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“We Should Do Something:” A Semester in the Era of Coronavirus, Spring 2020 - Part 3

By Caroline Waldron

On Saturday, April 18, three days after the Faculty Board meeting, and a week after the post and tag on Facebook, eight people met in a Zoom meeting. We were Kelly Bohrer, Simanti Dasgupta, Sam Dorf, Kelly Johnson, Leslie Picca, Joel Pruce, Dalindyebo Shabalala. Our stories and how and when we came to Dayton were unique. Seven of us were faculty and one was a staff member. We were in our 30s-50s and our group was ethnically and racially diverse, and gender balanced. This was not planned. It happened organically which also says a lot about who the eight of us are. We came from different perspectives and levels of power within the hierarchy. Some were elected officials of the Academic Senate, others held prestigious academic chair positions. We were tenured and untenured faculty and staff. And, each of us had our own take on the mission and identity of the institution, the depth and cogency of the language used in conjunction with those things. In other words, we had our differences, not just our diversity. We committed to overcome challenges to get a statement together because we knew why we were at the table: Those who felt that they could not make their voice public, had asked us to do so.

We agreed on a number of issues, including:

  1. the relationship and overlap between the work of staff and faculty; 
  2. the ways that Marianist mission and identity shaped conditions on campus as well as expectations many, if not most, related to the crisis, and; 
  3. finally an expression of support for those whose jobs were most likely to be cut.

We wanted to underscore that we were willing to share the sacrifices that were sure to come. We also wanted a clearer decision-making process and communication chain.  

My third Aha Moment 

Don’t try this at home; or, writing by consensus is peacemaking for prose but emotionally painful.

That week, while we were drafting the statement, human resources of the administration sent out a notification about campus closure and wages to staff members. The “University is committed to paying staff and contributing to your benefit plans as long as we responsibly can….we will send updates…for any potential furloughs, pay shifts and other cuts.” I was stunned. I brought it up to the group and asked whether we should address it. It turned out not all faculty had received it; rather, it was intended for staff. But that itself illustrated a need for what we were doing and one of our central points: the way that communication was being distributed from the top was confusing. The content of human resources’s message itself suggested too that whatever financial stewardship had meant, it hadn’t been enough. Was it possible that the university itself was financially unsustainable?

We wrote the Solidarity and Shared Suffering Statement over the next week. We agreed to work by consensus and decisions were made only with unanimous consent. That made the process laborious. Decisions were vetted and vetoed over dozens of conversations via Zoom and hundreds of email exchanges. Issues addressed included logistical as well as ideological ones: Should signatories see each other’s names? How did we balance skepticism over mission and those who deeply believed in it?  

It seemed like a quarter of our time was spent keeping the group together. There was a sense of unease about mission and the way university finances were being addressed. One of the group wrote in frustration: “if you are looking for a signature to the statement… as it is… at this point, I am not on board.” We overcame that by working on “higher order concepts.” Though one of our members urged us against being “wishy-washy.” They wrote: “I am still at the table and happy to work with a basic principles document to be followed by a more detailed one. I would point to the fact that our sincerity and willingness to actually show solidarity at this stage is being closely watched by NTT and staff.”

We anchored our statement in solidarity. We worked through the concept and committed to it because it obligated us all to act. 

We demanded that leaders and decision makers acknowledge that we faced the moment with different levels of privilege. We wrote, “The reality…is that some of us come to this crisis with much more privilege and more resources, with more capacity to adapt and more power to effect change,” and “that greater sacrifices are borne by those with greater privilege.” That expression we grounded in Catholic Social Teaching as was our call that “leadership build habits of solidarity and promote equity” for rehiring if furloughs and layoffs were made. We also requested that information be shared and decision-making processes be transparent.

On April 22 at noon, we sent the document out for signatures. At 2:15 that day, 26 people had signed, and by 8pm, there were 100. When it was delivered to President Spina, that Statement of Solidarity and Shared Sacrifice had 281 signatories, most of which agreed to have their names and positions publicly listed. Faculty and staff from each part of campus, and representatives from every level of the university from vice presidents to administrative assistants supported the statement. 

We delivered the message to the president in two ways – first, through the Educational Leadership Council for which we relied on the Faculty Board representative who served in an official capacity there, and, then, in its final version with the 281 signatures during the last week of April. That week the university announced that it had furloughed and laid off more than 500 staff.

I am sure more members of the community would have signed if we had had their email addresses. 

As a result of the process, our group of eight also learned that others on campus had drafted similar statements that they had delivered to the administration. These included the Women’s Advisory Council in conjunction with the Men for Gender Equity and the President’s Committee on the Status of Women. 

The president’s response came quickly. In it he explained his deep appreciation for faculty and staff who had taken time to write to him. Our framing of what the crisis demanded – sacrifice and privilege – and the willingness of each of the signatories to take voluntary pay cuts to save jobs was the point he honed in on. In short, the president said, pledging to take salary reductions did not make sense operationally and it complicated things in terms of possible further pay cuts that the university might have to endorse.

The statement had moved the needle a bit.

We learned new things about the future – it was bleaker than we thought in terms of job loss. Our offer to support those who had been furloughed or laid off also brought a shift: We had “encouraged” the president. “I do believe that there is a way that the interests of faculty and staff who want, as an expression of community solidarity, to support needs of furloughed and laid-off staff can be met.” He proposed a charity fund and gave our group, because we had been backed up by hundreds of others, the power to name “5-6 people” to be a part of the fund administration (it was later decreased to three). Our group of eight passed on names, after dozens of emails, which focused on equity and representation as well as ways to get more people heard. There were two faculty (line and NTT) and one staff member on the list. It is my understanding that donations in the thousands have been pledged as of early summer.

Voices matter. Small victories do too in the way history moves. 

Conclusion

On May 3, our group of eight disbanded. I wrote an email note to my 7 colleagues “I think our work…is finished.” A month and a half later, I know that that note marked simply the close of the first wave of what faculty and staff needed to do together in this movement.

The Solidarity and Shared Suffering campaign is not over. With furloughed and laid off employees, with the decision to reopen UD made by leadership, with the continued talk of the financial health of the university and the safety and health of its community on and off campus , there is much more to do. The statement the eight of us wrote is about what it means to be an employee at UD. And we are unique in many ways. In early summer, I heard that Notre Dame’s faculty and staff have begun to unite in similar ways. I imagine there are other universities that are following a similar path. 

We talk about educating the “whole person here as part of our Catholic and Marianist mission.” It takes a “whole campus” to do so. We continue to face issues that jeopardize  people’s wellbeing and their economic livelihood. We work at an institution that we know talks a lot about community and the common good. The Statement of Solidarity and Shared Suffering was a testament of belief in those principles.

“We should do something….” And we should all continue to do so! The UD Solidarity Collective keeps working. 


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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