A message from WMU-AAUP President Cathryn Bailey and WMU-AAUP Vice President Whitney DeCamp

Governor Whitmer’s recent announcement of three new Western Michigan University trustees, combined with the hiring of an energetic new provost, mark this time as one of unusual hope and possibility at Western. Yes, our campus has struggled through some difficult times, including a number of chronic problems that were exacerbated during the worst of the pandemic. Our university has also suffered from a malaise that insiders often refer to as “The Western Way,” a shorthand description of processes that seem ill-conceived and doomed to produce unsatisfactory results. Despite such challenges, there is no reason that our campus cannot turn the tide and transform “The Western Way” into a reference to our campus’s commitment to collaboration, effectiveness, and pride.

As we have suggested in a number of past communications to members, the great heartbreak surrounding so many of WMU’s problems is that they have been avoidable. So, for example, while most Michigan universities have been struggling with challenging demographic, social, political, and financial realities — which have repercussions for everything from enrollment to mental health — some WMU administrators over the years have made choices that have unnecessarily, and sometimes quite predictably, worsened the impacts for WMU. When folks refer to “the Western Way,” they often seem to have in mind cumulative, short-sighted administrative maneuvers that unnecessarily grind away at staff and faculty morale and make it harder to simply do our jobs.

A few familiar examples:

  • a sense of being nickeled and dimed where program funding and compensation are concerned, including resources for the human beings critical to the academic mission  
  • an impression that WMU is unwilling to make consistent small investments to shore up core staffing and infrastructure, a worry that is being further realized by the recent implementation of the “SRM” budget model 
  • a feeling by at least some critical employees in every group that they are perceived by higher ups primarily as a drain on resources rather than as its most precious asset  
  • skepticism that employee input matters to higher ups; more and more “forums” can seem irrelevant to folks to who have come to believe that their voices do not matter
  • an impression that high-level administrators see their main loyalty and responsibility as being toward one another, that they regard themselves more as elite managers than as stewards in service roles to the university
  • problems of transparency, concern by employees that that they are not being told the full story about WMU’s challenges, let alone being included in collaborative problem-solving
  • a sense that the WMU administration sometimes sees employees — be they instructors, landscapers, advisors, or administrative staff — not as valued colleagues, but entirely as subordinates to be “managed”
  • an all too frequent inclination by some WMU administrators to unnecessarily provoke and escalate disagreements with its various employee groups rather than seek ways to compromise for the good of the institution

In general, up to now, “The Western Way” has functioned as a shorthand for campus leaders’ troubling and sometimes inscrutable choices for matters small and large, from the banners that promote WMU on Stadium Drive to how staffing cuts have occurred. The impacts have been felt everywhere from the dining halls, classrooms, advisors’ offices, and, critically, at contract negotiation tables where WMU has sometimes seemed more focused on “winning” an imagined contest against its own hardworking employees rather than reaching fair, mutually acceptable terms.

But as concerning as all of these details may sound, there is good news. Many individuals and employee groups at WMU have already clearly identified concrete problems and this helps to mark a pretty clear path forward for all who are eager to transform “The Western Way.” It is a cause for optimism, too, that some of our university’s greatest challenges are changeable, as the solution lies in internal institutional responses as much as external situations. This means that the power to make a real difference lies within the reach of empowered WMU hands. In short, we at Western Michigan University need not wait for perfect social, political, and financial circumstances to fully restore WMU’s functioning and reputation as a great regional university.

While all Broncos have some agency and accountability when it comes to shifting the tide, there can be no doubt that administrative higher ups and WMU trustees hold special power and responsibility. And while the big decisions and initiatives they champion surely matter, it is also their cumulative daily attitudes and choices that will disproportionately shape what “The Western Way” will come to mean in the future. Will the old habits and the old culture hold sway, or do we truly stand at a new beginning?

It is our great hope and, we know, also that of many of our colleagues in every employee group, that “The Western Way” will soon come to evoke qualities such as these:

– an institution that puts its core educational mission first, including all of the many and varied human beings necessary to realize that mission 

– a university at which administrators define themselves in terms of their service roles 

– an ethically principled, smoothly functioning university that is a first choice both for students and their families, and for employees 

– a university that is a source of pride for the region, our entire state, and beyond

Go Western!  

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