Johns Hopkins University faculty are demanding more transparency and a greater role in the governance of the university, saying the administration is imposing financial austerity measures that disproportionately affect the most vulnerable workers.
In an unusual, sharply worded letter signed by 600 faculty across the university — from the Homewood campus to the Peabody music conservatory and the medical institutions — professors said they wanted a “frank report on the status of the university’s finances” and a “moratorium on cuts to staffing compensation and research funding.”
The financial cutbacks made necessary by the coronavirus pandemic have not only angered faculty but widened existing fault lines between the administration and the professors, faculty said.
“I have never seen a faculty as upset and publicly pushing back as at Hopkins right now,” said Shane Butler, a classics professor at Hopkins who said he has worked at multiple universities over his career. “I think the situation is unprecedented and the faculty step here is quite forceful.”
In April, Hopkins President Ronald J. Daniels announced the university will have to cut costs by $475 million through June 2021. The administration suspended retirement contributions, and said it would cut pay for top leaders, put severe restrictions on hiring, and may need to layoff and furlough some workers.
But faculty said they believe the university’s financial health can be maintained without “undermining the work it was created to enable.”
They want much more detailed financial information from the university, including projected revenue shortfalls and current liabilities from capital projects.
Hopkins responded to the faculty with a six-page statement Monday, arguing that it was in a stronger financial position because of steps it had taken in the past decade to put aside money and had maintained surpluses of 1.5 to 2.5 percent of revenues over the past several years.
“The university’s balance sheet is strong, and significantly stronger than it was during the 2009 global financial crisis,” the statement said.
The statement to the faculty said the pandemic brought an unprecedented downturn, but instead of widespread layoffs and furloughs, “we focused intensively on protecting jobs, driven by concerns for the well being of our employees and their families, as well as our broader responsibility as an economic anchor for the city of Baltimore and the state of Maryland.”
David Celentano, a professor and chair of the epidemiology department, said he believes the friction that developed between the faculty and the university was in part about the messaging of the financial cuts. After a recent virtual town hall meeting with faculty, he said, he believes there is more agreement about the decisions.
“They went through all the choices ... I think people were quite satisfied. In the end, the $100 million take was probably the right thing to do,” he said, referring to the approximate amount that retirement benefit contributions were cut.
However, Derek Schilling, a professor of French, disagrees. A university with a $6.2 billion endowment ought to be able to draw more from that endowment in an emergency such as the pandemic rather than make painful cuts to research and compensation, said Schilling.
Schilling and other faculty believe the university has strayed from its central mission of educating students to a become a corporation that is buying up real estate around Baltimore and in Washington, including the Newseum building. In addition, the university has added dozens of highly paid administrators to its ranks in the last decade, he said.
“It does seem clear the university is overextended,” Butler said. “We buy buildings. We have a hospital in Tampa. These are all things that have immediate costs.”
He said the university should focus on its core mission of “training the next generation of scientists, humanists, musicians and medical professionals. We can’t sacrifice that to some short-term splashy gain.”
The faculty believes there are other places to cut than professor pensions.
“The gifts that were given to the institution over time were meant to get it through those tough patches,” Schilling said. “This is an institution with a large pool of assets, it can afford to think again about pensions.”
The issues that the faculty raise go far beyond the current crisis and run through a series of unpopular decisions made by the administration in recent years, including the decision to forge ahead with a police force and the president exerting more control over tenure decisions. The university suspended its plans for the police force earlier this month.
“What I think we have seen at Hopkins is a fairly rapid diminishment of the faculty’s role in the direction of the university,” Butler said.
He said the university was established on a principle of shared governance by administration and faculty, but faculty power has been eroded.
“It became acutely painful in the last few months as the university began making decisions” during COVID-19, he said.
In its letter, sent last week, the faculty asks the president and Board of Trustees to take “immediate steps to include elected faculty voices at all levels of university decision-making.”
In its response to the faculty, the administration argued faculty already play a role. About a dozen faculty members were involved in the pandemic budget cuts as part of a faculty budget advisory committee, although Celentano said the faculty did not make budget decisions but advised about messaging.
In addition, the administration said it has just created a new pandemic academic advisory committee, that “will be consulted frequently and be integrally involved in university level decision-making through the course of the pandemic.”
Butler said he is hopeful that the trustees of the university will recognize the faculty is saying “enough is enough” and will take action.