After feeling left out of the University's COVID-19 decision making process, Penn professors formed a new chapter of the American Association of University Professors in hopes of giving faculty members a greater voice.
Penn faculty were motivated to create the campus chapter after witnessing the University's unilateral decisions to freeze hiring, lay off subcontracted staff, institute a pass/fail grading policy for multiple semesters, and shut down admissions to Ph.D. programs, said English professor and AAUP-Penn Communications Secretary Emily Steinlight.
“Those actions raised real concerns about how institutional decisions are being made at Penn and the substance of those decisions, which in a lot of cases is focused on the bottom line," Steinlight said. “Penn, like other wealthy universities, was acting as if austerity measures were needed due to the temporary drop in revenue, despite Penn’s growing $15 billion endowment."
AAUP is a membership-based national professional organization which namely seeks to advance shared university governance and academic freedom, define professional values and standards, and promote economic security for university faculty members. The AAUP chapter at Penn, a nonunion chapter that has dues-paying members, is one of the many AAUP chapters launching around the country as universities grapple with the pandemic — leading faculty to cope with decisions often made by University leaders.
The organization currently has 600 chapters nationwide and over 45,000 members with 69 chapters forming in 2020 alone — up from 36 chapters launched the year before, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer. AAUP-Penn currently includes over 100 faculty from nine undergraduate and graduate schools, according to Steinlight.
Suvir Kaul, A.M. Rosenthal Professor of English and President of AAUP-Penn, said the University lacks transparency about faculty wages and school finances and that the campus chapter's immediate goal is to find statistical evidence to prove that, before drafting their overall demands.
Kaul said that AAUP-Penn's current research is concerned with finding evidence on the discrimination faced by women and non-white faculty members at Penn, as well as the disparities in how much money each undergraduate and graduate school, and the lack of benefits provided to adjunct faculty and graduate students.
"SAS is the largest school at Penn, it is the heart and soul of the undergraduate college. It is also the weakest in terms of endowment," Kaul said.
Kaul added that in the same month that the School of Arts and Sciences suspended its admissions of Ph.D. students as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the school’s finances, Penn Law received a gift of 50 million dollars by the Robert and Jane Toll Foundation to expand opportunities in public interest law.
An adjunct faculty member in AAUP-Penn, who requested anonymity in fear of losing their job, said they struggle to make a living wage despite being employed by Penn for over 10 years.
The adjunct faculty member said they receive $5,000 for teaching one course each semester, and get no benefits.
"I am lucky that I have enough — just enough — other income that I can pay for my own health insurance, I can feed my family, but I have learned within the past few months that there is a startling number of contingent faculty — in my experience — who rely on Medicaid," the adjunct faculty member added.
The adjunct faculty member also said that their courses may be canceled at any moment. After teaching a course every single semester for over five years now, they said they were surprised to find their name was not on the roster of spring 2021 instructors.
The adjunct faculty said that, like many others, they have no other recourse than going to an organization like AAUP. They said that optimally, AAUP will be able to take their voice and their experience and give it a platform.
Steinlight, Kaul and the adjunct faculty member agreed that AAUP-Penn's ultimate goal is to make the University a more ethical space and said they would support any groups on campus working towards this, such as Penn for PILOTs, a group of faculty and staff who believe the University should make payments in lieu of taxes to the city of Philadelphia, and Fossil Free Penn, a group on campus that demands Penn divest from the fossil fuel industry.
"We also realize that staff, students, and community members should have a meaningful voice and it means being consulted on the decisions that affect them. So our conception of shared governance extends beyond the faculty role," Steinlight said.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that English professor and AAUP-Penn Communications Secretary Emily Steinlight said she was "dismayed" by the University's actions, when in fact, this was a misquotation. The article had also stated that Steinlight said University decisions were concerned with "profits" when in fact, they are concerned with "the bottom-line." The DP regrets the error.