A message from WMU-AAUP President Cathryn Bailey and WMU-AAUP Vice President Whitney DeCamp
There is nothing new or especially problematic about universities calling upon legal experts, especially in limited contexts where it may be necessary to protect institutional interests from external threats. But there is a meaningful difference between the occasional use of legal counsel to safeguard the institution and the increasingly common use of attorneys by Western Michigan University in an ever-expanding scope of internally-directed functions. Not incidentally, some of these are functions that, until recently, have been more commonly performed by administrators with faculty rank, not by lawyers.
An example about which the WMU-AAUP has repeatedly expressed concern is the university’s hiring of the aggressive, anti-union law firm Dykema Gossett to represent management interests in various matters, including in contract negotiations. Indeed, one of most noteworthy points about WMU’s recent labor negotiations was the administration’s decision to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in an attempt to intimidate employees, in part, into accepting lowball salary offers. Not incidentally, WMU’s chosen Dykema attorney has been characterized by Michigan AFT president David Hecker as notoriously aggressive and anti-labor. “Any university who hires this guy,” says Hecker, “is sending a very clear and deliberate message to its employees.”
In addition, Western also employed this same attorney last year for an arbitration battle with the WMU-AAUP that the university decisively lost this past November. You can review the dressing down that the Western administration received by the arbitrator here. Although faculty rights to summer pay were ultimately protected as a result of the Chapter’s staunch advocacy, this is a good example of yet another unnecessary, lawyer-laden escalation by the university. The ultimate result of the university’s handling of this contract dispute? Tens of thousands of dollars diverted by Western to private attorneys even as campus employees were being lectured about the need for ongoing belt-tightening. In addition, there was a hit to morale from this administrative effort to deprioritize faculty in teaching, purportedly to offset SRM budget pressures (the stated reason for the attempted changes).
Yet another novel use of attorneys occurred last spring when WMU hired a Grand Rapids attorney to investigate unspecified accusations of wrongdoing by faculty members across two colleges rather than following the negotiated, contractual process for addressing such concerns. Although these faculty were directed by the former interim provost to meet with this attorney — and the Chapter president is among these individuals — few faculty chose to participate (consistent with advice provided by WMU-AAUP legal counsel). Nonetheless, the university administration has continued to appeal to this outside attorney’s report as justification for its adverse treatment of faculty, both in its informal communications to the Chapter and in official responses.
Until last summer, WMU’s Director Academic Labor Relations — a pivotal office for dealing with the concerns of faculty, teaching assistants, and part-time instructors — had always been appointed from among the WMU faculty. This was not accidental, but a recognition of the university’s desire to facilitate diplomatic solutions among folks who were more or less on an equal plane and who had shared understandings of academic goals and values. Appointing faculty members to this critical administrative role had been an imperfect, but generally effective means of avoiding the stress, rancor, and expense of unnecessary escalations and conflict when employee concerns and complaints arose. Now when the Chapter raises concerns about the impact an action will have on faculty morale, working conditions, or faculty/administrator relations, we are met, not with the understanding of a colleague but with legalistic responses, for example, a demand that we cite relevant caselaw that would require the administration to respond to such concerns. Anyone who’s been on the receiving end of such messages from attorneys — and emails from this office are now identified as coming from an attorney —can confirm that they often seem deliberately designed to intimidate.
It’s also worth noting that, while Western has long kept in-house attorneys on its payroll to represent the university’s interests in various matters, in recent years, these attorneys too have been pressed into service in novel ways. A few years ago, for example, the university determined that its in-house lawyers could now be construed as “administrators” who could directly participate in the hearing of grievances. Instead of the chairs, associate deans, or deans who would normally have been assigned to hear an employee or Chapter concern on behalf of the administration, then, faculty members might be confronted with a university attorney in that role. Although the Chapter successfully beat back this practice in 2021 by negotiating additional contract language, WMU’s determination to insert lawyers into the grievance process like this confirms a troubling trend.
It is puzzling to us that, even as WMU leaders insist they are sincerely trying to address the campus morale crisis, they are paying attorneys to respond to some of our university’s most human problems and concerns. Increasingly, when faculty, staff, and student employees reach out to our leaders, seeking understanding, compromise, and resolution, we’re being directed to sort it out with attorneys. This is, perhaps, not surprising since a layer of attorneys can serve as a smokescreen behind which administrators attempt to avoid responsibility. But such a wall of paid legal technocrats also keeps members of the university community from meaningful connection with our leaders about some of the issues that matter most. While the attorneys who are profiting from this arrangement may have cause for celebration, it’s a terrible loss for just about everyone else. Does anyone really believe that adding more lawyers to the mix is the best way to restore campus morale and Western’s status as a great place to work and learn?