A message from WMU-AAUP President Dr. Cathryn Bailey

For university employees, graduation season can be one of the most meaningful times of the year. Many of us have worked closely with these students, sometimes for years, and so we often share directly in their relief, joy, and pride as they prepare to claim their degrees. But commencement day itself is also part of the big business of higher education, with meticulously choreographed and precisely scripted ceremonies aimed at portraying the institution in the best possible light. Commencement is not just a celebration; it is also meant to attract new students and to provide public reassurance that, in an increasingly cutthroat enrollment environment, Western Michigan University is well-led and well run, that it can be counted upon to fulfill the promises its administrators make to students and their families.

When pressure is put on faculty and staff to directly participate in the pomp and circumstances of commencement, it’s usually implied that this is a responsibility we owe to our students and institution. The suggestion is that, regardless of the problems we may be dealing with as employees, on this special day, we should enthusiastically line up behind the president, vice presidents, provost, vice provosts and other dignitaries. A failure to join in the pageantry may even be criticized by administrators as an act of disloyalty to Western. This is not surprising, as university administrations depend upon an enthusiastic show of campus support on commencement day to lend credibility to their own leadership. Regardless of how chronically overworked, disrespected, ignored or trivialized they may feel, then, the assumption often is that it is employees’ duty to shine their shoes and help fill out the performative tableau of the university as one big happy family.

It surely makes sense that for some employees and students, feelings about commencement may be especially complicated, especially when serious campus problems have gone unaddressed by the Administration for years, problems that ultimately impact our students and their families most of all. It can feel false and hypocritical to repeatedly participate in the ceremonial performance of responsive and effective leadership when the day-to-day reality often tells a different story. Certainly, some employees may feel as if their role in students’ academic success is recognized by the administration only from the commencement stage. When the president asks the faculty to stand to be acknowledged by the audience, for instance, it can feel genuinely moving. But as soon as the lights go down, it’s back to business as usual, a sobering reality in which some of the most frequent faculty inquiries to the WMU-AAUP these days are from faculty who want to resign their positions.

As someone who’s been attending commencement ceremonies off and on now for about 35 years, I can personally attest to my increasingly mixed feelings when I am invited to share the stage with university administrators, ostensibly to show support for our students and our university, but, evidently, also to serve as a tacit endorsement of their leadership. And, frankly, for the past several years in particular, my joy for successful students and colleagues has become increasingly tinged with sorrow for those who, due to chronic, preventable and predictable leadership failures, are not here.

At this joyful time, then, I grieve for the students who:

• transferred out after one semester or one year because precipitous and unnecessary staffing cuts to advising, financial aid, counseling and other key offices left them feeling underserved

• dropped out because increasingly overworked faculty, teaching assistants, and part-time instructors were challenged to provide these students with the close scholarly collaboration for which they had initially chosen our “student-centered research-intensive university” over competitors

• left because, as BIPOC and/or LGBTQ+ individuals, they had begun to feel doubt about WMU’s ongoing commitment to their academic success and well-being

• never matriculated at Western in the first place because of ineffective top-down branding schemes, uncompetitive graduate student funding, or admissions delays due, again, to preventable staffing shortages

And I grieve for the faculty and staff colleagues who:

• have resigned or prematurely retired because shortsighted, unnecessary budget cuts have made it impossible for them to care for themselves and their own families while continuing to serve students to their full potential

• have resigned or prematurely retired because they have been on the receiving end of unskillful or unethical administrative interventions, including top-down program changes and inappropriate disciplinary actions

• have resigned or prematurely retired because they lost hope in the administration’s desire or ability to heal our university’s well-documented morale crisis, especially in the wake of the Vote of No Confidence

• feel so estranged and alienated as a result of some of the university’s priorities, policies, and practices — including some related to the “new” SRM budget model — that they feel less able to participate in our university’s public celebrations

These are just a few examples of students, faculty, and staff who will not be attending commencement. They will not tear up at the video montage of family tributes to our lovely students. They will not laugh at the president’s corny jokes or totter proudly across the stage in impossibly high heels to claim their diplomas. They will not mingle with joyful friends or colleagues before and after the ceremony on the sunny Miller plaza.

As our great, but troubled university publicly performs a celebration for those whose hard work and good fortune propelled them to the finish line, who will stand in solidarity with these ghosts and shadows of absent colleagues and students? And if this administration cannot be persuaded to take decisive and substantive action to heal and repair our university after the stage has emptied and the regalia has been stowed away, who will be left to fill the auditorium next year and the year after that?

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