Why the WMU-AAUP continues to thrive in the face of incredible challenges

Despite ongoing legislative attempts to throttle collective bargaining efforts by making it harder for unions to maintain robust membership, WMU faculty overwhelmingly continue to support the WMU-AAUP. In fact, though some form of so-called “right to work” laws have been in place in Michigan since 2013, 90% of eligible WMU faculty continue to support the union as full dues-paying members.

As some collective bargaining units across the nation have struggled to maintain membership in the face of increasing anti-union challenges, our union membership numbers are especially impressive. Out of a total of about 900 eligible faculty, only 45 tenure-track and 11 term faculty have committed to opting out. While we continue to reach out to to a handful of additional WMU faculty who have not yet submitted cards, the overall numbers are remarkably positive. Again, 90% of WMU faculty continue to fully support the Chapter as dues payers despite explicit attempts to dilute our solidarity.

No doubt this success is due, in part, to the WMU-AAUP’s implementation of a comprehensive member outreach plan in recent years designed to respond to the latest anti-union threats. This plan has included direct, intensive outreach to new faculty, including over the summer, and ongoing targeted communications throughout the year in the form of letters, phone calls, office visits, and emails. In addition to this painstaking work by WMU-AAUP staff and officers, AAUP department representatives (Association Council members) are on the front lines with respect to engaging with colleagues who have questions about membership, or somehow simply forgot to submit their dues card.

Our member outreach plan, combined with plain old elbow grease, is surely part of the secret to the Chapter’s impressive success, but the deeper explanation is likely much simpler: the WMU-AAUP’s impressive record of fighting for fair salaries and decent benefits, of doggedly standing up for faculty rights, and of offering critical guidance through a maze of bewildering processes, especially the rocky shoals of tenure and promotion.

In short, WMU faculty have a deeply rooted ethos of supporting our collective bargaining unit because of the value it brings to our individual and collective professional lives. As higher education withstands wave after wave of insult and assault, including threats to the basic viability of the professoriate, we invite you take a moment to celebrate the fact that WMU faculty are standing strong. We are, in fact, more united than ever in our commitment to fight for what is right and fair as we head into another negotiating season.

How successful are we at WMU at expressing our research-intensive values?

How many undergraduate students know the difference between a research-intensive university and one that is overwhelmingly teaching-focused? Even if students can recite some of the differences, how many of them even care? Further, to what extent are faculty members in touch with the reality of how well our university actually measures up to the values and mission associated with being research-intensive?

At universities like WMU that identify and market themselves as both research-intensive and focused on undergraduate education, these may be especially important issues to grapple with. After all, if we, ourselves, are not clear about how well our institution fulfills its claims to be research-intensive, we can’t help students appreciate this quality. As we reflect, then, here are a few reminders of some criteria generally associated with being research-intensive.

Such universities:

  • invest in faculty scholars and researchers, providing workloads, facilities and other resources (e.g., library, equipment, grant preparation, and travel funding) that facilitate and nourish such activity
  • place a high value on attracting and supporting promising graduate students across a broad range of disciplines; while such students may directly contribute to the teaching mission, their identities as scholars is primary
  • facilitate and encourage individual faculty efforts to incorporate their research into their teaching by, for example, providing grants and release time
  • foster and maintain specialized undergraduate majors and internships, instead of supporting only the most popular, fashionable ones
  • eliminate institutional roadblocks that impede interdisciplinary collaboration, for example, team-teaching or joint research projects

When considering our university, how would you respond to these questions? What other criteria are critical for assessing a university’s designation as research-intensive in ways that might matter most to faculty and students? And what other questions should we be considering when we ponder the future identity of our university as research or teaching-focused?

The invisible labor of WMU professors: Three lessons from your own workload stories

Probably the most striking conclusion of the workload comments faculty have shared with the WMU-AAUP over the past few weeks is that, when it comes to research, teaching, and service, we professors are in the best position to tell our own stories. In fact, in sharing the interesting, sometimes idiosyncratic, details of their work responsibilities, faculty have described feeling isolated and misunderstood, not just by administrators, but sometimes even by faculty colleagues.

For example, one faculty member observed that “there seems to be an assumption that because I have a heavy teaching load that I must not care about scholarship, but I never stopped writing and publishing articles even though I’m given almost no time to do it.” Conversely, another professor shared that he is almost afraid to talk about how low his official teaching load is with colleagues outside his department because “it gives people the wrong idea. The fact that my official teaching credits are low doesn’t do justice to how much time I’m actually required to spend working with individual graduate students.”

Other faculty described frustrations about how research, scholarship and creative activity are recognized and valued. As one professor explained, “Scholarship in my field takes time and my department understands this. But for people in departments that emphasize lots of co-authored articles rather than books, it must look like I’m just sitting on my ass.” Another faculty member emphasized the painstaking process of securing and managing external grants, and of how this “basically becomes an entire job unto itself, in addition to the actual research the grant is supposed to fund.”

Not surprisingly, service was another area about which faculty expressed frustration, suggesting that too much of this work was rendered invisible by “bean counting administrators.” One professor described the increased pressure he’s felt over the years as his department’s faculty numbers have dwindled. “At the same time, the service demands have gone up,” he said. “There seems to be no recognition that fewer faculty members are being asked to do more and more.” Another faculty member explained that much of what claims her time seems to fall outside the recognized workload parameters, for example, “Every single week a handful of students stop in for informal advising discussions. I want to help them, but they aren’t even ‘my’ students. Am I supposed to turn them away?”

Though no single, overarching theme emerged from the workload stories shared with the WMU-AAUP, three were repeated enough to serve as cautionary lessons.

  • First, there is the recognition that the work faculty do across colleges varies, sometimes dramatically, and that no numerical system can fully do justice to this diversity.
  • Second, WMU professors are aware that the best experts for determining what counts as meaningful research, teaching and service work in their field are to be found in their field.
  • Third, more discussion is needed among faculty across departments and colleges to better understand and appreciate the diverse value we bring to WMU. Now, if only we could find the time!

Additional examples of labor that faculty feel may be misunderstood or rendered invisible:

– writing, customizing, and uploading student reference letters for graduate schools, professional programs, and academic employment

– engaging in industry consulting work that may be both expected and appropriate to one’s academic role

– informal academic and personal advising of undergraduate students, especially those who arrive underprepared

– driving time to teach courses at WMU distance learning sites, especially in the winter

– serving on diversity and inclusion initiatives, especially for faculty of color

– remaining current in one’s academic discipline, especially when one’s field is international in scope

– dealing with the ongoing demands of accreditation reports and other documentation

– completing a myriad of WMU online trainings, for example, cyber security and bullying

– direct individual supervision of students, especially graduate students, in required internship or performance activities

– completing time-consuming academic program review documentation as periodically required by administration, especially when this work has no apparent consequences

– piecing together small funding opportunities for routine academic work in the absence of sufficient support for conference and research travel (especially when international)

– completing professional activity reports, especially when one’s accomplishments do not fit neatly into its categories

– work done for the Lee Honors College, for example, scholarships, thesis committees, and serving as speakers

– participating in curricular overhauls, for example, essential studies

– facilitating the needs of increasing numbers of students who require special accommodations, for example, extra exam time

– assisting with departmental, college, and university recruitment efforts, e.g., spending time with prospective students and their families

– multiple (rather than streamlined) progress (and midterm grade) reporting for undergraduate students, for example, those on probation

If you haven’t yet had a chance to share your workload story with us, please send it!

Note: Faculty find much of this work to be both important and satisfying, but wish that it were better factored in during formal and informal assessments of their overall contributions. Also, some details have been altered to preserve anonymity.

New issue of “The Journal of Academic Freedom” published

Volume 105, Number 4

The AAUP’s Journal of Academic Freedom is full of timely and important articles. Below are a few examples of what you’ll find in the newest issue.

Fighting to Protect—and Define—Academic Freedom
By Robert Quinn

Brazil’s Far-Right President, University Autonomy, and Academic Freedom
By James N. Green

Academic Freedom in Canada: A Labor Law Right
By David Robinson

Gender Studies and the Dismantling of Critical Knowledge in Europe
By David Paternotte

Academic Freedom in the United Kingdom
By Lori Allen

Academic Freedom and China
By Jennifer Ruth and Yu Xiao

Amicus Brief Addresses LGBTQ Discrimination
By Kelly Hand

Talking with new faculty: What does the WMU-AAUP do anyway?

Though departmental and disciplinary cultures vary, one thing most faculty new to WMU share is a lack of clarity about what our faculty union is and how it impacts campus life. This is partly because the WMU-AAUP is an unusually vigorous, well-established, well-organized faculty collective bargaining unit when compared to those that may exist at other colleges and universities. With that in mind, here’s a brief summary that might to help us respond to new colleagues’ questions:

What does the WMU-AAUP do for faculty here at Western?

Because the WMU-AAUP can focus and harness the power of the entire body of Board-appointed WMU faculty, we are a formidable advocate for colleagues in countless ways. In many situations, the WMU-AAUP is the only line of defense between a faculty member and the considerable might of the WMU administration.

A few examples of what we do:

  • push for salary increases, reasonable healthcare costs, and many other benefits, through the grueling contract negotiation process
  • support individual faculty who believe they’ve been treated unfairly and/or in ways that violate the WMU-AAUP Agreement
  • hold regular workshops to help faculty colleagues succeed through the promotion and tenure process
  • exert a powerful influence in WMU’s culture of shared governance through our participation on key committees, as well as ongoing formal and informal conversations with administrators

How can new colleagues best support the union?

  • sign and submit your dues card, and join the over 90% of WMU faculty who’ve already done so; this will ensure your access to all WMU-AAUP faculty services
  • attend our Faculty Barbecue on Sept. 5th at Montague House
  • attend our New Faculty Luncheon on September 20 with your department’s AAUP representative (Association Council member)
  • attend the all-Chapter meetings held each semester and offer your input
  • follow the WMU-AAUP on this blog, our enews, Facebook, and Twitter, and visit the WMU-AAUP’s website for quick access to critical resources
  • stop by our regularly scheduled morning coffees and happy hours (dates announced in our emailed enews)
  • stop by and see us at Montague House! we love to meet our new (and longtime!) colleagues

What’s the mission of the AAUP in general?

“The mission of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) is to advance academic freedom and shared governance; to define fundamental professional values and standards for higher education; to promote the economic security of faculty, academic professionals, graduate students, post‐doctoral fellows, and all those engaged in teaching and research in higher education; to help the higher education community organize to make our goals a reality; and to ensure higher education’s contribution to the common good. Founded in 1915, the AAUP has helped to shape American higher education by developing the standards and procedures that maintain quality in education and academic freedom in this country’s colleges and universities.”

WMU faculty see sudden increases to teaching loads based on admin’s review of professional activity reports

With the Oct. 15 deadline for faculty PARs looming, concerns about who sees these reports and how they are used take on new urgency. And since many faculty find the reporting system to be cumbersome, incomplete, or misleading, this makes it especially alarming that the PARs might be used by administrators to assess faculty achievement, as has occurred recently.

For example, on the tail end of phased retirement, Prof. Kent Baldner is finishing up a three-decade career at WMU, one that has combined research, service, and a predictable teaching load. He was surprised, then, to receive an email last semester informing him that, with only two semesters remaining at WMU, he would now be required to teach an additional course.

“When I queried about why I was being asked to teach an additional course, the reply was that we were short-staffed that semester,” explains Dr. Baldner. “I wasn’t happy, but felt it was my turn to ‘pay my dues,’ and so I agreed without arguing or complaining. When I asked what additional course they needed me to teach, I was told it didn’t matter. That struck me as odd.”

Dr. Baldner’s experience is not isolated. A number of other College of Arts and Sciences faculty members also report having been suddenly informed by their chairs that they were to be assigned additional teaching work. As with Dr. Baldner, institutional financial constraint was sometimes offered as the rationale, at least initially.

For example, another senior professor reported that his chair insisted that his sudden extra course assignment was a consequence of “lack of college funds for part-time instructors,” as directed by the CAS dean, Dr. Carla Koretsky. “But when I asked the dean about it, she denied that that was the case,” he said, and he was no longer required to teach the extra class after all.

Financial exigency is not the reason given to all faculty members unexpectedly faced with increased teaching loads. Others, the majority of them long-time, senior professors, have reported being told by their chairs that, last year, the CAS dean had conducted a unilateral, comprehensive review of faculty professional activity reports and that their names had appeared on her resulting list of underperformers with respect to scholarly activity. Apparently, no other workload category was scrutinized, nor were details provided about what criteria the dean had used. The result, their chairs informed them, was that they would be assigned more teaching, either in the form of additional classes or higher enrollment caps.

For example, Prof. Sarah Hill first learned of the prospect of a higher teaching load from her departmental director, who explained that he had been obliged by the dean to increase it. Dr. Hill points to lengthy email exchanges she had with her director and Dr. Koretsky, confirming that the dean insisted that Dr. Hill’s work was insufficient to justify a research-faculty teaching load. Dr. Hill has been told she will face this increased teaching load for the foreseeable future, unless and until she has met the dean’s standards.

“The whole situation has been demoralizing and time-consuming,” says Dr. Hill. “After going back and forth with my director and the dean, and gaining little clarity about who came up with these evaluation standards or whether they had even been written down anyplace, I gave in and accepted that I would have to teach the extra course.” The “kicker,” says Dr. Hill, was when the “extra course” she had been assigned to teach was cancelled on August 26 due to poor enrollment, just two days before the start of the Fall semester.

“So,” Dr. Hill explains, “all summer long I worked to prepare for this extra class — further reducing my time for research, and then they cancel it.” Dr. Hill is also concerned that the consequences of this belatedly cancelled, extra teaching assignment had ramifications for students beyond the impact on her workload. “An apparent desire to punish me for alleged underproductivity,” she explains, “has punished students who were left to scramble at the last minute to find a new class.”

Although the stories shared by faculty differ in the details, they have much in common: Faculty were informed by chairs either that WMU can no longer afford part-time instructors, necessitating additional teaching labor from them, full-time bargaining unit faculty, or told that the dean had identified them as underperforming scholars based on her personal review of their professional activity reports. Again, the criteria used for assessing research, and scholarly and creative activity across the diverse departments that comprise CAS — everything from physics to creative writing — were not provided. Nor were faculty apprised of an appeals process to challenge their new designation as teaching-active, rather than research-active, professors.

Some faculty have successfully challenged the additional workload assignment through appeals facilitated by the WMU-AAUP, and this is an option that all affected faculty can explore. However, some faculty colleagues report they are giving up. Some describe feeling shamed at having been singled out through an unscheduled evaluation of their research that they did not even know was underway, and exhausted at the prospect of yet another bureaucratic battle. As one faculty member put it, “I don’t have the energy both to be an effective professor and fight with administrators about whether my scholarship is worthwhile.”

An additional damaging consequence of this administrative initiative seems to be that some mid-career and senior WMU faculty members are now considering retirement. “It simply isn’t worth it,” explained one professor, who is still over a decade away from traditional retirement age. “My department is seriously understaffed, so I was stressed out plenty before all this began. I simply can’t remain healthy working in an environment in which admin never seems to think I’m working hard enough.”

Is investment in core academics included in WMU’s plan to address its enrollment declines?

WMU’s enrollment has been in decline for years, due partly to predictable demographic shifts, and WMU is responding with another marketing initiative to make the university more attractive to a shrinking group of traditionally-aged prospective students. It’s no surprise that amid all of the plans for feel-good slogans, enhanced residence halls, and other student enticements, faculty are asking questions about the university’s investment in its core academic mission. For example:

  • How is the ongoing shift away from full-time tenure track faculty toward part-time instructors consistent with WMU’s promise to provide a world-class education?
  • Is WMU’s investment in its “research-intensive” status sufficient to help prospective students distinguish WMU from community colleges and other, more affordable, four-year institutions?
  • Will core university basics, including traditional disciplines and general education, be starved in order to feed trendy majors?
  • Will significant, ongoing investments be made in academic advisors, librarians, counselors, and academic student success programs to help students progress in WMU’s relatively open enrollment environment?

There are, of course, more general questions underlying these worries about the university’s value commitments in the midst of its increasingly assertive push to identify and draw in more students. For example:

  • How committed is the university to investing in quality over time, enhancing WMU’s long term reputation for excellence, rather than quick fixes?
  • Given that its employees — faculty and staff — have always helped distinguish WMU as special, what investment will be made in actual people, above and beyond funds spent on facilities and marketing materials?
  • How does WMU see its responsibility to respond to campus climate issues, for example, concerns about racial and gender equity, as consistent with its efforts to attract more students?

Though “austerity” is not a word WMU uses in describing its response to its enrollment decline and the more or less predictable budget contraction that accompanies it year after year, many faculty and staff feel the threat of austerity in the air. With that in mind, it is reassuring that the university is making proactive, concerted efforts to make WMU more appealing to students. But, for many of us, after years of watching our academic departments shrink and wither through attrition and disinvestment, often even as our counterparts at competing universities grow and flourish, it is understandable if WMU faculty have serious concerns.

Will faculty lines continue to melt away as state-of-the-art buildings are erected and new WMU billboards and tv commercials appear? Will faculty and staff be left to foot the bill for glitzy marketing strategies that may feel good in the moment but have little long-term impact? Whether WMU chooses to see this latest chapter of enrollment decline as an opportunity to substantively invest in the people at the heart of its core academic mission remains to be seen.