Busting the myth of WMU’s financial crisis narrative

With key financial articles under discussion at the negotiation table, the WMU-AAUP is continuing to flesh out a comprehensive and contextualized picture of WMU’s actual financial state and to investigate its spending priorities. It was partly with this in mind that a special Zoom meeting was held on July 6 for all WMU-AAUP members.

One critical takeaway from that lively meeting: WMU is in solid financial shape, despite any signals from Western that there’s some sort of crisis or emergency. Although it’s true that WMU’s revenue is down, overall expenses are also down, in particular, expenses associated with faculty. Any notion that WMU is justified in invoking austerity measures, or that faculty are a drain on its budget is, and has been, categorically and manifestly false.

Having already demonstrated WMU’s robust financial health, even well before the stunning news of the $550 million donation, the WMU-AAUP continues to secure additional financial information from the university. Based on multiple recent FOIA requests, we have learned how much the university is paying for:

  1. The services of a national law firm, Dykema Gossett, with a reputation for union-busting, to represent WMU in its negotiations with WMU employee groups, including the WMU-AAUP and the PIO (these legal fees are in addition to WMU’s already-impressive stable of in-house attorneys). Based on a partial set of invoices provided by WMU, it appears that WMU contracted this firm in April 2020, well over a year ago, just weeks after the devastation of the pandemic began to hit Western students and employees. Between April 2020 and May 2021, Western had already paid this law firm nearly $140,000. Please note that these invoices do not even cover the intense negotiation period for which WMU has engaged this law firm since May. These can be expected to reflect additional staggering cost to WMU. For more about the anti-labor, anti-union reputation of the law firm WMU has chosen to be its advocate, see here and here, keeping in mind that this is who Western Michigan University has chosen to sit beside it at the negotiation to face off against its own employees.
  2. The salaries of WMU’s administrators. As the proportion of WMU money spent on faculty has fallen, it has risen for administrators, even as the rhetoric continues that it is faculty and staff who are gobbling up students’ tuition dollars. Taking a look at the jaw dropping compensation packages for some of these administrators is a stunning experience, especially for faculty and staff who have accepted onerous workloads based on some administrators’ apparently endless demands for more “shared sacrifice.” For example, in addition to huge salaries, Western offers some of its elite administrators perks that workaday faculty and staff — not to mention WMU administrators who are reasonably compensated — could only dream of, for example, free housing, automobile expenses, club memberships, and “signing bonuses.” Look for more details about this in future Chapter communications.
  3. The controversial “rebranding” initiative. According to WMU’s initial response to our FOIA request, the budgeted amount for implementing the “new visual identity” in Fiscal Year 2021-2022 is about $670,000. It is not yet clear what, specifically, this will cover, but it appears that the actual expense will be ongoing and open-ended.
  4. The services of the non-academic, corporate consulting firm Designvox, contracted by WMU to help facilitate/implement the administration’s academic (“interdisciplinary”) restructuring plan. Based on copies of invoices we received, Western authorized this non-academic firm to review proposals related to curricular and program changes developed and submitted by WMU faculty. WMU’s ongoing intentions with respect to this controversial restructuring plan remain to be seen.

Unfortunately, although this spending information should be ready at hand, the university does not always seem eager to share it. For example, in response to the WMU-AAUP’s June 8 FOIA request for their external legal firm expenses, WMU first told us they would need more time, and then sent a bill in the amount of $160.69 for a “deposit” before they would agree to begin providing information they could easily send in an email. We were also charged a fee to access information about administrative salaries. As those who have worked with Freedom of Information Act requests understand, the law permits both a certain amount of foot-dragging and the charging of fees, which often functions to discourage requests from member-funded organizations like ours.

Rest assured that the WMU-AAUP will continue to seek access to the information necessary to separate fact from fiction. As we have seen, WMU is often remarkably clear about what it does NOT consider to be a high spending priority: faculty hires, staff job security, part-time instruction, faculty research, advising, salary equity, graduate funding, and many other aspects of our core academic mission. We must continue, then, to highlight what WMU has, as a matter of demonstrable fact, decided to invest in, including anti-labor lawyers, elite administrators, external consultants, and a rebranding initiative based on little input from constituents. The WMU-AAUP will not permit critical negotiations about our members’ salaries and benefits to be based on tired, self-serving myths rather than the reality taking shape before our own eyes.

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.”

Faculty object to WMU’s sudden closure of childcare center: “This is clearly a gender issue”

As of June 14, WMU closed The Children’s Place Learning Center which had offered child care services to the WMU community. The process for making this important decision, and the context surrounding it, remain unclear. WMU’s brief closure notice on The Children’s Place website alludes to financial reasons and states, “This decision was very difficult to reach. We regret that it means you must look elsewhere to meet your family’s child care needs.”

The WMU AAUP shares the concerns expressed in the faculty letter below, which, as far as we know, has not received a reply from WMU administration. Further, we are deeply concerned about the process that led to a decision of this magnitude, given WMU’s expressed commitment to transparency and shared governance.

Update: WMU has advertised its plan to sell off the assets of the Children’s Place Saturday, July 20, including, “children’s toys, books, supplies, tables, chairs, lockers, shelving units and outdoor play equipment.”

Letter from the Women’s Caucus of the College of Arts and Sciences

Sent: Tuesday, May 28, 2019 10:58 AM

Subject: CAS Women’s Caucus on the closing of the Children’s Place

To: Diane K Anderson

Dear Dean Anderson,

On behalf of the CAS Women’s Caucus, we would like to add our voice to the many others who have written to oppose the closing of the Children’s Place Learning Center. Because childcare disproportionately affects women faculty and students, this is clearly a gender issue. It is well documented that women academics pay a “baby penalty:” women with children are less likely to get hired, to get tenure or rise to administrative positions such as dean or provost, while men with children are more likely to advance in academic careers. Lack of childcare is a major barrier to women’s full and equal participation in paid work and in pursuing a degree. Having high quality child care on campus should not be considered optional; it is an essential service.

Childcare provision impacts student access and success as well as faculty recruitment and retention. Students with children will have less access to WMU and its undergraduate and graduate programs. As Dr. Bilinda Straight pointed out, we are already losing students to GVSU, this is yet another factor that will harm recruitment, particularly of non-traditional or contemporary students. Similarly, the ability of students with children to complete their degrees will be diminished; research has shown that students with children who use on-campus childcare are more likely to remain in school and are more likely to graduate. These same arguments apply to faculty recruitment and retention. For example, current caucus member Dr. Denise Ross noted that preschools have short hours. Having access to childcare at WMU from 7am- 6pm allowed her to teach afternoon classes, attend afternoon faculty meetings, and have writing time in the early morning and evening hours. In short, the Children’s Place mattered greatly for her professional growth, especially during the pre-tenure period.

Although there are other childcare centers in Kalamazoo, the closing of the center will hurt many families and it will hurt WMU’s reputation. What kind of message does it send to current and prospective students and faculty members when WMU, which prides itself on making its programs accessible to all categories of learners, closes down its campus childcare program? Wouldn’t it be a point of pride for WMU to maintain a facility that enables work-life balance for faculty and staff and helps retain undergraduate and graduate students who are juggling childcare responsibilities with their education?

The CAS Women’s Caucus believes that the administration needs to look harder for solutions to the budget issues related to the Children’s Place. We also question whether an essential service should be dismissed because it is not covering its costs. There are other programs that do not cover all their costs such as study abroad and sports programs. Under the Strategic Resource Management budgeting system that will be implemented, such valuable programs will be subsidized. Like study abroad programs, campus childcare benefits only a small proportion of our students, faculty and staff, yet they add value to everyone’s education and workplace experience, and they signal that equity and excellence are valued by the university. Alternatively, the costs could be met by adding $2-3 per student in student fees. The administration could also look to local foundations, such as the Kellogg Foundation, that may be willing to partner with WMU to help meet costs. WMU development officers could and should reach out to these foundations. The university should take at least another year to seek out alternative solutions. In short, closing the childcare center is short-sighted and will have negative consequences for many years to come—once the childcare center is gone, it will be exceedingly difficult to bring it back.


CAS Women’s Caucus Steering Committee