Reporting Back from the PA AAUP Annual Meeting

Guest blogger Jacob A. Bennett lives and works in Philadelphia, where he teaches rhetoric, poetry, and literature.

I was surprised to receive, and happy to accept, an invitation to attend this year’s annual meeting of the Pennsylvania State Conference of the AAUP on October 3. The keynote speaker, Dr. Gerald Beyer of Villanova University (the host site this year), prepared an address entitled “Implementing Catholic Social Teaching on Labor at Catholic Universities,” and asked me to speak briefly about a petition I’ve been circulating, urging Pope Francis to make explicit his support of the rights of contingent faculty to organize unions on Catholic campuses. [I won’t use this space to discuss the petition, but if you’re interested, you can find it online, and soon also my arguments behind the petition.] Instead of repeating the points of the petition, I thought it might be useful to report back some of my observations regarding the recounted experiences of some faculty on Catholic campuses with AAUP chapters, since those experiences reinforce the sense many have had that notions of “mission” often reflect high moral aspirations unrealized in the policies and actions of corporatized boards and administrations, on campuses all across the country, religiously-affiliated or not.

Among the attendees at the meeting were faculty from Holy Family University and Marywood University, schools sharing some similarities with La Salle University, where I am a full-time continuing non-tenure-track faculty member of the English Department. Not only are they all schools in PA, they are also Catholic-affiliated. This affiliation is reflected in the institutions’ mission statements and core values: Holy Family “welcomes and cares for students, faculty, and staff as members of a diverse but interconnected family”; Marywood honors “the uniqueness and dignity of each human person” and demonstrates “ethical and just interactions”; La Salle calls its members “to maintain a heightened sensitivity to those marginalized within society as they practice civic engagement, provide leadership with a global perspective, and contribute to the common good.”

These are all worthy goals to be lauded and striven for, but “the family” has been augmented by pricy contractors; “ethical and just interaction” has been circumvented by unilateral action or action often performed without sufficient faculty involvement; and “those marginalized by society” are just as likely to be teaching on a Catholic campus as they are to be earning poverty wages in fast-food industries. But a fast-food restaurant that is a for-profit corporation does not often govern itself with any of the moral compunction to “do good” that one might expect of any self-avowed “mission-oriented” Catholic college or university.

And so it is with great shame and perhaps a little umbrage that I note that the ratio of adjunct faculty is nearly the same on Catholic campuses, as a group, as it is nationally. Figures that include part-time adjunct, full-time contingent, and graduate teaching assistant labor frequently hit the 75% mark of faculty overall. Even excluding TAs, to more accurately reflect rates at smaller non-research schools with fewer TAs, if any at all, that figure is still upwards of 65%. [These data drawn from 2013 IPEDS reporting.] The dire nature of this situation is only worsened by adding to it reporting from Faculty Forward that shows 20% of part-time faculty living below the poverty line.

After Dr. Beyer’s presentation, in which he argued that Catholic resistance to the right of faculty to organize unions is essentially a non-sequitur, a contrariness undermined by a review of the long and detailed history of support for such rights enshrined in a great many documents from the Vatican, conversation turned toward so-called “program prioritization processes” at Holy Family and Marywood. A faculty member from Marywood expressed a concern that the “prioritization process” on that campus, undergone at the behest of the board and high-level administrators, and under the aegis of “efficiency expert” Robert Dickeson, might be  in violation of due process as defined by AAUP standards and frequently echoed in university handbooks.

As background, Dickeson earned an investigation in 1982 by the AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, resulting in a censure that remained in place for the rest of his presidency at Northern Colorado University, ten continuous years. The initial findings (there were other, later reports compounding the censure) were that the administration had circumvented established retrenchment processes “without affording requisite safeguards of academic due process.” This was conducted for reasons of “program exigency,” though this phrasing seemed to be little more than a term of art that amounted to “financial exigency,” the former term relying very heavily on claims of financial strain. It seemed then, as it seems in the Marywood case, and at Holy Family a few years ago—and non-Catholic National Louis University in 2013, and this year at Southern Maine University and Felician College—that the artful dodging of the established terminology was designed to push through drastic cuts in programming and even to fire tenured faculty.

What is clear is that in the decades since leaving Northern Colorado in 1991, lately through his company Academic Strategy Partners, Dickeson and partners, sometimes in concert with the accounting expertise of Pat McCormick (as was the case at Holy Family and now at La Salle), have contracted out their “efficiency” services to a number of colleges, services which mirror in language and effect the kinds of “planning for the future” and “program prioritization” that he pushed through as President of NCU. What became clear at the PA AAUP meeting is that the results of these sometimes unilateral measures, enforced without full transparency or functional deliberation among faculty, even those who are elected Senators on their campuses, run counter to the spirit and letter of shared governance.

Whether avoidance of the phrase “financial exigency” is intentionally malicious or not, the practical and pernicious effect of not using that phrase to describe a $12M operating budget deficit, for example, is to circumvent existing procedures, those deliberated among administration and faculty, who voted on and codified a process to follow in situations of great financial trouble. And that’s the catch, that the dire economic nature of the problems has not been denied, at least not at La Salle, where terms like “crisis triage” come as close as possible to the definition of financial exigency that it would seem to trigger retrenchment according to established procedures. But that has not been the case. And that should serve as a warning to other campuses with even a hint of financial distress, no matter what the handbook says, no matter how senior the tenured faculty. And I can’t help but think that it is high time that Dickeson’s work receive more and more critical attention, whether he is directly involved on a campus or whether faculty are “given” copies of his book to read. He’s certainly been around long enough to deserve the undivided attention of our campuses, whether Catholic or secular, whether the faculty majority is adjunct or tenured.

2 thoughts on “Reporting Back from the PA AAUP Annual Meeting

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