University-Leader-Speak: Play the Game With Me?

Yesterday morning, my academic “community” received an update from the Office of the President, announcing that, after rigorous, stressful planning, the president and the senior staff have decided to “furlough” 30 university staff employees as of this Friday (3 days notice). In the days leading up to yesterday’s announcement, the president and the provost convinced the Academic Senate to form a special committee of 6 faculty members to participate in “shared governance” by devising a plan over the next 4 months to “right-size” our academic programs.

Since many of us have extra time on our hands, sitting at home reading continuous updates about the fall of the empire, I invite you play this game with me: translate the message into plain English, retaining its essence, but eliminating its bullshit.

I’ve taken a stab at it, and will share that with you shortly. But I invite you to also take a stab at it, seeing if you can tighten up the statement even more. I am happy to announce that I will buy the winner a 1-year subscription to Counter-Punch! (If anyone submits entries, I will leave it to the editors and staff of CounterPunch to figure out what to do next! I promise if they send me word they’ve picked a winner, I will pony up the cash!)

But, first, one quick linguistic, rhetorical strategy in academia that has always pissed me off (and is used to open the president’s collegial statement): academic administrators, with the power to hire and fire us, refer to all employees of the university as “colleagues.” Here’s how the dictionary defines “colleague” —

“A colleague is someone you work with at your job. When you are a teacher, the other teachers are your colleagues. When you work as a cashier at 7-11, the guy at the deli counter is your colleague as well. Your colleagues are usually people at the same level or rank as you are.”

That’s how I’ve always understood the word as well. The president and the senior staff and the college dean and I (a faculty member) and the groundskeepers all work for the university, but we are not all colleagues. Our interests diverge, our houses are in different parts of nearby towns, our jobs are protected to greater and lesser and no degrees. The boundaries that separate us are not inviolable since they’re merely in our heads and in our paychecks. But we are separated in our interests and our needs. We are not colleagues.

Naturally, the president opens the “important update” that by fiat the senior staff has decided to “furlough” 30 full-time staff members, giving them 3 days notice, with “dear colleagues.”

My translation of 4 pages of obfuscation and misdirection:

Dear subordinate serfs, 

We, the Lords and Ladies of this fiefdom, in an effort to stay fat and happy until our golden parachutes are ready, are banishing 40% of you lumpen proletariat. To forestall outright rebellion, we will pay you for 3 more days. After that, get in long fucking lines at overrun government centers and fill out massively complicated bureaucratic forms. The government agents will help you identify the best interment camp for your foreseeable future.

As for the proletarian faculty, we have given them the freedom to gather together in a circle and fire at each other until 30% of them are driven away or killed outright. They are smart enough to know that we, the bourgeoisie managers, have actually garnered most of the true “freedom” for ourselves, but they are easily deluded by empty words and vacuous praise. In a few weeks, no later than the end of summer, many of them will join you on the bread lines. Then, all of you will be able to finally exist as true colleagues. In the meantime, we’ll keep using the word “colleague” to issue our commandments to you.

We have spoken,

Your Overlords

Good luck to all the contestants. I hope you can better my hasty effort.


The full text of the president’s “Important University Update”:

April 14, 2020

Dear Colleagues,

In this time of extended uncertainty about the COVID-19 pandemic and its impacts on the national economy and on the higher education industry, the Senior Staff has been working diligently to determine ways to reduce the negative financial impact on the University. We thank you for your daily encouragement and input as we work through novel problems that require equally untried solutions. 

I would like to update you on a number of important matters regarding the financial impact of the pandemic on [university name]’s business operations and finances. 

In the current fiscal year, due to room and board refunds and credits, the University will suffer financial losses of approximately $4 million. We are seeking clarity on the possibility of using federal relief funds to cover a portion of this loss. On the immediate horizon, we also anticipate declines in Summer I & II enrollments and summer conference revenues. In addition, the status of the anticipated Summer [program] rollout is not yet clear. 

Projections for fall enrollments, on the [main] campus and in online and specific graduate programs, are not as strong as they were prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. We are in constant communication with our enrollment partner [corporate name], and in addition to innovative methods to continue to engage our prospective students and families, our discussions have also resulted in realistic adjustments to our enrollments goals for the Class of 2024. We are not alone. Colleges and universities across the country face similar circumstances as a result of the pandemic.

The onus on my office and the senior administrative team to arrive at solutions to stabilize the University’s finances is our daily focus. Despite not knowing when our main campus and centers may reopen, our goals are to continue to educate and support our graduate and undergraduate students at the level of quality and excellence they have consistently received from [university name]. But, we must also articulate and mitigate the portending financial challenges to the University. In every scenario under discussion, unless we take action now, the University will experience significant negative financial consequences. 

From the beginning of this national health and now economic crisis, [university name] committed to prioritizing the well-being and safety of all members of our community. When we announced the decision on March 17, 2020 to work remotely, we also indicated that all of our employees, whether their responsibilities allowed them to work remotely or not or whether their work could be maintained at a full-time level, would continue to receive their salaries and benefits. 

Over this four-week period, we have consulted with a number of our higher education colleagues, from our auditors at [corporate name] to our legal counsel at [corporate name] to fully understand the federal stimulus legislation, its intentions and its potential benefits to [university name] and our employees. It is now time for us to leverage this stimulus package in what we believe is in the best long-term interest of the University despite how painful these decisions are to make and communicate.

Without a student or faculty/staff population present on campus or at our centers and without any major events on the current calendar, the daily operational needs of the University have dramatically changed. All staff will continue to be paid through Friday, April 17 but the University will then take the following actions for some positions: temporary furloughs and reduction in hours.

Temporary furloughs: After a review of current workloads, beginning today, we will start the process of suspending the work of 30 full-time University employees who cannot work remotely or whose responsibilities have significantly changed, thereby making them eligible for state and federal unemployment benefits. 

Unemployment insurance information and application instructions will be provided to affected employees. It is our understanding that the state and federal benefits will allow most employees earning $40,000 or less to retain income on par with current levels through July 31, 2020. Specifically, all full-time employees who are furloughed can take advantage not only of unemployment insurance but also of the Federal CARES Act and the additional $600 per week it offers as a stimulus provision. The additional $600 will be available through July 31, 2020. Many will also be eligible for the federal stimulus package direct payments, not only for themselves, but also for their spouses/partners and children. 

All furloughed employees will have the option to retain their current [university name] medical, dental and vision insurance, but other options will also be available. In addition, vacation time and sick leave accruals will continue. Our Human Resources team is prepared to discuss any other benefits implications with affected employees.

Reductions in Hours: Also as part of our review of current and foreseeable operational demands, we have identified the need to reduce the hours that some employees are working. While these colleagues remain employed at [university name], specifically fewer than 35 hours per week, they may also be eligible for state and federal unemployment benefits. Employees working reduced hours will also be able to continue their current benefits through the University.

Furloughed employees and those with reduced hours will receive more information from Human Resources. While there is no definitive end date for furloughs or reduced hours, we will regularly reevaluate the University’s circumstances and return employees to their roles when regular levels of work are required on campus and at our centers. 

It is with great sadness that I share this news with you. Our community is close-knit.  We care deeply for one another. Even in a harsh situation like the one we now face, one that requires organizations of all kinds to address the mathematical realities at hand, it is never forgotten that behind each of these difficult decisions is a colleague and a friend. It is my sincere hope that in the coming months, we will be in a position to welcome each one of them back to [university name]. 

The senior administration will continue to pursue options that best ensure the University’s operations are financially sustainable in these unpredictable times. Additional communications will follow as those decisions take shape. There is simply no way to know at this time how the pandemic will ultimately impact students’ enrollment decisions and the University’s revenue in the fall and beyond, but we are planning for a range of scenarios.  

We are a determined and resilient institution and community. Thank you for all you do for [university name] and thank you for supporting one another throughout this unsettling time in our nation’s history and in our personal lives.

Stay well [mascot name]. 



Dr. Norm Case case is a pseudonym for a long-time faculty member at a liberal arts college in New England.