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“We Should Do Something:” A Semester in the Era of Coronavirus, Spring 2020 - Part 1

By Caroline Waldron

On April 10, 2020, InsideHigherEd published, “The Next Level of Precarity,” which spotlighted the precarious condition faced by non-tenure track (NTT) faculty in academia. A month into UD’s campus closure on March 12, 2020, campus members faced another hazard: job loss like the university had never endured. On top of the health crisis, many colleagues would be unemployed by the end of the term. 

I read the InsideHigherEd article because a friend posted it on Facebook. I catalogued it into a series of other materials that I was gathering about the changes affecting daily life. These pieces focused on everything from effective ways to rapidly shift a course from in-person to online, the exemplary role Ohio was playing among the states in its aggressive response to the pandemic, and also the historical comparisons between the 1919 Flu Pandemic and COVID-19. This hodgepodge I added to other material collected earlier in the academic year.

The academic calendar year of 2019-2020 started with an impending  financial crisis in higher education. The virus made it worse: A financial crisis was upon us. Initially caused by a decline in the high school age population, applications for college are forecasted to decline for a decade. Tuition-driven institutions like UD needed to do business in “leaner and meaner” ways. 

Because of these dire predictions, fall semester included meetings and emails from the administration outlining budgetary belt-tightening messages. Financial stewardship became the buzzword on everyone’s lips; I even received an electronic Christmas card in lieu of paper  which stated, “tis the season for financial stewardship.”In a matter of months, the fall buzzword was replaced with other phrases which were repeatedly invoked: synchronous vs. asynchronous learning environments, Zoom meetings joined PPEs and essential and front-line workers all came into our lexicon.

From the highest level of leadership, not another word was spoken about financial stewardship

My first Aha Moment 

Finding the cause of historical change requires a double-take, or how UD got from financial stewardship to financial sustainability.

Until deciding to write this blog series, and document the history, I mistook the disappearance of financial stewardship as a product of the pandemic.  This erroneous assumption hid what had actually been a planned phase out.

It wasn’t coronavirus that killed the term financial stewardship; it had been displaced intentionally earlier. In fact, in January, the university’s president sent out a message that explained that financial stewardship was a short-term solution. The long-term phrasing and need we were now planning to address was financial sustainability

The next message from the president was released on May 11. Financial sustainability was front and center (or, actually, second to health and safety). Thus, after three months of short-term emergency decision making that required moment-by-moment responses, the leadership was back to long-term thinking and planning. 

Financial sustainability. That’s what the Inside Education article  was about. I understood now that to be financially sustainable, the university may require layoffs and furloughs of staff as well as not renew contracts for NTT faculty due to COVID-19.


The language used by leadership before and during the pandemic were consistent with economic concerns. Moving from stewardship to sustainability, signaled a different approach to finances. However, what caused the shift in language was not about the virus. I soon came to realize that the disappearance of stewardship also signaled a shift in approach. Stewardship’s root is personal; the steward is a caretaker, and the word highlights human action. Sustainability has no such human associative reference and lacks something social historians tie to agency – choice and empowerment.

For me, what caused the shift in the language before the pandemic is less important than the continued use of financial sustainability itself. While the death toll from the virus surpassed 100,000 and the economic hardship from unemployment and business shutdowns is on par with the Great Depression, there was more talk relying on older models to save an institution than new models the moment requires to save lives. To what lengths would the institution go to sustain itself? How many jobs would it shed? How many human lives would we lose? When and how would leadership listen to faculty and staff? Where was the partnership of stewardship now?  

Dr. Caroline Waldron is an Associate Professor of History. Her research interests include social history (history from the "bottom-up") of immigrants, workers, and women; transnationalism; and feminism. She is a Human Rights Center Faculty Research Fellow.

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