a story we know by heart: State funding for higher education declined, and, as it did, public institutions became more dependent on tuition dollars and other streams of private money. Universities evolved into more complicated institutions, acquiring more land, more buildings, more debt, and more administrators who came from management backgrounds.
Boards became stacked with corporate leaders. They expected presidents to behave as CEOs, with cabinets of advisers. An argument emerged for using “businesslike” methods to run a college, writes Larry G. Gerber, a professor emeritus at Auburn University, in The Rise and Decline of Faculty Governance (2014), emphasizing the ability of a modern institution to be “flexible” and “nimble.”
All the while, pressures mounted on the faculty to produce groundbreaking research and keep up with their teaching obligations. To many, governance looked like a chore. They accepted, and even encouraged, the expansion of contingent positions in order to lighten their own teaching loads, even though it resulted in the “deprofessionalization of the professoriate as a whole,” Gerber writes. Now, nearly three-quarters of all faculty positions are off the tenure track. Those employees often play little, if any, role in official governance structures, like faculty senates or advisory committees.
Like a shoreline receding, shared governance principles wore away slowly. Now, amid the coronavirus pandemic, the detrimental effects of the erosion are clear, says George Justice, a professor of English and former dean at Arizona State University.
Take, for example, the process many campuses have created to handle remote-teaching requests. For faculty members who have an at-risk child or elderly parent at home, colleges have generated forms to fill out, and then someone follows up with that faculty member to talk further.
To Justice, that’s a “terrible process from beginning to end” because it requires faculty members to plead their case. They don’t know whether a decision will be made because of their circumstances, he says, or because the administration has promised incoming students and their parents that they’ll have an on-campus experience.
Justice doesn’t pretend to have the solution. But he says these are processes that were “certainly not constructed with faculty shared-governance leadership.”
The result, it appears, is a decay of trust. In a recent survey by The Chronicle of 832 faculty members — the vast majority of whom were tenured or on the tenure-track — 42 percent said their trust in their administration had decreased during Covid-19. (Fourteen percent said it had increased, and 44 percent said it had remained the same.) When asked to remember how confident they were before the pandemic that the shared-governance mechanisms at their institutions appropriately represented the faculty perspective, 14 percent said they had not been at all confident. Asked about their current opinions, 31 percent said they were not at all confident.
Of course, in the middle of a pandemic, quick decisions are necessary, and public-health concerns are prevalent. Some college leaders say it’s not possible to engage faculty as deeply as they might have come to expect. For one thing, they say, many faculty members don’t understand the financial and logistical workings of their institutions. And they can be obstinate.
But at Rhodes, relying on shared governance meant that Hass received timely advice from people with “on-the-ground expertise,” she wrote. “We have succeeded because of our commitment to shared governance, not in spite of it.”
At Hampshire College, the administration and a faculty negotiating team were able to reach a contract agreement that kept shared-governance principles at the center — forestalling faculty layoffs. “Too many administrations are ignoring shared governance practices, asserting that the current need for rapid and decisive action is incompatible with collaboration,” the faculty and the administration wrote in a joint statement.
Faculty members agreed to progressive salary reductions, with the largest cuts felt by senior faculty, and a cap at 20 percent. Senior administrators agreed to take cuts between 10 and 50 percent. Edward Wingenbach, the president, committed to 50 percent. Hampshire also created a voluntary-separation plan. Together, those measures brought expenses in line with projected enrollment in terms “that are fair and humane,” the statement says.
Unusual conditions at Hampshire allowed for this degree of collaboration. For one thing, it’s a small liberal-arts college. “There’s a size issue here, I think,” says Alan Goodman, a professor of biological anthropology and a member of the negotiating team. This type of relationship will likely work better at institutions where there are not “a lot of levels” of bureaucracy, he says, though he doesn’t think it’s impossible at larger institutions.
Hampshire also recently went through a high-profile crisis of near closure, during which the faculty revived a long dormant AAUP chapter. From that crisis, a newly resolved, newly organized faculty emerged. And after the president, Miriam E. Nelson, resigned after just nine months at the helm, the faculty knew that the new president, Wingenbach, needed their support to right the ship, says Michele Hardesty, an associate professor of U.S. literatures and cultural studies and a negotiating team member. They were able to say to him: Let us help you.
The process took mutual trust, Goodman says. “You want to try to find a place not where one wins and the other loses, but kind of a sweet spot where both can live with it.”
But even when college leaders commit to letting faculty in the door, they can’t avoid difficult choices. For many colleges, especially ones without deep pockets, the pandemic has imposed brutal budgets. Cuts — voluntary or not — are always painful.
At Hampshire, 12 employees took voluntary-separation packages. On the faculty listserv, professors who never thought they’d be leaving Hampshire this way emailed their goodbyes, saying how much they’d miss it.
When Shane Butler arrived at Hopkins five years ago, it still had a reputation, he says, of being a place with lots of faculty authority. Departments were said to be “glorious little islands,” innovative and autonomous, says Butler, a professor of classics. “Really, they called the shots, and the deans learned about it afterward. And the upper administration, who were they?”
But he saw signs it was drifting in another direction.
Faculty members critical of Hopkins pinpoint that drift to a couple of issues: the continuing conflict over the establishment of a private police force, and the decision to institute a universitywide tenure and promotion committee. Vocal faculty members called for the university to abandon what they called a “misconceived” proposal for a police force. (In June, the university said it would delay its plans for at least two years.) Some also objected to the universitywide committee, arguing it would increase the president’s power in tenure decisions and hamper academic freedom.
That opposition was not universal. Professors served on the advisory committee that eventually recommended the universitywide committee. The new committee will strengthen faculty governance, not weaken it, says Sunil Kumar, the provost. “The fact that you don’t like an outcome,” he says, “doesn’t mean that [you] weren’t consulted in the process.”
Regardless, said Butler, by this spring, “the lid was jumping up and down on the simmering pot.”
Then, in April, Ronald J. Daniels, the president, projected a net loss of more than $100 million for fiscal year 2020, and as much as $375 million in the next fiscal year. That reality required a one-year suspension of contributions to employees’ retirement plans, a salary freeze for faculty and staff members, along with salary cuts for university leaders, and restrictions on hiring, Daniels told Hopkins employees. Furloughs and layoffs “are regrettably expected to be necessary within some units.”
That’s when the pot, according to Butler, boiled over: “A faculty that under other circumstances might have said, ‘Well, you know, there must be a reason for this.’ Or, ‘We trust them,’ or, you know, ‘This is what they do.’ Pretty much everyone said, ‘Wait, we have absolutely no reason to believe that this is a wise decision.’”
Faculty members who used to mumble their concerns began to share them openly, says Khan, the anthropology scholar. In May, François Furstenberg, a professor of history, lambasted Hopkins and other university leaders in an essay for The Chronicle: “Even as they continue enriching themselves, university executives have revealed themselves ineffective in one of the most basic corporate responsibilities: managing financial risk.” He got hundreds of emails, he says. Weeks after it was published, at a dermatology appointment, the Hopkins-affiliated doctor came into the room and asked him about it.
Then, in June, more than 600 faculty members signed an open letter telling the president, the provost, and trustees that they were alarmed by the austerity measures which “disproportionately affect the most vulnerable members of the Hopkins and Baltimore communities.” They insisted on a “frank report” on the status of the university’s finances, a moratorium on cuts to staff employment, compensation, and research funding, and that elected faculty voices be included “at all levels of university decision-making.”
That letter, according to Furstenberg, shook things up. Because it came from people across Hopkins, it couldn’t be dismissed as “a handful of humanities professors who were disgruntled and are always disgruntled.”
Some of what faculty were advocating for was in the works already. On June 10, Hopkins held a town hall in which administrators answered submitted questions about the institution’s finances. In a June 23 message, Kumar, the provost, and Daniel G. Ennis, the senior vice president for finance and administration, addressed the faculty letter directly, outlining how faculty members had been involved in the planning process from the beginning, like on the longstanding Faculty Budget Advisory Committee.
In order to further strengthen opportunities for faculty participation, their message said, Hopkins would establish an ad hoc University Pandemic Academic Advisory Committee. It would consist of university leaders and faculty leaders who’ve previously been elected to serve on each school’s faculty body.
“We hear our faculty. We always hear our faculty,” Kumar says. “The petition, I think, signals a general level of anxiety and uncertainty at this time. And we want to be responsive to that.”
He emphasized the other ways in which Hopkins had already been seeking involvement from faculty members, like in listening sessions focused on junior faculty. “The rapidity of these decisions actually increase the need for faculty input,” Kumar says, “not lower it.”
Mahadevappa Mahesh, chair of the School of Medicine Faculty Senate, is now serving on the UPAAC committee, which met weekly during the summer. Faculty members on the committee pushed for going online, Mahesh said, which Hopkins eventually decided to do. He thinks that more communication will happen and that trust between the faculty and the administration can be rebuilt. They’re making “a bridge across the moat.”
David D. Celentano believes Hopkins higher-ups are taking faculty concerns extremely seriously. Celentano, a professor of epidemiology who serves on the faculty budget-advisory committee, says that what has happened in the last two months “is the most radical change I’ve seen” in his more than 40 years at Hopkins. There always have been and always will be critics, he says, but he’s optimistic. “It could be a new world.”
Others are skeptical. It remains to be seen, says Furstenberg, if this is performative consultation or actual change. In a follow-up letter, faculty members criticized Kumar and Ennis’s response as “yet another defense of the administration’s policies broadcast to us, rather than a real exchange with the faculty.” They’ve commissioned their own independent financial analysis of the university.
Now, faculty members are discussing what the future of shared governance at Hopkins looks like. There’s a standing committee of the Homewood Faculty Assembly dedicated to the task. There’s been talk of a universitywide faculty senate, though others think that’s premature. “We’re trying to build a governance structure that’s truly participatory,” says Jane Bennett, a professor of political science and the humanities. They’re asking themselves big, obvious questions, like, What is the current culture of shared governance? What structures already exist?
They want to make something that withstands austerity, Bennett says, and outlasts it.
That spirit has been spreading. At the University of Arizona, one of the first to announce employee furloughs, there’s an abundance of raw energy to organize, says Leila Hudson, an associate professor in the school of Middle Eastern and North African studies. The faculty senate has never been so active. But the senate is also akin to a vintage car that’s been sitting idle for decades, Hudson says. Some of its mechanisms and procedures are outdated. Now they have to figure out how to make it work again.
In April, faculty, staff, and graduate students formed the Coalition for Academic Justice UA, a collective that has been advocating for more transparency from university leaders. They pushed for a delay to the furloughs and for a seat at the negotiating table, and raised concerns about the university’s acquisition of Ashford University. On August 4, the coalition announced it was taking steps to form a wall-to-wall union for Arizona employees.
Robert C. Robbins, the president, says that the upper administration has consistently communicated with the faculty since the beginning of the pandemic, soliciting opinions from faculty-senate leaders and through a financial-sustainability task force, for example. The institution’s “greatest asset is our people, both our faculty and our staff and our students,” he says. “So of course I’m always going to listen to their ideas.”
Arizona also approved a general faculty ad hoc committee to examine the university’s finances. The committee suggested a range of alternative approaches to the furlough plans, like borrowing and pursuing a line of credit, which Robbins says the university is open to pursuing.
But ultimately, Robbins decided to move forward with furloughs, he told the campus, to begin coping with revenue losses and to try to preserve as many jobs as possible. On August 10, the first phase took effect.
The coalition shows no sign of slowing — days later, members performed a socially distant die-in on campus. In a strange way, the conditions of the pandemic have facilitated collective action. Hundreds of people have attended the coalition’s Zoom meetings. They’ve been able, says Hudson, to create a set of circumstances where the administration has to listen. They’ve had a few victories already, like the postponement of the cuts and a salary floor below which employees are exempt from the furloughs, says Celeste González de Bustamante, an associate professor of journalism and steering committee member of the coalition. That floor didn’t exist in the original announcement.
“Now, are they going to do exactly what we’re asking? That would be a little Pollyanna,” Bustamante says. But, she continued, employees know they won’t create the type of shared governance they want overnight. They’re in this for the long haul.
At Penn State, a similar grass-roots effort emerged called a Coalition for a Just University. It began as a faculty organization but quickly expanded to build ties with staff members, graduate employees, and undergraduates. At other institutions, more traditional avenues of advocacy, like AAUP chapters, are springing up in response to the pandemic. “People listen, I think, when they trust that you are being genuine and sincere and you have a viable chance of achieving your goal,” says Jamie McCallum, leader of the recently rebooted AAUP chapter at Middlebury College.
Those groups are attempting to swap strategies and band together. Chapters at Ohio University, Ohio State University, and Miami University pledged to, together, demand “visible and tangible involvement in decisions affecting the academic mission, at our own schools and all over Ohio.” Chapters in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Iowa united to call on their institutions reject needless budget cuts, protect low-paid workers, and defend shared governance.
What Covid-19 has demonstrated is that it’s the teaching — not the buildings, not the activities — that is the true core of the university, says Derek Schilling, a professor of French at Hopkins. Armed with that realization, what comes next could very well be a “golden age” of faculty-led governance, he says.
Now for a dousing of cold water.
Higher education is notoriously impervious to change. Thousands of jobs have already been lost, and more layoffs and program eliminations are in the forecast. Everyone is in scramble mode. Some university leaders, especially, are skeptical that faculty members can bring insight to the table. And remember, according to Newfield, the Santa Barbara scholar, there never really was a “golden age” to which to return. What these faculty members want is something that has never existed.
Newfield doesn’t think the kind of power consolidation that faculty members want is a “total pipe dream.” But he says it’d require a level of work in that area that most of them aren’t used to.
Butler, the Hopkins classics professor, says he never bothered with understanding the intricacies of the university’s finances before. “I wanted to be left to my books to do what I’m supposed to do,” he says, “and to leave the managers to keep the ship afloat.” He now realizes he adopted that attitude “to a fault,” he says.
It’s a “real self-incrimination” that lots of faculty across the board need to make, he says. Because now, it’s a matter of collective survival.
As a classicist, he’s found new resonance in an ancient motto. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes.
Who’s going to watch the watchers?
Emma Pettit is a staff reporter at The Chronicle who covers all things faculty. She writes mostly about professors and the strange, funny, sometimes harmful and sometimes hopeful ways they work and live. Follow her on Twitter at @EmmaJanePettit, or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.