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?

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 without the WMU-AAUP? What a difference academic collective bargaining makes!

After more than four decades of living and working in the reassuring presence of a well-crafted, comprehensive, mature contract, it’s easy to become complacent about the guarantees and protections that have come to shape WMU’s campus life. And, to be clear, though the WMU-AAUP Agreement has been forged specifically between WMU and the WMU Board-appointed faculty, this foundational document impacts our entire campus culture. In short, the power of WMU’s professoriate to bargain for fair wages, decent benefits, and shared governance has led to the creation of a campus community that is far more transparent, democratic, and humane than it might otherwise be.

Because it is far too easy to forget what it used be like, consider the routine risks of living and working on a campus with no formal collective bargaining power:

  • compensation and benefit structures that may be decided on arbitrary, or so-called “market based” criteria, with little hope of predictable raises, or of avoiding drastic healthcare insurance increases;
  • tenure and promotion procedures that are opaque and draconian and that may include no formal avenues for appeal or challenge;
  • the power to summarily eliminate departments and faculty positions according to economic vicissitudes and administrative whims;
  • unchecked disciplinary procedures according to which administrators might determine a faculty member’s guilt and assign penalties with no provisions for due process;
  • a climate in which all mid and higher level decisions may be made by admin, including those with direct implications for academics, with little or no input from faculty

In short, before there was the WMU-AAUP, life here was a lot like it is at other non-unionized campuses at which faculty members function as laborers serving at the pleasure of management. Even an occasional, cursory glance at national higher education news makes clear that faculty colleagues at many other campuses live in a shadow of fear and uncertainty that impacts their wages, capacity to exercise academic freedom, and, yes, their mental health. The fact that many of us at WMU may no longer feel moved to actively celebrate the rights and advantages we have earned through our collective power is perhaps the greatest testament to the WMU-AAUP’s astonishing success over the decades.

And, again, though not all campus employee groups share equally in these advantages, the positive impact of the WMU-AAUP on the entire campus is evident, including:

  • a tendency for enhanced wage and benefits for many non-faculty employees, given how the WMU-AAUP’s negotiated wage and benefits packages influence subsequent agreements made with other employee groups;
  • a campus at which other employees are more likely to feel supported as they embrace their right to organize, for example, AFSCME, PSOA, POA, MSEA, IATSE, TAU, and the PIO, all further ensuring a healthy check and balance on unrestricted administrative power at WMU;
  • a climate of shared governance according to which there is precedent for employee demands of participation and transparency, an environment in which employees’ right to ask questions and expect answers becomes more normalized and likely

Though it may be true that the WMU-AAUP’s consistent success and effectiveness tempt us to take it for granted, as we prepare now for 2020 negotiations, it’s the perfect time to imagine life at WMU without our faculty union. In fact, we don’t have to tax our imaginations at all if we simply invite the perspective of longtime WMU faculty members, including one retired early WMU-AAUP leader who is eager to share cautionary anecdotes with all who will listen. “We were completely at their mercy,” he recalls, “and the only real leverage we had when we knew we were being treated unfairly was to quit our jobs, pack up our families, and leave.”

Why should I care about the WMU-AAUP’s 2020 negotiations? Four core values at the heart of the struggle

As the WMU-AAUP heads into another contract negotiation cycle, all members have the opportunity to highlight our most fundamental values when talking with colleagues, students and other community members. They may already know that the WMU-AAUP fights hard for salary and benefits at the negotiating table, but be less aware of how other campus concerns show up on the Chapter’s agenda. Here’s a quick summary, then, for the next time you run into someone who’s not quite able to connect the dots between their daily professional burdens and battles and the hard work of our negotiating team.

Foundational WMU-AAUP values and concerns:

  • Shared governance: faculty are primary stakeholders at WMU; we must be consulted, as directed and implied by the Agreement, and ought to be consulted on other matters likely to impact WMU’s campus community; important decisions made by WMU admin without consultation with the Chapter are of legitimate concern to our members
  • Working conditions: the requirements and demands made upon faculty time, as well as the campus climate, are of central interest to members, for example, fair and equitable workload, as well as large-scale administrative initiatives (e.g., general education overhaul or program review), and campus climate issues such as harassment and bullying
  • Academic freedom: the ability to explore, discuss, disseminate, and teach without fear of interference or reprisal is critical; examples of issues associated with this value might be: WMU’s use of faculty activity reporting, workload reports, and student evaluations; the shift away from tenure-track positions and increasing reliance on temporary instructional labor (e.g., part-time and term colleagues); administrative monitoring or undue scrutiny of faculty expression in, for example, syllabi, blogs, social media, or the classroom
  • Fair and equitable compensation and robust benefits: Fairly compensated, tenure-track faculty positions with competitive benefits packages ought to be among WMU’s very highest priorities; in general, the prioritization of people and resources central to WMU’s core academic mission as a research-intensive university are to be highlighted

Thank you for having the WMU-AAUP’s core values close at hand the next time someone wonders about the purpose or efficacy of our collective bargaining unit. The briefest response may simply be that the WMU-AAUP stands for what is best about higher education: research and creative activity, student success, and the dignity and viability of the professional lives at the heart of the academic mission. Together we are stronger!

Can WMU do more to address the student mental health crisis?

At a Board of Trustees meeting, the WMU-AAUP urges greater attention to student mental health and the faculty professionals who provide mental health services

Delivered by WMU-AAUP President, Prof. Carol Weideman
December 13, 2019

Thank you for this time to speak. The WMU-AAUP is a faculty voice that isn’t always easy to hear. I understand that it may seem like we consistently identify problems, but it is our job to protect the contractual agreement that was signed between the BOT, administration, and our board appointed faculty. By doing this, it creates a safe place where we can challenge each other, and ultimately have a stronger institution.

First and foremost, I’m proud to be a faculty member of WMU, ranked #1 in the top 10 best Hidden Gems of public universities in the US. We will be celebrating the next group of graduates this upcoming Saturday, and I’m looking forward to seeing the fabulous smiles, the jubilation, selfies, and as always, the shoes.

In the short time I have for my remarks, I’d like to raise an important concern. In a meaningful discussion with President Montgomery last week, the WMU-AAUP VP, Mark St. Martin and I raised our concerns about the current status of student counseling needs and transparency between the administration and the university community as a whole. I can speak more about the transparency conversation at a later date; for now, I’ll focus on the mental health/counseling needs.

This was not an unfamiliar topic with President Montgomery, and so we were able to freely express the basis of why we brought the topic of counseling needs and faculty security to our meeting. President Montgomery understands the mental health concerns we are facing, and Mark and I felt the discussion was lively and heartfelt. Just a few days before our meeting, the Kalamazoo Gazette featured an article entitled “Student need for counseling surges.”, with the subtitle “More college kids are turning to schools for help with their mental health, and schools are struggling to meet demand.” (December 1, 2019.) This article outlined the disparity between need and available resources across many university campuses. WMU is not alone with trying to find ways to counter the number of students needing mental health treatment, and we understand the administration is working on this challenge.

This is some specific data I will share regarding the mental health status of college students from a national data set. There is a distinct trend in the increase in percentages of students experiencing overwhelming anxiety (30.7% last 2 weeks, 14.1% 30 days) and felt so depressed that it was difficult to function (17.5% last 2 weeks, 8.9% last 30 days). There also is an increase in students coming to campus with diagnosed mental health issues. In this same report, 24% of students indicate diagnosis or treatment by a professional due to anxiety and 20% with depression, and 12.3% reporting panic attacks within the past 12 months. Approximately 53% of students reported that their academic responsibilities are very difficult to handle. These are just a snapshot from the undergraduate data from the Spring 2019 American College of Health Association National College Health Assessment. Our university last participated in this assessment in 2015, and the data is an important resource for our programmatic planning.

With the development of Think Big, there was a clear ‘new purpose for higher education in society’, and that is wellness. The presenters at the fall Town Halls provided many infographs, and one that stood out to me was the placement of mental health as the foundation. As stated on the wmich.edu/thinkbig website, “Wellness combines with a strong mind and becomes central to our purpose.”

As we enter 2020, we need to consider how we will move forward with providing sufficient mental health care for our students as well as providing the excellent staff we currently have with positions that have stability.

First question: Do we have enough counselors? The International Association of Counseling Services recommends one therapist for every 1,000 – 1,500 students (https://iacsinc.org/staff-to-student-ratios/). The Fall 2019 Census data indicates 21,470 students, from the Sindecuse directory, it appears we have 10 counselors and one intake staff. Only one of those 10 holds a Ph.D and is the only licensed psychologist in the center. Our counselor/student ratio is dismal compared to the accepted recommendations. As a reference point, GVSU has 10 PhD level licensed psychologists (in addition to their master level counselors).

Second question: What is our mental health resource plan for Think Big and are mental health professionals on the planning team? If so, who? The resource plan that is available online is the WMU Healthy Campus 2020 Student Mental Health Action Plan. Two objectives are identified: the first to increase utilization of mental health resources and the second to increase resiliency. This plan appears to be developed on the proportion of students who have same day appointments vs improving the quality of mental health resources. We must first act to ensure we have the professionals to take care of these students. Second, we must ensure we take care of those who take care of our students.

Having a solid team of tenure track counselors, who don’t have to constantly worry whether they have a job next year or not, that can provide students consistent mental health treatment throughout the academic career is what can and should set us apart. Students are coming to campus with more mental health concerns, and treatment consistency is what they seek. Having counseling appointments with the same professional allows a connection to be formed which research shows is the biggest factor in therapeutic change, diminishes the need to reexplain their history and presenting concerns, and provides the opportunity for intensive work.

Currently, we have a crisis where the majority of counselors are on term appointments, which is defined as “appointments are for one-year periods and are renewable annually for up to five (5) consecutive years.” With mental health support the foundation of the Think Big initiative, we raise the need for stability for the Counseling Services faculty. It’s well understood that employees who are risk of losing their jobs show higher perceived stress, anxiety, depression, and negative feelings and lower levels of positive feelings compared to employees not at risk of losing their jobs. People with job insecurity also feel less belonging and lower ties with the working population. This is what many of our counselors face on a yearly basis.

The challenge the WMU-AAUP is facing is how to encourage the administration to recognize the precarious position these individuals are in. We stand in the faith that the BoT and WMU administration believe in shared governance and academic freedom. Providing the pathway to tenure which is ensured in the 2017-2020 agreement will provide these individuals to fully participate, contribute, and better our university. The union urges the administration to work with the faculty to tackle the reality that it’s time to give our counselors the support they need to fully support our students. Mark stated it well when he said “We have to take care of the people who are taking care of our students.”

Again, I appreciate the opportunity to share this message from the bargaining unit.

(Image above from https://www.apa.org/helpcenter/emotional-crisis)

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.