Will There Be a COVID-19 Reckoning for College Administrations and Boards?

David Golumbia
12 min readOct 28, 2020

Many colleges and universities in the US have defied their faculty, staff, and students in bringing students back to campus during a pandemic, and they can’t explain why. Could this be the straw that finally breaks the back of neoliberal education anti-management?

from CDC-MMWR study of COVID-19 infection rates among college-age students, which increased 55% nationally during August 2020

When the COVID-19 crisis started, many of us in US higher education worried about university administrations using the crisis as an opportunity to push through policies they would otherwise be unable to enact. As the American Association of University Professors put it, “the COVID-19 pandemic must not become the occasion for administrations or governing boards to jettison normative principles of academic governance.”

There are far too many worrying signs of just that happening, all over the country.

Yet few of us suspected that the opposite might also happen: that the pandemic might become the occasion for university communities to see just how far from education the mission of higher education presidents and other administrators has strayed, and how much, no matter their talk about honoring shared governance, administrators have given up on it entirely.

It is beginning to seem like the pandemic might provide a moment of reckoning for US higher education that most of us thought would never come.

COVID-19 has exposed a fundamental truth of university life in a way it never has been exposed before. At many schools, administrations run the university however they choose, without regard for what faculty, staff, and students want. They give lip service to listening to what we want, because that may be technically required by governance rules, contracts, and even laws; but at the end of the day, they do not care. Not only that: they gaslight us by telling us that they are doing what we want, even as we are directly telling them that they aren’t. It’s hard not to note that this is one way of understanding the longstanding call from the political right to “run universities like businesses”: businesses are authoritarian structures, with boards and CEOs who are paid to do precisely what they think will achieve the business goals (usually, maximize profit) regardless of what employees say or think.

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David Golumbia

Professor, Writer on Digital Studies, Language, Theory