A message from WMU-AAUP President Cathryn Bailey
As my first term as WMU-AAUP president winds down and I prepare to begin a new one, I find myself reflecting on the upheavals and transitions on our campus over the past couple of years. Under the shadow of the pandemic, WMU employees and students have faced incredible challenges. Some recent hurdles have been essentially unavoidable, for example, certain difficulties associated with teaching modality shifts, and large-scale demographic changes statewide that can influence enrollment. Other political and economic trends have also taken their toll. Although some of our challenges have been inevitable, the WMU-AAUP has kept focus on some of the “elective” issues we have faced, specifically how our institution has chosen to respond to uncertainties.
Last year’s No Confidence Resolution clearly expressed – and the employee engagement survey has confirmed – that it is the considered view of the overwhelming majority of WMU employees that WMU leaders have, sometimes at decisive moments, responded in ways that have not been especially effective or compassionate. Further, some recent administrative decisions have been demonstrably inconsistent with our university’s longstanding core values of transparency, shared governance, and due process. With concerns related to salary equity, workload fairness, “interdisciplinary restructuring,” summer teaching preference, disciplinary due process and more, the WMU-AAUP has frequently found itself embattled, sometimes fighting for the most basic levels of responsiveness and collegial respect. At several especially low points, some administrators have even appeared to prioritize their own personally-driven agendas over stewarding their units or advocating for faculty, staff, and students as they are professionally and ethically obligated to do.
The sobering news, then, is that our campus is caught in a tricky situation. But this clear-eyed, realistic portrait also includes some positive points. Notably, even in WMU’s bleakest, most contentious moments, there have always been courageous, open-minded, committed, and compassionate individuals in every employee group, including among our cohort of administrator colleagues. I refer here to folks who have been willing to speak truth to power, to admit mistakes, and to extend olive branches rather than cattle prods. These are also folks who have been authentically eager and able to connect with students, faculty, and staff as respected partners. So, although there is no denying that WMU employees have been confronted with periodically inappropriate, patronizing, and even insulting conduct, there have also been some administrators who have refused to continue playing the same old “us vs. them” games that have been eroding WMU’s morale for years.
It’s no accident that I emphasize this point as our campus awaits the arrival of its newly appointed provost. Obviously, no one should pin their hopes on any one person. But the news of his appointment is a reminder of the powerful opportunity that new campus leaders can represent, especially if they can avoid falling into the swirls of existing groupthink and internecine biases that so often taint, from the beginning, administrators’ ability to work open-mindedly and collaboratively with faculty, staff, and students. Far too often, new hires can fall quickly into the patterns and habits that have dogged their predecessors, taking cues and instruction from exhausted and cynical leaders who have propelled the very problems that need addressing. Even new arrivals, then, are at risk of developing the habit of relating to faculty and staff as underlings to be manipulated, flattered, coerced, or otherwise “managed,” rather than as respected partners in shared governance. Such condescending and bureaucratic attitudes are an expression of the “Western way” that is better left behind and not spilled into the path of a promising new provost.
Of course, we all have reason to be skeptical, and only time will tell, but I can say one thing right now: As the WMU-AAUP President, I will continue to represent the will of the Chapter and assiduously address the fallout of administrative irresponsibility and abuse. However, I am also mindful of members’ desire that we identify and take advantage of new opportunities to move forward, to locate points of agreement and opportunities for collaborative problem solving with WMU. There is no doubt that WMU students, faculty, and staff have been given ample reason to feel disappointment over the diminished state of our university. But in this new moment, we also have new opportunities if we are open to possibility. After all, it is one of the most important benefits of being part of a powerful labor union that our cooperation and good will emerge from a place of strength rather than weakness.