Letter to the editor

We are writing this letter as members of the John Carroll faculty. We wish to speak out to the larger University community about hasty and furtive acts recently taken by the Administration. We also condemn proposed amendments to our Faculty Handbook being pushed by John Carroll’s Board of Directors and Senior Leadership Team. These actions are symptomatic of the breakdown of shared governance and communication at John Carroll University. Together, these actions put the quality of a John Carroll University education at risk.

First, we are concerned that over the summer many staff contracts were terminated. Among the employees at John Carroll, it is the staff who have essential daily interactions with students. Yet they are the ones who have been most vulnerable to cuts for the past ten years. Even before the pandemic, there have been waves of staff cuts at John Carroll. With each one, friendly faces, expertise, and institutional knowledge vanish, often without a word of notice or acknowledgment. As just one indication of this pattern, faculty still have not been granted a complete list of staff members laid off this summer, despite repeated requests for this information. Prior to the pandemic, many staff members were already doing the work of two or three people, as staff layoffs have led to the consolidation of roles and an increase in responsibilities. Although the category “staff” is used by the University to describe workers at various levels, those at the highest salary levels, such as vice presidents, are not at risk of having their positions eliminated. We, as faculty, would like to ask, as we have in previous rounds of layoffs, why those jobs on the higher end of the staff spectrum are not subject to cuts. The termination of staff positions is a concern to all members of the University community, since Catholic social teaching guides us to fair labor practices and the care of workers.

Second, we wonder why the elimination of academic programs and a department, as well as  the termination of two tenured professors, were planned in secrecy and carried out in a rushed process implemented by the Provost before the semester officially began. Faculty have acknowledged the need to update programs and have been actively participating in a review of all academic programs in the months leading up to the pandemic. We believe, and the Faculty Handbook confirms, that this process must be carried out deliberately and with care, and that ultimately the power rests with the faculty to shape John Carroll’s academic programs. Indeed, there are several committees, such as the Committee on Academic Policies, that exist for that very purpose. Yet barely a week before the start of the new academic year, the Provost, in consultation only with three Executive members of the Faculty Council, invited a handful of faculty members to serve on an ad hoc committee to “sunset programs,” and to identify tenured faculty lines to cut. Two faculty members who were invited to participate in that ad hoc committee refused to serve, citing the timeline as insufficient to perform thoughtful and meaningful work that would have far-reaching consequences. The Faculty Council, the Faculty Handbook Committee, and the JCU AAUP chapter all spoke out against this rushed and illegitimate process. The faculty who did work with the Provost advised him to retain a minor in the department that was ultimately eliminated, and to identify other departments to house the tenured faculty whose programs had been cut, as mandated by the Faculty Handbook. Instead, the Provost rushed through the termination of these tenured faculty and this department, as he had planned to do all along. The two tenured professors whom the Provost terminated in this unprecedented process are active scholar-teachers, embodying the ideal upon which JCU has built its success. They have served on many committees, have been involved in curricular reform, and are dedicated mentors to students. They are respected for the hard work they do to make this university a better place. Their termination as tenured faculty violates the JCU Handbook and the contracts that tenure conferred on them after years of hard work.

Finally, the changes to the Faculty Handbook being advocated by the Board of Directors are unacceptable at a university which values academic freedom and liberal arts education. The Board is advocating a much lower bar than financial exigency to summarily fire tenured professors within departments and eliminate departments they deem superfluous. The Handbook as it currently stands allows for such actions only in the face of immediate financial peril or “financial exigency,” a term widely used in the academy to define a condition that threatens the survival of the institution if drastic cuts are not implemented. The Board, however, is advocating that such actions take place when they forecast that there will be losses for two years, a threshold not of exigency but of “hardship.” Most universities suffer ups and downs in accord with demographic shifts, and most universities do not define themselves as “for-profit” institutions. That is, they often ride very close to their budgets, making a two-year budgetary loss a relatively common occurrence. The Board’s proposed changes are especially worrisome because the faculty have not received detailed and current information on the university’s finances. We receive decontextualized figures that are seemingly skewed to justify firings and to cancel academic programs as the only solutions.

These developments strike at a most basic level against tenure and the academic freedom it has protected for almost as long as universities in the United States have existed. Tenure cultivates free-thinking at colleges and universities, because faculty teaching and scholarly research are not constrained by the ideological positions of those controlling the purse strings, including upper-level administrators and boards of directors. Moreover, academic freedom is part and parcel of the mission and identity of a Jesuit university. This attack on tenure will seriously compromise the future of JCU, removing the very foundation on which this institution rests.   

Faculty are charged with ensuring the excellence of the curriculum and the quality of education at the university. We see students in classes and during office hours throughout the week. We meet in numerous committees to discuss curriculum viability. We are happy to do it. When we see practices that are dangerous to academic excellence and to the greater university, it is our responsibility to speak out. We understand the unprecedented times in which we now live. But the decisions to eliminate staff jobs en-masse and to terminate tenured faculty without cause are not the solution to the crisis we face. To take these steps during a global pandemic, moreover, strikes at the heart of the Jesuit mission of cura personalis, “care for the whole person.”  These actions should give all of us — students, alumni, staff, and faculty — pause.  They violate long-established procedures and shared governance with faculty. They stand as dangerous precedents that threaten academic freedom and the liberal arts tradition that John Carroll claims to value. In a rushed attempt to address the financial difficulties the university currently faces, JCU’s senior leadership and Board of Directors may instead be destroying the academic reputation and Jesuit identity of our esteemed and beloved institution.

 The John Carroll University Chapter of  the American Association of University Professors (AAUP)