Some college leaders used the coronavirus crisis as an opportunity to quickly close programs and lay off faculty members, according to an investigation by the American Association of University Professors into potential academic governance violations at eight institutions.
AAUP officials said faculty from other institutions nationwide have complained to them about similar shared governance concerns. "This report, then, should be understood as illustrative rather than exhaustive," the authors wrote.
The faculty organization found that tenure — and as a byproduct, academic freedom — faced a "frontal assault" at the colleges under investigation as well as many others during the pandemic.
AAUP's findings raise the alarm on the future of shared governance, which the organization says has been threatened by the financial pressures of the pandemic. "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 authors wrote. "The question is whether robust shared governance will survive those challenges."
The organization launched an investigation this fall into the eight schools over academic governance concerns:
Canisius, Keuka and Medaille colleges, all in New York.
University of Akron and Wittenberg University, both in Ohio.
Marian University, in Wisconsin.
National University, in California.
Illinois Wesleyan University.
Most of the colleges had been grappling with budget challenges, some of which started before the pandemic. Medaille anticipated a $6.5 million net loss in fiscal 2020. Federal coronavirus relief funding helped reduce the college's deficit, according to AAUP. Canisius was staring down a $20 million operating budget shortfall as of last June.
The schools took drastic actions to improve their budgets, including by scrapping programs, laying off tenured faculty members and moving away from a tenure system altogether.
AAUP's investigation committee concluded that all the colleges probed violated or disregarded governance standards.
Illinois Wesleyan University President S. Georgia Nugent said in a statement emailed to Higher Ed Dive that the institution "strongly disagrees" with AAUP's findings and that it adhered to the organization's guidelines as it reviewed academic programs last year.
Keuka, meanwhile, contended in a statement shared with Higher Ed Dive that AAUP's report includes "myriad examples of misinformation and mischaracterizations." The college said it experienced a nearly 24% year-over-year decline in enrollment revenue in fiscal 2021, and it argued that it was only able to withstand that reduction by laying off faculty members and closing programs. It also said it conducted a survey to "gauge tolerance" for changes that impacted staffing.
"The AAUP appears to be either unable or unwilling to accept the fact that difficult measures … allowed Keuka College — and many other institutions across the United States — to achieve the financial position necessary to successfully navigate the pandemic's impacts," the college said in the statement.
Marian likewise contested the findings. Its president, Michelle Majewski, said in a statement emailed to Higher Ed Dive that the report "attempts to undercut the rationale" behind its decision to eliminate nine programs.
AAUP contended its policies and regulations regarding governance and academic freedom are "broad and flexible" enough to continue enforcing during disasters. However, it said most colleges probed did not follow those guidelines because they either didn't exist in their own regulations or their administrations abandoned them.
The colleges under investigation aren't the only schools to draw attention in recent months for mass layoffs or program changes. AAUP reported that several other institutions have landed on the organization's radar for their governance actions since the investigation began.
That includes Ithaca College, in New York, which announced in October that it was planning to eliminate 130 faculty positions because of enrollment concerns. And the University of Vermont unveiled plans in December to cut more than two-dozen programs to address a budget deficit.