May 13, 2020

GUEST ROOM | Continue to Employ Faculty and Staff

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On May 11, the Cornell University Chapter of the AAUP adopted the following “Statement in Support of Continued Employment of Faculty and Staff”:

The Cornell University Chapter of the American Association of University Professors expresses its deep concern for the welfare of the entire Cornell community at this terrible time of the COVID-19 pandemic. Cornell students, faculty and staff are experiencing severe disruptions and dangers to their personal health and the welfare of their families, as well as the economic hardships linked to this public health crisis. Therefore we make this statement in support of the continued employment of all current faculty, graduate assistants, and staff members of Cornell.

We appreciate the statements of support by Cornell University President Martha Pollack, who has recognized the extraordinary efforts of students, faculty and staff in responding to the challenges of the current crisis. As President Pollack stated on April 7, “I want to reiterate how impressed I have been by the determination and goodwill with which our entire community has risen to the extraordinary challenges of the past weeks: our students who have adjusted to an abrupt upending of their lives, our faculty who have poured so much energy into moving their courses online and our staff who have shown such extraordinary flexibility and dedication in carrying out the myriad tasks that are necessary to support our university.”

President Pollack described four principles that will be used to guide Cornell’s decision-making in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic: caring for our students; safeguarding our future as a world-class academic institution; maintaining our staffing; and seeking new knowledge. The Cornell Chapter of the AAUP agrees with President Pollack’s statement of the four principles integral to carrying out the mission of the university.

However, President Pollack also stated, “There will inevitably be decisions we will have to make that will shortchange one or another of our principles. But we will do our utmost to honor them.” The experience at other colleges and universities make clear that any “shortchanging” of principles is likely to fall most heavily on the staff and non-tenure track faculty. In her April 7 and April 22 statements, President Pollack signaled the possibility of staffing reductions, and that there “will almost certainly include painful steps such as furloughs or layoffs, but we are considering programs to protect the salary and benefits of our staff for as long as possible.”

The Cornell Chapter of the AAUP understands and appreciates the need to find cost savings in a time of crisis and to address the likely increase in financial aid for our students. We also agree with taking measures to mitigate the financial impact of the pandemic, such as a hiring and wage freeze and a pause in capital construction projects. However, we are opposed to furloughs, layoffs, or discharges of any faculty, graduate assistants, or staff members as a response to the current public health crisis, precisely because this runs contrary to several of our core principles as laid out by President Pollack. Further, the devastating human impact of such actions is unacceptable – especially by the primary employer in Tompkins County – and thus unjustifiable as a means to “stabilize the university budget.”

We call on the Cornell administration to commit to using cost-saving alternatives that do not entail furloughs or job loss. As Provost Kotlikoff explained at the May 4 faculty “virtual town hall,” Cornell is in better shape now than in the 2008 economic crisis, due to its increased liquidity that provides greater flexibility to address the current financial concerns. There are many choices and options that will fulfill the principles of caring for the welfare of students, faculty, staff, all of whom are essential to maintaining the institutional strength and integrity of Cornell. Further, in considering the options, the administration must engage in shared governance and proceed with total transparency. We stand ready to work with the other shared governance bodies and the administration to find humane solutions to the financial pressures resulting from the current public health crisis.

 

Prof. Risa Lieberwitz, labor and employment law, is the president of the Cornell University Chapter of the AAUP. Comments can be sent to opinion@cornellsun.com. Guest Room runs periodically this semester.