BY ALARMED FACULTY MEMBERS AT NATIONAL UNIVERSITY
This spring and summer of COVID has witnessed a perhaps unprecedented assault on faculty rights, as institution after institution, claiming some sort of exigency, have laid off both contingent and tenured faculty members, restructured programs, and short-circuited established institutions of shared governance. In many cases the challenges are indeed extraordinary. But, as the AAUP has noted, “too often administrations invoke broader fiscal collapse as a justification for implementing, without meaningful faculty participation in the decision-making process, a variety of measures that undermine the mission of the institution and threaten the working conditions of faculty, academic professionals, graduate employees, and other campus staff.” One of the most alarming such cases is at National University in San Diego, California. There, in a breathtaking series of moves, the administration and board have almost overnight not only reversed years of shared governance experience, but virtually eviscerated the faculty’s power over the curriculum and eroded, if not destroyed, its academic freedom. National University is not claiming any negative financial impact from the COVID crisis but is nevertheless using the emergency situation created by the crisis to institute the sweeping changes outlined below. This report from faculty activists at National University is posted anonymously out of fear of retaliation.
In October 2019, National University (NU) announced that it received a gift of $350 million from T. Denny Sanford. These funds, the University’s administration declared in an article published by the Associated Press, would help the university to better fulfill its mission of expanding access to higher education for adult learners. In February 2020, the University received a 10-year reaccreditation by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, though with warnings about the nature of its governing board structures and its approach to “change management.”
Nevertheless, in the following months, the University has undertaken a series of sudden unilateral moves to cut staff, faculty, and programs; cancel all full-time faculty contracts; and dismantle all existing shared governance structures. The stated justifications for these moves have included a need for greater “nimbleness” in responding to a changing higher education landscape, a need for more efficiency, a desire to reduce tuition costs for students, and (of course) the COVID-19 crisis. It is important to point out that throughout its 50-year history NU has been an extraordinarily “nimble” institution. It has responded to changing conditions by targeting the needs of a diverse adult population offering one course at a time, adopting distance learning in the late 1990s, updating delivery modes with each generation of new technology, innovating in andragogy [the method and practice of teaching adult learners], synchronous and asynchronous delivery, virtual labs, systematic assessment of learning outcomes, building outstanding digital library services, and integrating a dedicated team of part-time faculty. All this was accomplished through a fertile partnership between a full-time and part-time faculty and administration and staff, rendering the excuses for current moves given by administration spurious.
In March, the Chancellor of the National University System, an affiliation of the flagship non-profit National University and several recently-acquired non-traditional institutions, announced that a number of university functions, including student enrollment, information technology, marketing, and the library, would be consolidated with other affiliates. Most of these would be outsourced to National Education Partners, a for-profit entity now-owned by the National University System and run by a former member of the National University Board of Trustees (the University’s Board and the System Board are essentially identical). No faculty were consulted or informed ahead of time of these plans.
Beginning in April, the University also accelerated the cancellation of roughly a third of its academic programs, using a process that bypassed the review and approval processes established in the Faculty- and Board-approved Faculty Policies. Cancellation of a program was one of the grounds under the Faculty Policies for terminating faculty positions, as was faculty “fit” with a reorganized University.
In a series of letters sent to faculty in May, National University President David Andrews announced an imminent “rightsizing” of the full-time faculty (the full-time student to faculty ratio already numbered in the several hundred to one prior to this change). No data was given to define rightsizing. He also announced the cancellation of all existing faculty contracts. Faculty at National University worked without tenure but, in amendments to the Faculty Policies, they had secured long-term contracts of up to ten years based on rank and a reappointment system that operated on a shared governance model. After dozens of faculty took early retirement offers following announcements of these upcoming changes, over 40 additional full-time faculty were summarily terminated without following the criteria or procedures outlined in the Faculty Policies. The effect was a roughly 20% reduction in full time faculty positions. One department alone has lost ten of its thirty-two full time faculty over two years while enrollments are growing significantly.
On May 22, the President announced that all remaining faculty contracts, along with the Faculty Policies and the Faculty Senate, would cease to be honored by the administration as of July 1, when new contracts would come into effect. On June 15, an “Interim Faculty Handbook” was issued. It contained no terms of appointment; no processes for reappointment, promotion or raises; no standards of performance; no mention of academic freedom. It contained no provision for elected faculty governance bodies, including the Faculty Senate and Graduate and Undergraduate Councils, which had overseen faculty work and welfare and curriculum at NU for over twenty-five years. Instead, the Handbook created a University Senate made up of five top administrators and five faculty appointed by the administration to operate as a new shared governance body. A similarly appointed Academic Affairs Committee would oversee the drafting of a permanent Faculty Handbook and become the university-wide curriculum committee, replacing the faculty-elected Graduate and Undergraduate Councils. What it did contain is alarming. In one section it seeks to define a new job description for university professor, relegating the historical role of scholar/teacher to that of providing content and delegating course design and teaching approach to centralized instructional designers not qualified in the field. The document states,
Academic programs will be jointly administered by a program director (full time faculty member) and an andragogy lead (staff or faculty member with appropriate expertise in andragogy, instructional design, and student support). The Program Lead and Subject Matter Experts (full-time faculty) will have authority over program learning outcomes, course learning outcomes, and student learning outcomes. Subject Matter Experts will have the responsibility for assuring program learning outcomes, course learning outcomes, and student learning outcomes are aligned with workforce relevance. Andragogy leads and instructional experts will oversee the design of learning experiences and instructional delivery. The instructor of record for each course will be assigned after the course design and delivery mechanisms have been established.
President Andrews has repeatedly assured the University community that the institution is in sound financial health, and this is undoubtedly true. Even prior to the Sanford gift, the University held over $650 million dollars in reserves (until recently called a “quasi-endowment”) and had total assets of over $1 billion. This financial strength has been taken advantage of by the System: in 2018, the System used the National University reserves as collateral to purchase the for-profit Northcentral University, most of which it converted to a non-profit entity and part of which it converted to the for-profit National Education Partners. In April, National University also received $2.28 million in CARES Act stimulus funds.
While many universities in the U.S. may suffer a decline in enrollments in the upcoming months, this was never a likely scenario at National University. Over 70% of NU courses were held online before the onset of the coronavirus—in-person classes being held in the month of March across California were transitioned to the online format with only administrative adjustments, without a need for redesign or new trainings. In his April communication, the President noted, “We were very fortunate to have extensive experience in distributed work and online learning…. Early indicators suggest we are successfully continuing our core functions with little disruption to students. Students are applying and enrolling, taking courses, and making progress toward degrees and credentials.” In a video message to the faculty on July 10, 2020, the President said, “we are financially strong.” Because it offers classes on a flexible schedule at a reasonable price, NU has historically seen enrollment growth in periods of economic decline. Enrollments at NU are up 20-30% year-over-year. Yet, instead of continuing in a prosperous direction that provided programmatic options and faculty-driven curriculum, the University has moved to a for-profit and precision learning model, while terminating dozens of faculty, rewriting the contracts of those who remain, and abolishing a long-established system of shared governance.
Faculty have been taken by surprise by these attacks. But we have responded and organized. The Faculty Senate, in one of its final actions of the academic year, voted to send a complaint to the regional accreditor, WSCUC. The Faculty Senate conducted new elections and has refused to dissolve as an advisory body that represents the faculty voice at NU. Membership of the NU AAUP advocacy chapter has grown so rapidly that the chapter’s letter to the President garnered a defensive response from the administration that was sent to all faculty.
We believe the actions taken at NU are dangerous on two levels. At the organizational level there are already indications that the changes proposed have created a highly toxic level of uncertainty and demoralization. The institution is already in chaos as contradictions, bad decision, confusion and anxiety mount. Top-down decisions that violate long-established principles of good academic practice undermine the capacity of the institution to serve its students and employees. These moves should be resisted to avoid more systemic damage on a global societal level. The changes being attempted at NU are aimed at redefining the role of the university and deconstructing the professional role of scholars and other knowledge creators. It delegitimizes academic culture which seeks new knowledge and the advancement of society and the public welfare and promotes a commercial culture model aimed at mass production of trained workers as cheaply and profitably as possible. Though NU has until now combined both goals, holding as a core value that opportunities for personal development should not be limited to those who can afford more elite schools, recent and planned moves by administration with no input from faculty at more than window-dressing level make it clear that the academic values held by a committed professional faculty are no longer central to its mission.
We wanted to make public this faculty protest of the actions of the administration and Board of Trustees. Given the recent mass layoffs at NU, the abrogation of our previous long-term, and the lack of a tenure system, we are
Alarmed Faculty Members at NU (names not provided out of fear of retaliation)