In every crisis, some people profit while others suffer. The novel coronavirus pandemic and global economic collapse that has followed in its train are a case in point. The global toll of COVID-19 is staggering but uneven — the national levy no less so. More than 100,000 people have died worldwide, but in New York City, people of color are dying disproportionately. And while unemployment is off the charts, Amazon is hiring, and shares of Zoom are through the roof. Even at Yale, one overarching question forces itself upon us. Who benefits while others suffer, and why? This is a question that weighs not only on students, but also on faculty.
The recent debate about grading policy revolved around the unequal conditions in which students learn today because of COVID-19. For example, last week, two students asked me for an extension the day before an assignment fell due. The first student had computer access issues. He was barricaded in his room because he had pneumonia, and his mother is a nurse who didn’t want to expose him to the virus. The second student was working as an EMT in NYC and was moving out of his parents’ home lest he risk exposing his family to the virus. The accumulation of these sorts of stories probably should have ended the debate. It didn’t, but that is a tale for another time.
Such stories help us see that crises exacerbate pre-existing inequalities. Who suffers and why is not uneven just because of COVID-19. My student was an EMT, as well as a student, long before COVID-19. Even on campus at Yale, not all students have a computer of their own. Some have jobs. Some have troubles at home. Some struggle with mental health. Some suffer gender or racial discrimination, or both. These students depend on their GPAs for jobs and scholarships. Grades are never fair. They always measure merit on uneven terrain and make social divisions vanish into spreadsheets. Social divisions just loom larger in a crisis.
This is also true for those who teach your classes on Zoom. Like most universities, Yale has a two-tier faculty system. Some of us are on track for promotion to tenure. Most of us are not. Those who are not typically hold shorter appointments that pay less and offer no job security: Yale can hire and fire these faculty members at will. Their research is unpaid and conducted at the expense of their teaching or vice versa. Their appointments are contingent on decisions made by administrators with one eye on the budget and the other on the endowment. That is how the University works. The fate of these non-tenure track faculty, or “lecturers” and “lectors,” whom students at Yale nonetheless call “professors,” depends on the well-being of the budget and of the endowment from year to year.
These facts are not well-known. Neither is the fact that nearly half of Yale’s faculty was non-tenure track — otherwise known as instructional — in 2016–17, according to a Faculty of Arts and Sciences Senate report.
That was before the expansion of Yale College and the undergraduate population. Per the same report, the University pledged to meet the “majority of additional teaching needs” created thereby through “hiring faculty into the non-ladder ranks,” that is, not on the tenure track. It is hard to tell by how much the non-ladder ranks have grown since 2016, but the upshot is clear. Long before COVID-19, the University chose to employ a growing share of instructional faculty to maintain a low student-faculty ratio.
Today, fully half or more of Yale’s faculty are instructional. Most are paid a fraction of what their tenure-track colleagues earn. Most hold short-term contracts and are paid by the course at rates that almost never rise regardless of performance or years of service. And many of those contracts expire — along with the health care they provide — on June 30th each year.
To preserve the well-being of the budget in response to the crisis, the University has announced a hiring freeze through June 2021. Instructional faculty on expiring contracts thus face grim employment prospects. Meanwhile, the University is taking good care of the endowment. There is more than a little irony here. The health of the endowment takes precedence over the well-being of Yale faculty in need of re-hiring to maintain their access to income and health insurance. These facts breed uncertainty for many, but the situation is plain for all to see. The fate of instructional faculty — including many graduate students who often teach in exchange for funding — is up in the air.
Students and faculty alike thus face an administration that has made its priorities clear. Universal Pass threatened business as usual because GPA impacts administrative functions, including students’ eligibility for outside funding and academic honors.
The status of instructional faculty is a line item that threatens the overall budget. Those fiscal priorities are not new, as anyone acquainted with the University’s response to the 2008 financial crisis can attest: Yale’s endowment made a swift recovery and then some from the global financial crisis. It did so in part through the expansion of Yale College to bring in more tuition along with students from a wider variety of backgrounds. Meanwhile, it cut costs by employing more instructional faculty and graduate students than tenure-track faculty to teach those additional undergraduates. Social divisions just loom larger in a crisis.
In short, even at Yale, every crisis is a chance for some to cut costs while others suffer. “Disaster capitalism,” Canadian filmmaker and historian Naomi Klein dubbed this dismal reality. Crisis is not the main villain in her coinage, though. The disaster is that this is just how capitalism works. The University did not impose a hiring freeze because of COVID-19. The University imposed a hiring freeze because that is what was best for business in the eyes of administrators. In every crisis, we are learning, the status quo holds in extraordinary ways. Even as the virus spreads unevenly, many suffer for the sake of a bottom-line that is administered by those at the top.
Most colleges and universities are facing tough decisions right now, but Yale is unique in one crucial respect. Before COVID-19, Yale’s endowment totaled $30 billion. Last year, Yale ran a budget surplus of $87 million.
Yale has a choice that most other universities don’t. Yale can prioritize the well-being of its existing faculty, staff and students. Or it can prioritize its endowment. What Yale can’t do is credibly claim that it doesn’t have the money to support its community members because of the crisis.
TIMOTHY KREINER is a lecturer in the Department of English and in the Directed Studies program. Contact him at email@example.com.