University retrenchments by the faculty book and beyond it

The announcement on 9 June that the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) had sanctioned National University (NU) for “substantial non-compliance with standards of academic governance” was hardly a surprise to the faculty of the 50-year-old institution based in San Diego, California.

Fifteen months earlier, as the COVID-19 crisis was taking hold in North America, the university’s board of trustees threw out the private higher education institution’s Faculty Policies, and declared an “emergency condition”, giving the administration extraordinary powers to reorganise the university without faculty guidance and, most alarmingly for the AAUP, to abrogate faculty contracts.

By contrast, over the same period, half-way across the country at Ohio Wesleyan University (OWU) in Delaware, Ohio, also a private institution, faculty committees led the way in recommending the closure or consolidation of 21 programmes.

The discussions were not always easy, and English Professor Zackariah Long, who served on every committee involved in the decisions, saw friends’ and colleagues’ positions terminated. “It was totally heart aching,” he says. “But I think we had a quite good and open process, especially when you hear what some other institutions have been doing.”

Invoking force majeure unwarranted

Unlike dozens of colleges and universities across the United States that invoked force majeure, which allows the voiding of contracts for unforeseen reasons, such as the devastating impact on school finances caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, NU’s finances did not warrant this step.

“In fact,” says Sociology Professor Michael DeCesare of Merrimack College in Massachusetts, who was on the AAUP committee that investigated NU and recommended censuring the university, “by all accounts it is quite flush financially”.

Excluding a US$350 million donation by T Denny Sanford, owner of the First Premier Bank headquartered in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, in 2019, in the spring of 2020, the university’s reserve fund totalled US$650 million. In April 2020, NU received an additional US$2.28 million from the federal government’s Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.

Nor did NU suffer the financial drain schools like OWU did when they closed the dormitories and sent students home. NU does not have any dormitories, and even before the great shift to on-line teaching necessitated by the pandemic, 70% of NU’s courses were taught online and those that could be were quickly transitioned to online courses.

‘Egregious’ violations of standards

The AAUP focused on three significant violations of established academic governance standards.

“The trinity of the most egregious violations,” DeCesare told University World News, “are 1) the abrogation of faculty contracts, 2) suspension of the institution’s faculty policies, and 3) unilateral replacement of an elected faculty senate with what they call a University Senate.”

What one faculty member, who has asked to remain anonymous, calls “COVID cover” allowed the board of trustees to take advantage of California Governor Gavin Newsom’s declaration of a “state of emergency” to grant the university’s administration the extraordinary powers to re-organise the university in ways it would not have been able to do otherwise.

“It is despicable because it [NU] used a genuine health emergency to ram through changes that were already planned but [which], because of National University’s strong Faculty Policies that were part of our contracts, they were unable to accomplish [otherwise],” says Alex Zukas, president of the National University Chapter of the AAUP.

While NU President David W Andrews would, no doubt, have taken issue with characterising the changes at the university as an “anti-faculty coup”, as an anonymous group of faculty called it on the academic blog of Academe magazine, at a virtual town hall on 8 April 2020 he admitted that the restructuring of the university was not the result of the COVID crisis.

“Some of the decisions were being considered prior to the COVID-19 outbreak but were accelerated by the crisis,” he said. At this same meeting he downplayed the fact that faculty had been excluded from the planning of these changes. “Our traditional timeframe for faculty consultation and shared governance was truncated on a number of these issues.”

Contracts terminated

Six weeks later, the axe fell when the faculty received a letter telling them their existing contracts would be terminated at the end of June 2020. In mid-June, those professors who received new contracts were given 15 days to sign their contract, for a shorter duration with significantly less job security.

Previously, positions could not be eliminated without consulting the elected faculty senate and without making a good-faith effort to find another position for the faculty member.

“The administration could not,” Zukas says, “just on its own, eliminate a faculty position for any reason it deems acceptable.” These professors feel as though they have been turned into ‘at will’ employees (employees whose employment can be terminated at the discretion of management), even though California labour law says we are not because we are on term contracts and therefore cannot be ‘at will’, Zukas told me.

Under the new regimen, for example, a professor who has signed a five-year contract and has their position terminated in the second year will be eligible for one year’s worth of severance. This may contravene California’s labour code, says Zukas.

What’s more, it has the effect of allowing NU to buy out the three years owing at the cost of only one year’s salary, he told University World News.

Approximately 50 of the university’s 218 full-time professors were not offered new contracts –though they were given lengthy releases that contained non-disparagement clauses, which they were expected to sign.

DeCesare told University World News about one professor who was in the third year of a five-year contract. “Not only was he simply told that they were abrogating it, he was told that they were ending his employment at the university effective 30 June.”

With the proverbial gun to their head, 93% of the NU faculty offered contracts accepted them.

Ironically, in his 1 July 2020 letter to the faculty that crowed about this, Andrews further undercut the logic of the “emergency situation” used to justify the abrogation of the contracts when he wrote: “We finished the 2019-2020 fiscal year stronger with a flourish of enrolments that exceeded expectations.” In recognition of this, he told the faculty that there would be an across the board 2% wage increase.

Consolidation and campus closures

In addition to allowing for abrogation of the faculty contracts, the replacement of the Faculty Policies that had been built up over decades with an administration-written Interim Faculty Handbook cleared the way for the consolidation of the university’s 11 libraries into one central library and the closing of campuses elsewhere in California and in Nevada – all without faculty input.

Further, in place of university organs such as the undergraduate and graduate councils, whose members were elected by faculty, NU created a ‘University Senate’. This senate has no faculty-elected member on it (though the administration appointed several faculty to it who had been elected to committees under NU’s previous governance structure).

The only faculty-elected members to the new institutional organs are three who will serve on the new Academic Affairs Council, which also has four faculty appointed by the administration. On neither the council nor the ‘university senate’ are faculty a majority, as they had previously been on committees and councils dealing with academic matters.

AAUP’s sanction has no legal impact

The AAUP’s sanction has no legal impact. Nor will it soon have the moral suasion such decisions can have when an institution is up for re-accreditation. For NU received word of its re-accreditation five days before Governor Newsom declared a state of emergency.

Yet, AAUP’s report may have already drawn blood. Prior to being published, the AAUP sent copies to both Andrews and Michael R Cunningham, the chancellor of the National University System, in order to correct any error of fact. Both would have realised that a sanction was coming and that the AAUP planned to pull no punches, declaring that “the university had been plunged into an abysmal condition”.

On 8 June, the day AAUP sanctioned NU, President Andrews resigned without explanation.

Planned retrenchment

As was the case at NU, work on Ohio Wesleyan University’s restructuring plan pre-dated the pandemic. Unlike at NU, which serves primarily adult learners, OWU is in a part of the country (the Upper Midwest) that has seen a significant decline in the number of high school graduates over the past decade.

Starting in 2024, this trend will accelerate because of the decline of births following the 2008-09 recession (by an additional 570,000 persons per year). Accordingly, in the fall of 2019, OWU’s board of trustees tasked the president, Rock F Jones, with preparing a plan to retrench at OWU; Jones, in turn, turned to the faculty to come up with recommendations, says Long.

Midway through the 2019-20 academic year, OWU was running a US$10 million deficit. The pandemic further stressed OWU’s finances because after sending students home, the institution had to refund room and board revenue.

Writing in Forbes magazine in April 2020, Richard Vedder, an emeritus professor of economics at Ohio University and senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a conservative think-tank in Oakland, California, noted that dormitory rentals, food service and ancillary fees can total as much as 12% of a school’s revenue.

Additionally, Jones told University World News: “We provided additional financial assistance to students whose families were particularly hurt in high-unemployment areas, particularly in the early months of the pandemic.”

As the dire financial situation became apparent, says Long, the faculty realised that the instruments being devised for programme reviews that were originally meant for the university’s re-accreditation submission were also going to be used “for purposes of cutbacks”.

Following the faculty handbook

The process that was rolled out at OWU followed the Faculty Handbook. “The faculty were quite clear about the process throughout,” says Long. “It was discussed through virtual meetings, e-mail and on an online forum set up by the administration.”

A faculty-led committee Long sat on received self-study submissions from the faculties. “We went through these and evaluated departments before passing the data up to a committee (on which Long also sat) made up of faculty and some administrators (the administrators did not have votes).” This committee forwarded proposals to President Jones.

“In every case where the recommendation was made by the faculty, that recommendation was followed,” says Long, who also praises the board of trustees. “They allowed Rock [Jones] to trust the faculty to come up with a cogent set of recommendations.”

Continuing a ‘historic mission’

For his part, Jones says that while OWU has some pre-professional programmes such as journalism, education and business administration, it was important that, as faculty looked at the structure of programmes, “we continue our historic mission as a liberal arts institution”.

(Jones’s emphasis, it is worth noting, sets OWU apart from, for example, William Paterson University in New Jersey where, Sociology Professor Sue Tardi, president of the university’s local chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, says the liberal arts suffered the most in the round of cuts that occurred earlier this year.)

Among the consolidated programmes are a new department of Africana, gender and identity studies, which incorporated the departments of black world studies, and women and gender studies, and the department of environmental and sustainability, into which the geology department was integrated.

In order to reach the goal of reducing the faculty from 128 to 100 with as few layoffs as possible, OWU offered voluntary severance packages to all faculty. Between June 2020 and the end of June 2021, 39 faculty members accepted these packages, 24 of whom had taught in the closed or restructured departments.

OWU was, therefore, able to reach its goal without laying off any faculty. To fill some of these vacancies and staff positions in the new departments, OWU has hired nine new professors, including two in the new performing arts department, and plans to hire several more faculty in the coming months.

Looking back at the process, Jones told University World News: “The benefit of the timeline for us is that, while this was difficult painful work, not something anybody on the faculty wanted to do, we have not had the same kind of disruption some campuses have had because, at the end of the day, the recommendations presented to the board were authored by the faculty.”

This report was changed on 14 July 2021 to amend incorrect related to OWU's restructuring.