Letter to the editor

Kevin Henderson

Dear Ms. Maltese,

When I was a student at John Carroll University in 2010, I bought a copy of The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism by Naomi Klein at the JCU bookstore. The premise of Klein’s book can be summarized concisely: pro-corporate, free-market ideologues rarely let a disaster, crisis, or emergency go to waste. Indeed, a natural disaster, a confusing political crisis, or a large-scale emergency are often the only avenues for big corporations, wealthy elites, and their intellectual allies to push through unpopular policies and programs that would ordinarily meet wide-spread resistance and opposition. These ideologically driven policies tend to abolish democratic decision-making structures, destroy protections for workers, and exploit and exacerbate existing inequalities.

As a student educated by the Jesuits at John Carroll, Klein’s premise was already familiar to me. I took classes with professors who intimately knew and frequently spoke about their Jesuit priests and brothers in El Salvador, Chile, and Argentina who had been killed in the wake of the U.S.-backed disaster “shocks,” military dictatorships, and accompanying neoliberal structural adjustment programs in the 1970s and 1980s. Jesuit professors and intellectuals across Latin America were disappeared, imprisoned, tortured, and brutally killed for writing about the limits to neoliberal economic and social policy, for opposing right-wing attacks on workers’, students’, and indigenous peoples’ rights, and for speaking publicly about the moral and economic failings of the promotion reactionary, free market rationalities at all levels of society when it came to caring for workers, peasants, the environment, and the poor.

Not everything was meant to be run on the model of a corporate firm.

As I read Klein’s book on the John Carroll quad in 2010 and looked up at the beautiful campus surrounding me, it never crossed my mind that shock doctrine policies could be instituted on the Jesuit, mission-driven university surrounded. Instead, I was grateful to be in place that educated me and seemed to operate in a manner that, in the words of Pedro Arrupe from his great speech on Jesuit education, went “directly counter to the prevailing educational trend practically everywhere in the world” (“Men and Women for Others,” 1973).

I terribly was naïve.

The John Carroll Board of Directors, University President Michael Johnson, and Provost Steven Herbert have used the coronavirus pandemic—a disaster shock if there ever was one—as a pretext to consolidate power, to cut staff, to destroy worker protections, to undercut faculty governance and academic freedom, and to remake the academic identity of JCU. The Board wants the unliteral power to eliminate positions they were previously contractually obligated to protect via tenure and to eliminate departments and programs without having to fully consult or get approval from faculty governance structures. In doing so, they make mockery of the Jesuit name and disrespect the Jesuit martyrs of Latin America who spoke out against exactly these kinds of neoliberal reforms and rationalities.

Last week, the Board of Directors, chaired by corporate executive William P. Donnelly, voted to push through a series of wildly unpopular amendments to the faculty handbook that effectively eliminates tenure, academic freedom, and due-process rights on campus.  This vote is a metaphorical atomic bomb that will drastically reshape the JCU and its identity. The Board railroaded these destructive policies through even though they faced hard, vocal opposition from faculty and alumni.  However, Donnelly and rest of the Board do not seem to understand that atomic bombs destroy everything in their wake and involves fallout and blowback of residual, damaging material that remains in the atmosphere far beyond the initial shock and explosion.

In October 2020, after the Board proposed the faculty handbook amendments and announced the terminations in two tenured in Art History, I was part of a group of concerned Carroll alumni who organized a week of action, which included a writing campaign and a car caravan protest around JCU’s campus, to support critical academic freedoms on campus and to voice opposition against the changes to the faculty handbook underway. In December 2020, faculty overwhelming voted down the Board’s proposed amendments and offered many alternatives, including salary reductions and benefit package cuts. The Board fully ignored both alumni and faculty.

No alumni who voiced opposition to the proposed amendments, as far as I know, received any response or acknowledgement by the President, Board members, or senior administration to our letters or actions. The Boards acts as if consultation with younger alumni as key stakeholders is unnecessary and means nothing, even as this is one most important Board actions ever to shape JCU’s future.  Younger alumni like me will be called upon to donate and maintain the financial stability of the institution in years to come, and I guarantee we will remember the Board’s selfish actions and how they failed to ever address dissenting alumni and our concerns.

I have received no fundraising letter asking to contribute to John Carroll so that these kinds of nuclear-option policies could be avoided, even as a budget crisis continues to be used as the excuse for such policies.  In fact, in the cruel twist that feels like a hard snub to dissenting alumni, the administration announced that alumni donations would not count as “structural elements” of the budget. Therefore, alumni donations or grants could not be used to save professors’ jobs in the midst of a budgetary hardship projection.

Further, although pandemic-related budget deficits were the pretext for instituting these draconian reforms, the budget crisis appears now to be no crisis at all. The handbook reforms are completely superfluous: at a community forum in February 2021, while continuing to push forward the faculty handbook amendments, the university administration showed a projected surplus of $100,000, despite financial losses related to the COVID crisis. Additionally, the administration announced a multi-million-dollar renovation of the Dolan Hall. The faculty handbook amendments are now fully exposed as part of a naked power grab by the Board, President, and Provost.

At a time when at-will employment is increasing and intensifying precarity and inequality across the United States, John Carroll University should be educating future leaders to fight these trends in employment and in social and economic policy.  Instead, John Carroll’s leaders and trustees are instituting these trends on their own campus.  The professoriate on campus is now, in effect, a group of at-will employees in competition with each other.

The faculty handbook amendments will have a profound chilling effect on campus: professors will be left with little power over their classrooms and research agendas if they face any internal or external opposition. The best professors will leave JCU if they can land more secure employment elsewhere, and new talent will avoid John Carroll like the plague. President Johnson has already shown a willingness to chill speech on campus and cancel programming he does not agree with or that is controversial.  In Fall 2019, Johnson cancelled a drag show by the LGBTQ student group Allies.  In response, faculty organized an event on the history of drag. Tenure and academic freedom protected the faculty who organize this event. (Drag, by the way, is a legitimate object of study at any other university in Northeastern Ohio and has been the subject of countless PhD dissertations.  The cancellation of the student drag show by JCU’s administration just goes to show how backwards the thinking of the administration is.) Under the new faculty handbook amendments, faculty who organized the event could end up the targets of termination without cause if, conveniently, budgetary hardship was projected. Faculty would have no right to appeal.

Further, there are rumors that the Board is acting on the advice of outside consultants to cut out humanistic inquiry and JCU’s current focus on the liberal arts in order to make room for the creation of new technical programs like nursing and computer engineering. This is a huge, obvious mistake. The educational market in Northeastern Ohio is already saturated with nursing programs. Further, computer engineering programs have quickly been replaced by coding academies run by former Silicone Valley developers.  Google, Facebook, Apple, and the Cleveland Clinic do not need someone from JCU with another computer engineering degree.  In fact, Silicone Valley and new technology companies are much more likely to hire a JCU grad with robust knowledge of African American history or with the sociological and political understanding of how algorithms encode racial and gender bias or with the creativity, empathy, and consideration that comes from the study of diverse, global literatures and philosophies so that their companies can respond to a complex and changing world where this knowledge matters. The need for the business community to quickly respond to the Black Lives Matter protests last summer is testament that liberal arts degrees and humanities programs matter, too.

At a time when ideologies of rugged, self-interested individualism are informing anti-mask hysteria to point where these ideas are literally killing other people, we need more than ever programs and departments (like Art History, RIP) which can deconstruct Western individualism and historicize how decades of neoliberal social policy has shaped the American psyche and created the conditions for mass death under a pandemic. Unfortunately, these programs and departments will be the first on the chopping block.

John Carroll’s reputation is already quickly being tarnished due to the Board and President’s shocking actions. The Board’s contempt for tenure, academic freedom, and shared governance will only diminish the quality of instruction and vocational formation.  I hope the Board retreats from the destructive path they are on, and I sincerely hope that faculty, alumni, and current students succeed in fighting these policies.


Kevin Henderson

Biographical Information: Kevin Henderson is a 2011 alumnus of John Carroll University. He is currently completing his doctorate at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in political science.