The 2020 Professor Purges in Retrospect: ASEEES Concerns and Advocacy Plans

by Rebecca Mitchell, Middlebury College & Steven Seegel, University of Northern Colorado

Note: this article first appeared in the January 2021 NewsNet

Annus Horribilis
Before 2020, we were two professors of history who’d never met. Under pandemic restrictions, living on opposite sides of the United States, we still haven’t. It was the tragedy of a small liberal arts college in Buffalo, New York, that brought us together. Canisius College, a 150-year-old Jesuit institution, emphasized ethical learning and values, the study of ideas and the world’s religions, social justice and “care for the whole person” (cura personalis). This was practiced in core curricula as at Georgetown, Marquette, Boston College, Holy Cross, and the University of San Francisco. Many of the struggles faced by Canisius in recent years are familiar. Persistent sexual abuse scandals, dutifully covered by investigative Buffalo journalists, have dampened enthusiasm for a Catholic-based education; changing demographics have shrunk the prospective pool of new students. Hiring freezes, chronic adjunctization, salaries below the cost of living, “voluntary separations,” and terminations of faculty lines appear to be the new normal.

But in 2020, COVID-19 hit. From July 16 to 27, Canisius College President John J. Hurley, his Vice President, and the Board of Trustees used the pandemic as a shock doctrine to “lay off” 23 tenure-track and tenured professors in the Humanities (Classics, Creative and Performing Arts, History, Philosophy, Religious Studies/Theology) and across the curriculum (Teacher Education, Marketing, Communications), alongside 71 staff members. After a decade of mismanagement in which its deficit quadrupled, the college used COVID-19 as an immediate pretext to double down on “profitable” business and STEM fields as well as sports at the expense of its own claimed values. Ignoring faculty handbook protocols and AAUP guidelines, without declaration of financial exigency, and in disregard of shared governance, Canisius leadership unceremoniously informed longtime tenured and recent tenure-track professors of their terminations. These layoffs affected newer hires and tenured mid-career faculty; international faculty; women; and several POC. Together with professors in Religious Studies, Art History, Philosophy, History, and Women’s Studies, they fired the Shakespeare literature professor a year before her tenure review and a theologian and bioethicist (at a Jesuit college!) who had lived in Voronezh. For our colleagues at Canisius, it was devastating. This termination of careers in their prime suddenly deprived students of mentors without warning or explanation. Staff positions that kept the college functioning from day to day were eliminated.

Among those affected was ASEEES member Dr. Steve Maddox, who had joined Canisius College faculty in 2009. A student of Professor Lynne Viola, Steve earned his Ph.D. in Russian/Soviet history from University of Toronto. As tenured faculty who regularly commuted to work from southern Ontario across the Peace Bridge, he is an example of the transnational nature of current US higher education. Steve represented our entire field to his students. Similar stories could be told of his 23 colleagues who similarly lost their positions. This was not thoughtful governance making tough financial decisions to balance the budget. It was a unilateral act by an administration running the college on a faulty business model, with no comprehension of the purpose of a liberal arts education. Unfortunately, it is a model that has become all too familiar in US higher education and politics.

July-August 2020: Reaching Out Shock quickly turned to action, but the path forward was obscure. There was no handbook to follow. We each wrote individual letters of protest to leading administrators. Old-style petitions didn’t work, at least not in the way we’d previously thought. Trustees, boards, and college presidents don’t respond to emails or petitions – they don’t have to. A new kind of organizing was needed. We spammed each other with 4am emails about the disastrous situation of higher education. The grassroots movement to save Canisius quickly took on a life of its own. Social gathering sites cropped up. We forged connections with humanities faculty, dedicated alumni, and students. But we didn’t create the protests. Piles of letters, an op-ed, and guest blog posts (Karen Kelsky at “The Professor Is In”) about defending *all* faculty against the unethical and potentially illegal actions of corrupt leaders mounted.

Students, alumni, journalists and local Buffalonians drew on their circles to organize. We relied heavily on professional organizations. With Canisius faculty, we reached out for expressions of broader support for values of tenure, academic freedom, and shared governance in our field. Letters soon poured in from the AHA, APA, ACPA, and MLA. Canadian organizations with affected members like the Canadian Biblical Society (CBS) and the Canadian Philosophical Association (CPA) also spoke out. Heather Coleman circulated our petition within the Canadian Association of Slavists (CAS, ~800 members). Encouraged by this, on August 11 we submitted a petition to ASEEES, asking for a statement of concern similar to those issued by other professional organizations. And then we waited.

August-September 2020: A National Tragedy
The victims of the 2020 professor purges are scattered across the USA: Canisius, Ohio University, University of Akron, Adrian College, University of Evansville, Marquette University, Guilford College and many others. According to Dan Bauman in The Chronicle of Higher Education in November, “Preliminary estimates suggest that a net of 152,000 fewer workers were employed by America’s private (nonprofit and for-profit) and state-controlled institutions of higher education in September, compared with August, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which calculates industry-specific employee figures. The net number of workers who left the industry from February to September now sits at around 484,000.” By this count, we’ve seen a shedding of 10% of college employees since the pandemic began. Shared governance is routinely violated by trustees’ boards, provosts, and associate deans. Faculty, staff, alumni and allies are fighting cuts through the AAUP and networks and unions.

To our knowledge, the first ASEEES member to lose a position in this purge climate was Dr. Emily Gioielli, whose tenure-track position in the history department at Missouri Western State University was eliminated in May 2020 as part of what MWSU called “institutional restructuring.” For Dr. Gioielli, a historian of gender who received her Ph.D. from CEU-Budapest, attacks on these disciplines was familiar. In violation of labor laws, the University of Akron in May-June ordered massive layoffs of nearly 100 full-time faculty. At Ohio University in early June 2020, Associate Professor of Instruction Mila Shevchenko and Visiting Assistant Professor of Instruction Tetyana Dovbnya (both non-tenured), the university’s lone teachers of Russian, were laid off. The Russian program will be discontinued as of May 31, 2021.

September 2020: Continued Fallout
By September, the multifaceted grassroots movements in support of Canisius faculty had come together. As Canisius administrators pivoted to goat yoga to distract students from the absence of their beloved mentors, the petition crept past 6,000 signatures and the legal fund for Canisius faculty approached $10,000. Canisius became a reference point for us. A highly anticipated AAUP report on tenure and shared governance due in March 2021 lists the college alongside Illinois Wesleyan University (IL), Keuka College (NY), Marian University (WI), Medaille College (NY), National University (CA), Wittenberg University (OH) and the University of Akron (OH) as places where faculty were fired en masse in potential violation of protocol. Institutional predicaments in 2020 are indicative of larger trends.

But where was ASEEES in this? ASEEES has advocated for endangered students and journalists in Russia, protests in Poland, detentions in Belarus. Yet, it also has a responsibility to defend its members across American higher education. As time ticked away after submitting our petition, there was a resounding silence. Then, on September 21, we were told that “ASEEES could not make a statement on this employment issue”. Happily, this was not the final word. On September 27-28, 2020, the ASEEES Board produced a vital letter on behalf of Steve Maddox and his colleagues.

Into 2021: A Suggestion Box
This 2020 experience has led us to reflect on meaningful advocacy. Within ASEEES in 2017, the first academic freedom and advocacy committee was formed. The ExCom Board has worked harder in public to push for racial justice and decolonization as well as diversity, equity, and inclusion in the profession. The new Working Group for Solidarity in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies formed as an affiliate, with a central aim to support scholars in contingent positions. As an international organization (36% non-US) with between 3,300 and 3,500 members that represents members at different career junctures, however, we believe that ASEEES can be more proactive.

First, ASEEES would benefit from having a point person akin to Jim Grossman (AHA) or Paula Krebs (MLA), quick to act and write letters. Reiterating the importance of what we do might seem a small thing, but such a statement has immeasurably more value to members like Steve Maddox whose very livelihoods are under threat than an op-ed in the NYT or WaPo in intelligentsia form. It builds momentum. It puts pressure on boards, presidents, and local corporate media. If as an institution ASEEES truly supports the importance of what we do in our classrooms, that kind of organizational support should apply whether the institution in question has a large or small “Slavic footprint”.

Second, ASEEES should draw from the successful initiatives of ASEEES institutional and individual BIPOC activists in the mid-to-late 2010s, and from AWSS advocacy who have endured the Trump era and various anti-gender campaigns. AWSS (now ~285 members, with roughly 1,000 receiving the newsletter and emails) has developed a fine blueprint for advocacy. The expertise is already here, in our institution. We should tap into it.

Third, while soft ambassadorship and polyvocality continues to be important, ASEEES advocacy should stylize a more robust social media presence. Follow presses, journalists, and activist scholars. Use Twitter, for now. Build networks across the humanities and between humanities and other disciplines. Keep up with editors. Real power in the twenty-first century hinges on developing and nurturing multiple alliances. This is where change happens: #MeToo and BLM movements have shown social media’s power.

We should expect further attempts—recently in December, the University of Vermont and University of Colorado-Boulder—to implement austerity measures as well as busting tactics of dubious ethical and legal standing. As an organization, we need to be prepared to speak on shared values, whether they are being challenged at a small liberal arts college, or an R1 institution with a large graduate program. This is not a battle over an individual job. The future of our entire profession, and of liberal arts education as a whole, depends on it.

Rebecca Mitchell is Assistant Professor of History at Middlebury College. She received her PhD in Russian History from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2011. Her first book, Nietzsche’s Orphans: Music, Metaphysics, and the Twilight of the Russian Empire (Yale University Press, 2015) was awarded the 2016 W. Bruce Lincoln Book Prize by ASEEES.

Steven Seegel is Professor of History at the University of Northern Colorado. He was the first graduate of Canisius College (1999) to receive scholarships for ASEEES-related fields. He is a writer, translator, and an active AAUP member, and he is a podcast host for New Books Network.

Note: ASEEES seeks member input on the ASEEES Advocacy Policy. More information will be posted the ASEEES Website.