The Anti-Austerity Petition at Jesuit Institutions, recently formed by students and faculty of several Jesuit colleges and universities, calls for those in power to understand and respect the negative implications of the increased budget tightening measures the COVID-19 pandemic has instigated in their institutions.
This petition calls out actions, such as faculty and staff cuts, eliminations of retirement benefits and the “consolidation or elimination of entire academic programs,” most being centered in the humanities.
These specific wounds to collegiate education are difficult for several reasons, but especially in the light of Jesuit tradition. Ann Ostendorf, history professor, said that the study of what it means to be human has always been a part of the Jesuit education.
“The reason that the humanities are core in Jesuit education is that there’s this idea that if you’re exploring human diversity, you’re exploring the manifestation of the divine in the world,” Ostendorf said.
Not only the tradition in these institutions, but also the inherent value of these programs is being threatened by these cuts. The humanities draw in less funding than the hard or applied sciences, but that does not mean that their value is any less. Yet these proposed financial maneuvers are essentially placing labs over history, at least in the case of Marquette University.
While the actions being taken by these institutions are not specific to Jesuit schools, the organizers of the petitions highlight that a commitment to cura personalis underscores a respect and dedication to the protection of students and employees.
“These proposals, among many others, illustrate how far our administrators have fallen from the Ignatian mission," reads the petition. "They have lost their commitment to education in pursuit of an abstract notion of institutional prosperity. They increasingly see our schools not as institutions of higher learning, but as holding companies with a tuition revenue stream. When a school retreats from its mission to educate, what remains?”
There are 45 organizations that have, to date, signed the Anti-Austerity Petition, but notably, none affiliated with GU have. This stems from the university’s ability, so far, to weather the storm.
“An important feature to our plan that is perhaps a little bit different than what you might be seeing in the Anti-Austerity Petition [schools], is that the university did not seek any reductions in force. We did not do any furloughs or any involuntary terminations,” said Chief Financial Officer Joe Smith.
GU’s plan revolves around discretionary spending or the use of limitations on voluntary expenditures for all departments of the university. Without any firings or drastic cuts, fiscal solutions came in several forms, including aid from endowments, the Federal Government as well as $6 million from financial reserves.
“This administration is very proud of the steps we’ve taken in response," Smith said. "We’ve been very intentional and thoughtful about it. We haven’t made permanent decisions based on temporary situations."
GU has not considered any drastic actions in response to the financial issues the pandemic has placed higher education into. This said, there is not a perfect solution for many other institutions, especially among the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities (AJCU).
A college or university’s options rely heavily on circumstance, both in relation to their particular state’s handling of COVID-19, as well as the business strategies employed by the institution before this global circumstance.
“Some schools haven’t put themselves into [the same situation as GU] for whatever reason," Ostendorf said. "Bad luck, sometimes it’s bad luck, bad management, it can be any number of things. They could’ve mismanaged their funds, or they could’ve done a great job and had really bad luck."
This is parallel to the stance of the wider administration at GU which states a sense of sadness for the situations of other institutions but can’t speak out or judge because every school is going through different circumstances.
Because of GU’s ability to hold the line financially, the humanities have been kept safe. On that solid ground Ostendorf said that, as a historian, it is easy to see how a small trend toward the scientific fields may have lasting impacts on the education of future students.
“Our goal is to give you an education so that you will enter the post-Gonzaga world and to take your experiences, whether that’s philosophy, whether that’s history, or understanding a culture or just believing in social justice,” said Robert Donnelly, associate professor of history. "Then you take what you learned at GU or Marquette or another Jesuit institution, and deliver that to your community.”
Ostendorf said that when you take away the humanities, the study of what it means to be human, we create students who are robots. Taking the human element out of science has been historically evil. Science is supposed to benefit humanity.
All of this is being threatened by the business aspect of running institutions of higher learning.
The petition that sparked this movement demands five things. They include four commitments: to preservation of jobs, shared governance, transparent budget analysis and a fair process for unionization. Also it demands faculty and staff discretion in their COVID-19 work environment.
“Measures that eliminate or undermine disciplines core to the liberal arts and that fire workers in the midst of a global pandemic imply a commitment to the bottom line, not to the people that make up our colleges and universities,” the petition said.
With GU still being a member of the AJCU, though not targeted by the petition, some in the university have found ways to show support for the organizers and signees.
Both Donnelly and Ostendorf were contacted by colleagues in the graduate level circuits at Marquette University about the concerns over cutting graduate history programs, and in a show of support, have written letters to the administration there speaking to the importance of history to the humanities and to an education. They demonstrate holding those in charge accountable for the power they wield.
“You have to put pressure,” Ostendorf said. “You have to put pressure on the institutions that you’re affiliated with to make them be what you want them to be.”