Are We All in this Together?

Essays Human Rights

by Ahmed E. Souaiaia*

Most reasonable and informed people would have anticipated an economic and human cost to this pandemic. Those with means will not only escape paying those costs, but they will use the crisis as an opportunity to get even richer. The examples are numerous.

In academia, the learned ones talk about dislocation, inequity, and human rights in the abstract. But when faced with the reality that forces us to apply some of the theories and values we teach in the classroom and write about in books and the media, we often choose our personal interests.

Like any other place in the world, academia is a place for those with power and those without power. Administrators and tenured faculty have power. Staff and nontenured faculty members don’t have power. So when the university leadership issued its directives to cut costs to make up for the economic losses caused by covid-19 and cuts in state-allocation, the largest college at the University of Iowa acted swiftly: the dean fired 15 non-tenured faculty members, whose average salary would be under $50,000. Justifying this solution–forcing 15 people to lose their livelihood–the Dean argued that there was no other way. He contended that even if he reduced everyone’s salary by 10%, it would not solve the financial problem. I don’t believe this argument to be true.

What is true is that the Dean did not want to challenge the powerful people and ask them to share the pain. A path that challenges tenured faculty is a path with most resistance. Administrators reflexively avoid such a choice. If he were willing to ask others to share the cost instead of sacrificing 15 vulnerable lecturers, and those who claim their support to each other, a temporary salary reduction could meet the goal without making any vulnerable faculty or staff members lose their job. Even if some tenured faculty are unwilling to sacrifice, surveying all faculty for this and other option would help open other doors while showing the dean as being one who is committed to shared governance. Remember is a guarantee against threats to academic freedom and integrity, it is not a salary guarantee.

Here is why a temporary salary reduction could help. Based on public data, the College has about 600 tenured or tenure-track faculty members. It is safe to estimate that the average salary for these 600 people will be higher than $87,000. The total salary cost for all of them would be $52,200,000. The College needs to cut cost by $15,000,000. If we are to use only salary to cut this cost, that means we will have to bring the total cost for all tenured and tenure-track faculty to $37,200,000, which means it will reduce the average salary to $62,000.

Of course, to be equitable, the cuts should not be spread equally across all faculty. We can start by temporarily reducing all those making $50k-$60k by 5% and increase the reduction progressively to where a faculty member making over $150,000 have their salary cut by 25% and those making more than $200,000 have a temporary base salary reduction of 30%. This way, no one will lose their job, no one will be forced into poverty, and everyone is given about 1 year to weather the crisis. This is literally what it means to say, we are all in it together.

I don’t have official data to workout the math exactly, and certainly this is not the only path to solving this problem without sacrificing some of our colleagues. It might be the case the if all deans take a pay cut or some of the associate deans’ positions are eliminated, some of these positions could be saved, reducing the level of temporary salary reduction.  If there is a will, there is a way; but greed is often in the way.

However, I don’t think this kind of solution will be adopted because those with power will use their power to avoid sharing the burden. They will use nice sounding words to say that “these are very hard time for us all,” when in reality, hard times hit hard only the vulnerable.

As many events have proven, hard times and challenges test people’s commitment to the values they preach–from respect of human rights to solidarity with disempowered communities. These nice-sounding words become instruments used to shift burden and avoid responsibility, not to share the pain and support those in need.

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Prof. SOUAIAIA is a member of the faculty at the University of Iowa with joint appointment in International Studies, Religious Studies, and College of Law. Opinions are the author’s, speaking on matters of public interest, not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he might be affiliated.