Commencement at WMU: Part celebration and part administrative performance

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?

Western Michigan University quietly directs $2.8 million to yet another private consulting firm

The messaging from the Western Michigan University administration has remained remarkably consistent over the past decade or so: Due to a supposedly chronic financial crisis related to shrinking enrollments, employees must continue to tighten their belts and redouble their efforts to prove their value to the university. The so-called “SRM” budget model is the latest installment in the financial scarcity narrative – a framework being used to justify staffing cuts, program mergers, and various austerity measures ostensibly aimed at creating a more streamlined and efficient WMU. In the midst of this permanently declared state of budget emergency, however, the administration has also remained committed to directing jaw-dropping sums of money to corporate consultants to facilitate strategic planning. The latest beneficiary – this time to the tune of $2.8 million – is McKinsey & Company, a private-sector, non-academic business consultancy whose mission is “helping our clients create meaningful and lasting change.”

To those who have been at Western for more than a few years, this will not come as a great surprise, as our university has increasingly come to rely more and more on exorbitantly expensive external agents to solve its problems or to enact high profile administrative initiatives. So, for example, in 2020-2021, WMU contracted the non-academic consulting firm Designvox to help facilitate/implement the administration’s academic (“interdisciplinary”) restructuring plan. Based on copies of invoices provided to the WMU-AAUP Chapter, the administration authorized this firm to review proposals related to curricular and program changes that had been developed and submitted by WMU faculty. It is understandable if you do not recall the results produced by Designvox given that the entire initiative seems simply to have dissipated from the radar at some point.

Campus constituents have, of course, been highly critical of such decisions. How can the WMU administration and our Board of Trustees justify quietly spending millions on external non-academic consultants for yet another strategic planning process while starving the university’s academic core? Why bypass or ignore proven academic experts – including from among our own faculty – in favor of an expensive professional consultancy firm with no clear, significant evidence of academic expertise? This last question deserves special focus since information about any experience McKinsey might have with universities seems to have been specifically redacted by the WMU administration in the documents we have been provided.

Western’s administration insists that it is only after enrollment numbers improve that we can expect real investment in our university’s academic infrastructure. No doubt, firms such as McKinsey are being engaged to provide some sort of corporate “synergy” to, once again, make our university a destination of choice. However, as staff and faculty have repeatedly pointed out, unless and until Western invests in the people charged with carrying out its core mission, there is little hope of attracting and retaining students in a way that is sustainable. The fact that our administration is willing to write a $2.8 million check to yet another corporate consulting firm while urging students, faculty and staff to keep tightening our belts speaks volumes about our university’s morale crisis.

Sixteen months after WMU’s No Confidence Vote: Have things gotten better at Western?

A message from WMU-AAUP President Cathryn Bailey and Vice President Whitney DeCamp

It has now been sixteen months since the Board-appointed faculty at Western Michigan University overwhelmingly voted to approve a vote of no confidence in WMU’s President. Despite this clear message demanding change, and ample additional evidence of a morale crisis as demonstrated by a Faculty Senate survey and the administration’s employee engagement survey, the president remains in his position. Further, with the exception of a new provost, the cast of supporting characters — including most of the vice presidents, associate provosts, and deans — also remains largely unchanged. As another academic year winds to a close, this is a good time to take stock of where we’ve come over the past year and half or so.

Although the perspectives of individual faculty, staff, and students will obviously vary, from our point of view, many of the concerns expressed by the no confidence vote remain largely unresolved. A few are especially worrisome because they represent not merely discrete problems that might be addressed through targeted policy changes, but an ongoing corrosion of the foundation of Western’s campus culture. For example, leadership’s “failure to respond appropriately to feedback and concerns” and the “unprecedented narrowing of the practice of shared governance” are higher order, systemic deficits that make more specific problems — for example, enrollment challenges — much harder to address. Moreover, leadership failures that continue to damage WMU’s status as a “great place to learn and work,” create a vicious cycle of campus dissatisfaction, making our university less attractive to new talent and energy that might help to renew and reinvigorate it.

Despite some modest improvements in some areas of enrollment data last year, cause for concern has remained steady or grown in other important areas, including:

– After the precipitous layoff of numerous key employees a few years ago, chronic under-staffing and problematic hiring delays.

– Further violations by WMU of shared governance and due process in its pursuit of rapid restructuring and in other decision-making.

– The administration’s refusal to take basic steps to assure impartiality in the grievance process, further undermining confidence that faculty concerns will be fairly considered.

– A lack of transparency, for example, about challenges regarding the new student center.

– Unacknowledged implications of the new “competitive” budget model on the curriculum and the research mission.

– A failure by WMU to accept the Chapter’s repeated invitations to initiate discussion about the possibility of adding Juneteenth as an official holiday to the university calendar in response to state and federal recognition and student requests.

– An over-reliance on the formal disciplinary process to address concerns about faculty job performance and a failure to properly adhere to the process, for example, to provide evidence for allegations of misconduct.

– A squandered opportunity to more fairly and rationally address salary equity adjustments through WMU’s failure to collaborate effectively with faculty in the negotiated “salary equity committee” last year, and in its ongoing failure to accept overtures to continue that committee work.

– Ongoing enthusiasm by WMU to rely upon attorneys to handle employee concerns and to escalate issues unnecessarily, for example, the summer preference grievance that was decided in the Chapter’s favor through a time-consuming and expensive arbitration process.

As we noted in message of March 3, 2022: “Obviously, WMU’s current employee morale problem can’t be resolved through a single action or in an instant. However, there are any number of things that WMU leadership could do, if, indeed, they were willing to admit that this problem exists and at increasingly alarming proportions.” Although the WMU administration has made some welcome gestures toward reconciliation with employees over the past 16 months, it seems like they’ve just given up when it comes to some of the most substantive concerns. Also, as we have noted previously, at some point, ongoing listening and data collection seem like an excuse for failing to act when information has already been repeatedly provided.

Further, to be clear, in addition to the input faculty and staff have provided through numerous forums and surveys, the WMU-AAUP leadership has continued to convey faculty concerns to the administration. Far too often, however, the response is one that seems calibrated to highlight the administration’s managerial prerogatives over employees rather than its service and leadership responsibilities to them. It’s an unproductive scenario in which the elected leaders of Western’s faculty, teaching assistants and part-time instructors are likely to receive rebuttals rather than understanding from WMU administrators when we share our colleagues’ concerns.

It was, of course, disappointing that, after the faculty’s historic resolution of no confidence, the WMU Board of Trustees’ response was, at least publicly, to double-down on its support for the president and the status quo. This included approval of presidential raises and bonuses that, to some campus employees seemed not just exorbitant, but insulting. After all, the Board took these actions even as faculty and staff were being lectured by the administration about the ongoing need for belt-tightening. Still, things might have unfolded differently. The resolution might have been received by the administration as a wake up call, an invitation to reflect unflinchingly on its record and to embrace every opportunity to restore campus confidence.

As dramatic as the December 2021 faculty resolution itself was, then, what is almost more noteworthy than that event itself is the administration’s ongoing failure to provide healing and responsive leadership since then. It is a sobering fact that two of the most frequent questions we have received this semester are: “How much notice do I have to provide when I resign?” and “How long will my benefits continue once I resign?” It seems that not only has our campus morale not been improving, it may actually be getting worse as time passes and hope fades.

WMU’s growing reliance on attorneys to deflect employee concerns

A message from WMU-AAUP President Cathryn Bailey and WMU-AAUP Vice President Whitney DeCamp

There is nothing new or especially problematic about universities calling upon legal experts, especially in limited contexts where it may be necessary to protect institutional interests from external threats. But there is a meaningful difference between the occasional use of legal counsel to safeguard the institution and the increasingly common use of attorneys by Western Michigan University in an ever-expanding scope of internally-directed functions. Not incidentally, some of these are functions that, until recently, have been more commonly performed by administrators with faculty rank, not by lawyers.

An example about which the WMU-AAUP has repeatedly expressed concern is the university’s hiring of the aggressive, anti-union law firm Dykema Gossett to represent management interests in various matters, including in contract negotiations. Indeed, one of most noteworthy points about WMU’s recent labor negotiations was the administration’s decision to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in an attempt to intimidate employees, in part, into accepting lowball salary offers. Not incidentally, WMU’s chosen Dykema attorney has been characterized by Michigan AFT president David Hecker as notoriously aggressive and anti-labor. “Any university who hires this guy,” says Hecker, “is sending a very clear and deliberate message to its employees.”

In addition, Western also employed this same attorney last year for an arbitration battle with the WMU-AAUP that the university decisively lost this past November. You can review the dressing down that the Western administration received by the arbitrator here. Although faculty rights to summer pay were ultimately protected as a result of the Chapter’s staunch advocacy, this is a good example of yet another unnecessary, lawyer-laden escalation by the university. The ultimate result of the university’s handling of this contract dispute? Tens of thousands of dollars diverted by Western to private attorneys even as campus employees were being lectured about the need for ongoing belt-tightening. In addition, there was a hit to morale from this administrative effort to deprioritize faculty in teaching, purportedly to offset SRM budget pressures (the stated reason for the attempted changes).

Yet another novel use of attorneys occurred last spring when WMU hired a Grand Rapids attorney to investigate unspecified accusations of wrongdoing by faculty members across two colleges rather than following the negotiated, contractual process for addressing such concerns. Although these faculty were directed by the former interim provost to meet with this attorney — and the Chapter president is among these individuals — few faculty chose to participate (consistent with advice provided by WMU-AAUP legal counsel). Nonetheless, the university administration has continued to appeal to this outside attorney’s report as justification for its adverse treatment of faculty, both in its informal communications to the Chapter and in official responses.

Until last summer, WMU’s Director Academic Labor Relations — a pivotal office for dealing with the concerns of faculty, teaching assistants, and part-time instructors — had always been appointed from among the WMU faculty. This was not accidental, but a recognition of the university’s desire to facilitate diplomatic solutions among folks who were more or less on an equal plane and who had shared understandings of academic goals and values. Appointing faculty members to this critical administrative role had been an imperfect, but generally effective means of avoiding the stress, rancor, and expense of unnecessary escalations and conflict when employee concerns and complaints arose. Now when the Chapter raises concerns about the impact an action will have on faculty morale, working conditions, or faculty/administrator relations, we are met, not with the understanding of a colleague but with legalistic responses, for example, a demand that we cite relevant caselaw that would require the administration to respond to such concerns. Anyone who’s been on the receiving end of such messages from attorneys — and emails from this office are now identified as coming from an attorney —can confirm that they often seem deliberately designed to intimidate.

It’s also worth noting that, while Western has long kept in-house attorneys on its payroll to represent the university’s interests in various matters, in recent years, these attorneys too have been pressed into service in novel ways. A few years ago, for example, the university determined that its in-house lawyers could now be construed as “administrators” who could directly participate in the hearing of grievances. Instead of the chairs, associate deans, or deans who would normally have been assigned to hear an employee or Chapter concern on behalf of the administration, then, faculty members might be confronted with a university attorney in that role. Although the Chapter successfully beat back this practice in 2021 by negotiating additional contract language, WMU’s determination to insert lawyers into the grievance process like this confirms a troubling trend.

It is puzzling to us that, even as WMU leaders insist they are sincerely trying to address the campus morale crisis, they are paying attorneys to respond to some of our university’s most human problems and concerns. Increasingly, when faculty, staff, and student employees reach out to our leaders, seeking understanding, compromise, and resolution, we’re being directed to sort it out with attorneys. This is, perhaps, not surprising since a layer of attorneys can serve as a smokescreen behind which administrators attempt to avoid responsibility. But such a wall of paid legal technocrats also keeps members of the university community from meaningful connection with our leaders about some of the issues that matter most. While the attorneys who are profiting from this arrangement may have cause for celebration, it’s a terrible loss for just about everyone else. Does anyone really believe that adding more lawyers to the mix is the best way to restore campus morale and Western’s status as a great place to work and learn?

WMU rolls out its controversial new budget model

A message from WMU-AAUP President, Dr. Cathryn Bailey, and WMU-AAUP Vice President, Dr. Whitney DeCamp

As WMU’s determination to implement its controversial new SRM budget model forges ahead, apparently on schedule, grave worries and concerns are beginning to pile up. This is not a surprise given that the model places still more pressure on employees even as our campus morale crisis continues to simmer. At the very same time that faculty and staff report being under-appreciated, unheard, and, in some cases chronically under-resourced, they are being urged to “reach deep,” to innovate, to grab the reins and solve WMU’s supposed financial problems and enrollment woes all under the SRM banner.

At the WMU-AAUP, we have been sharing concerns about the once-trendy “RCM” or “SRM” budget models for a while. Although SRM advocates champion the supposed flexibility and motivation this model provides to individual colleges, the predictable result is often a hunger games scenario. Accordingly, and what’s now happening at WMU: under the tacit or spoken threat of elimination, faculty are forced to prove their short-term value and worth, competing against one another for precious students, credit hours, and resources simply for the privilege of advancing into yet another round of kill-or-be-killed.

The practical problems with the SRM models are legion and very much in line with concerns being shared with us by our faculty and staff colleagues:

* As colleges are pressed to generate revenue in ever tightening circumstances, individual departments and employees are being tasked with solving the enrollment problem. Counterintuitively, at the same time the faculty are being starved of resources, we are being prodded to move faster and faster.

* Individual units and employees are being held responsible for solving institutional and systemic problems, sometimes under the guise of shared governance. As one faculty member colleague recently put it: “We’re not just being asked to do more with less. We’re being asked to perform magic because some of the higher ups have given up on addressing the problems themselves.”

* The integrity and value of the institution as a whole is placed in jeopardy in the supposed service of rewarding innovative and profitable units. There is renewed pressure on colleges and departments to come up with short-term efforts to attract students even as WMU’s basic academic infrastructure creaks, groans, and crumbles after years of neglect. Although SRM “subventions” are supposed to protect the university’s core commitments, the reality as it begins to unfold tells a different story, a competitive free-for-all with permanent damage to the core academic infrastructure.  

The fact that the practical and logistical problems of the SRM model are so ubiquitous may be why our campus community has not, as far as we know, ever been presented with actual examples of true peer institutions where the model has been implemented to good long-term effect. Instead, we have been provided with slogans and cheerleading, appeals to “innovation,” “creativity,” “autonomy,” and the like. Again, the basic message seems to be that if Western is to address its enrollment problems and its purported attendant financial scarcity, it is ultimately up to “us” to do it, even in the midst of gross staffing shortages that impede basic operations all across campus.  

That is, there is further pressure on individual faculty members, instructors and teaching assistants — most of whom are already committed to innovation and the development of responsive curricula — to create trendy new courses and programs so compelling that they will draw students from around the world. It is up to individual landscape workers and dining services employees to make campus so beautiful, and keep students so well fed, that they will stay. It is up to individual counselors and academic advisors to forge such deep personal connections with each individual student who crosses their path, that the student will feel “at home.”

Not only are we being asked, as individuals, to take on the responsibility of whether WMU, as an institution, thrives or fails — and this is in addition to the actual jobs we were hired by the university to do — the SRM rhetoric implies that we are anachronistic and irresponsible if we fail to rise to the occasion. Indeed, if we were cutting edge, energetic go-getters, it is often suggested, then we would be celebrating all of the supposed newfound economic, entrepreneurial “independence” rather than “complaining” that we’ve now been tasked with enrollment management.

It is, of course, true that individuals play an important role in shaping our university’s future. The fact that Western employees understand this is precisely why WMU has been doing as well as it has after decades of budget cutting. Most of us have been working incredibly hard even in increasingly difficult circumstances. But, it feels like gaslighting for employees who have been marginalized from so much critical decision-making over the years — for example, branding, identity, and fundamental budgetary values — to have potential institutional failure placed on our shoulders.

Although this is not a sexy idea, our position remains the same: Western Michigan University’s long-term success as an institution depends on its willingness to invest in the basic quality of its core academic mission. Innovation is great, and something faculty do exceedingly well. But there are no magical quick fixes to transform our university into a magnet for students across the region or around the world. To succeed intact as an institution over the long haul, WMU must draw a line in the sand and decide what it truly values rather than pursuing slogan-based gimmicks.

As we have repeatedly demonstrated, including during the last round of negotiations in 2021, WMU does not have a budget crisis so much as a budget priority crisis, one that seems to have placed Academic Affairs in a chronic state of artificial financial emergency. It is one thing to experience austerity during times of genuine material scarcity. It is quite another to know that, at least in part, such neglect is the predictable result of avoidable financial choices. Unless and until Western’s leaders — especially its president and its Board members — decide to re-slice the whole financial pie, no amount of SRM cheerleading will turn the tide. Indeed, as it stands now, the main consequence of WMU’s SRM experiment may simply be to make campus morale even worse than it already is.

 

Redefining “The Western Way”: New faces and possibilities at WMU

A message from WMU-AAUP President Cathryn Bailey and WMU-AAUP Vice President Whitney DeCamp

Governor Whitmer’s recent announcement of three new Western Michigan University trustees, combined with the hiring of an energetic new provost, mark this time as one of unusual hope and possibility at Western. Yes, our campus has struggled through some difficult times, including a number of chronic problems that were exacerbated during the worst of the pandemic. Our university has also suffered from a malaise that insiders often refer to as “The Western Way,” a shorthand description of processes that seem ill-conceived and doomed to produce unsatisfactory results. Despite such challenges, there is no reason that our campus cannot turn the tide and transform “The Western Way” into a reference to our campus’s commitment to collaboration, effectiveness, and pride.

As we have suggested in a number of past communications to members, the great heartbreak surrounding so many of WMU’s problems is that they have been avoidable. So, for example, while most Michigan universities have been struggling with challenging demographic, social, political, and financial realities — which have repercussions for everything from enrollment to mental health — some WMU administrators over the years have made choices that have unnecessarily, and sometimes quite predictably, worsened the impacts for WMU. When folks refer to “the Western Way,” they often seem to have in mind cumulative, short-sighted administrative maneuvers that unnecessarily grind away at staff and faculty morale and make it harder to simply do our jobs.

A few familiar examples:

  • a sense of being nickeled and dimed where program funding and compensation are concerned, including resources for the human beings critical to the academic mission  
  • an impression that WMU is unwilling to make consistent small investments to shore up core staffing and infrastructure, a worry that is being further realized by the recent implementation of the “SRM” budget model 
  • a feeling by at least some critical employees in every group that they are perceived by higher ups primarily as a drain on resources rather than as its most precious asset  
  • skepticism that employee input matters to higher ups; more and more “forums” can seem irrelevant to folks to who have come to believe that their voices do not matter
  • an impression that high-level administrators see their main loyalty and responsibility as being toward one another, that they regard themselves more as elite managers than as stewards in service roles to the university
  • problems of transparency, concern by employees that that they are not being told the full story about WMU’s challenges, let alone being included in collaborative problem-solving
  • a sense that the WMU administration sometimes sees employees — be they instructors, landscapers, advisors, or administrative staff — not as valued colleagues, but entirely as subordinates to be “managed”
  • an all too frequent inclination by some WMU administrators to unnecessarily provoke and escalate disagreements with its various employee groups rather than seek ways to compromise for the good of the institution

In general, up to now, “The Western Way” has functioned as a shorthand for campus leaders’ troubling and sometimes inscrutable choices for matters small and large, from the banners that promote WMU on Stadium Drive to how staffing cuts have occurred. The impacts have been felt everywhere from the dining halls, classrooms, advisors’ offices, and, critically, at contract negotiation tables where WMU has sometimes seemed more focused on “winning” an imagined contest against its own hardworking employees rather than reaching fair, mutually acceptable terms.

But as concerning as all of these details may sound, there is good news. Many individuals and employee groups at WMU have already clearly identified concrete problems and this helps to mark a pretty clear path forward for all who are eager to transform “The Western Way.” It is a cause for optimism, too, that some of our university’s greatest challenges are changeable, as the solution lies in internal institutional responses as much as external situations. This means that the power to make a real difference lies within the reach of empowered WMU hands. In short, we at Western Michigan University need not wait for perfect social, political, and financial circumstances to fully restore WMU’s functioning and reputation as a great regional university.

While all Broncos have some agency and accountability when it comes to shifting the tide, there can be no doubt that administrative higher ups and WMU trustees hold special power and responsibility. And while the big decisions and initiatives they champion surely matter, it is also their cumulative daily attitudes and choices that will disproportionately shape what “The Western Way” will come to mean in the future. Will the old habits and the old culture hold sway, or do we truly stand at a new beginning?

It is our great hope and, we know, also that of many of our colleagues in every employee group, that “The Western Way” will soon come to evoke qualities such as these:

– an institution that puts its core educational mission first, including all of the many and varied human beings necessary to realize that mission 

– a university at which administrators define themselves in terms of their service roles 

– an ethically principled, smoothly functioning university that is a first choice both for students and their families, and for employees 

– a university that is a source of pride for the region, our entire state, and beyond

Go Western!  

WMU’s open wounds and the promise of new administrators

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.

Arbitration Victory: WMU Faculty Summer Teaching Rights Protected

A message from WMU-AAUP President Bailey and Vice President DeCamp

We’re pleased to share good news about the arbitration regarding summer preference that we filed earlier this year in response to contractual violations by WMU. In brief, Arbitrator Thomas J. Barnes agreed with the WMU-AAUP that faculty have the right to preference for summer teaching in the amount of 6 credit hours per session (12 credit hours total) rather than the 6 credit hours per summer that the administration had recently begun to claim.

As a reminder, and as we reported to you in the spring, the WMU administration announced a novel plan to: a) limit preference for summer courses for academic-year faculty to six credit hours per year, b) only pay the summer teaching rate for the first six credit hours per summer for academic year faculty, and subsequently pay only the overload rate, and c) apply both of these limits by the fiscal year rather than calendar summer. The WMU-AAUP recognized that each of these changes was a violation of the 2021-2026 WMU-AAUP Agreement.

Further, our analyses indicated that such unilateral changes could result in a loss of faculty compensation of up to one million dollars annually. In short, this was an attempt by the administration to deny rightful, negotiated income to faculty, and the WMU-AAUP resolved to take the legal actions necessary to address these violations. The violations regarding the limited use of the summer salary rate and use of the fiscal year were reversed as a result of a grievance filed by the Chapter. With this week’s arbitration decision, the summer preference issue has now also been resolved in favor of the faculty. In short, all three of the unilateral changes recently imposed by the administration have now been reversed.

It’s worth noting that the opinion of the arbitrator shows careful consideration of the arguments made by both sides, decisively concluding that the WMU-AAUP compellingly fulfilled the burden of proof. Here are the key findings in Arbitrator Barnes’s conclusion:

“[T]he Union produced evidence beyond the past practice of harmonizing the provision at issue here with other sections of the CBA. While none of them standing alone are conclusive by any means, taken together they support a construction that is consistent with the parties’ 38-year practice. […] The Employer’s assertions in its post hearing brief would lead me to believe that the University voluntarily paid out summer salaries as the Union demands perhaps on the basis of its goodwill and currying favor with the faculty. That is just not how collective bargaining works and there was no evidence to that effect. Small favors and minor economic emoluments do not amount to any binding commitments as many arbitrators have held; payment of wages over 38 years now challenged by the University would amount to an acknowledgment that over that time period it was not managing and husbanding its economic resources prudently. When the University now says that it had the right all along, for nearly four decades, to do what it proposes is to acknowledge that it paid out monies that it never owed, thus undercutting its responsibilities to the students and to the taxing authorities. Unfortunately in this case, the realities of collective bargaining and of the obligations of the parties can lead to no other conclusion than that the University faithfully carried out its financial obligations under the CBA until the current situation arose. […] The grievance is granted prospectively beginning with the summer of 2023.”

This decision is binding and requires the university to respect the multi-decade (negotiated) tradition of providing faculty preference in teaching assignments.

In closing, we would like to acknowledge all who contributed to this success, including former officers and legal counsel. Moreover, several faculty were present to provide testimony before the arbitrator, and this outcome is a direct result of their willingness to stand in solidarity against contract violations.

If you learn of any instances of these WMU-AAUP contractual rights being violated, or communications from the administration that suggest they will not be honored, please contact us at staff@wmuaaup.net. Likewise, please don’t hesitate to reach out with any questions or concerns.

In solidarity,

Cathryn Bailey, President of the WMU-AAUP

Whitney DeCamp, Vice President of the WMU-AAUP

 

The Michigan Senate’s Spurious Rejection of WMU Trustee Jon Hoadley

A message from WMU-AAUP President Cathryn Bailey and WMU-AAUP Vice President Whitney DeCamp

We are deeply troubled by the Michigan Senate’s vote 20-18 yesterday to reject Gov. Whitmer’s appointment of Jon Hoadley to Western Michigan University’s Board of Trustees, a position Hoadley was sworn into on March 17. Although some senators pointed to a conflict of interest as their justification (Hoadley is taking graduate classes at WMU), they did so in defiance of a 1999 Attorney General opinion clearly stating that “a student at a state institution of higher education granting baccalaureate degrees, by simultaneously serving as a member of that institution’s governing board, does not violate Const 1963, art 4, § 10, or the state officer’s conflict of interest act.”

Given both the spurious nature of the rationale for rejecting him as disqualified, and considering current anti-LGBTQ political trends, it would be irresponsible to ignore Hoadley’s status as an openly gay political leader. As Sen. Jeremey Moss (D-Southfield) said yesterday on the Senate floor: “I’d be remiss if I didn’t bring up the fact that this is the second appointee of the governor to a university board of an openly gay person who is being rejected. Two now. Back-to-back.”

Erin Knott, the Executive Director of Equality Michigan, echos this concern, arguing that this is a “ruse to deny the appointment, simply because Jon is an openly gay man.” Knott also observed: “What’s even more egregious is the fact that many of these Senators served with Jon during his tenure in the Michigan Legislature and can attest to his ability to serve.”

We share the view that Hoadley has distinguished himself as a courageous and effective leader in multiple contexts and that he has also been a friend to higher education. In fact, it is consistent with his outstanding qualities that Hoadley has characterized the vote to eject him, without even being included in the deliberations, as “counter to the spirit of open debate and study that is a hallmark for higher education institutions.”

The Michigan Senate’s summary rejection of Jon Hoadley is in defiance of Michigan’s explicit conflict-of-interest policy regarding such matters and adds to a growing wave of noxious anti-LGBTQ backlash that threatens to take our country backward. This rejection is not only an insult to Hoadley, but to all of us at Western Michigan University who value fair play, respect, and the inclusion of diverse views and perspectives in higher education leadership.It is with all this in mind that we encourage you to contact Michigan Senators and urge them to reconsider the rejection of Jon Hoadley and all that he stands for.

above photo is from a recent MLive story

WMU’s latest budget model: New jargon to rationalize old spending priorities?

By Dr. Cathryn Bailey, President of the WMU-AAUP

Faculty concerns about the direction WMU is taking have tended to prioritize shared governance, enrollment management, and campus morale. Less featured in recent discussions that led to a No Confidence Vote by the faculty, but often adjacent to faculty concern and dissatisfaction, is WMU’s adoption of a new budget model. As it is explained on Western’s own website:


“Strategic Resource Management is a philosophy and model, not a budget. It’s a means to achieve the University’s strategic goals, but it does not determine those goals. SRM aims to create transparency and clarity in the process of resource allocation, and it is most effectively applied in an atmosphere of shared commitment and engagement from the campus community. SRM is expected to provide an incentive-based and transparent budget system that is linked to WMU’s strategic plan, decentralize decision-making and align resources and accountability to University units.”


What WMU now refers to as SRM seems to be based on the so-called Responsibility Center Management (RCM) approach, which is meant to decentralize spending authority, ideally providing more flexibility and autonomy to the colleges and other divisions. This model is also supposed to incentivize the various units to increase efficiencies, cut waste, and encourage “investment” in areas most likely to generate revenue. Besides endeavoring to cover their own costs with their own revenues, individual colleges and other university “units” may be charged by the institution to cover shared expenses, such as overarching administrative and logistical support. Expenses that administration deems crucial may receive “subvention,” i.e., a subsidy, in an effort to protect less “profitable” but purportedly necessary programs and initiatives.

When this model is enacted in a higher learning context, some of the philosophical and practical challenges are pretty obvious. For example: In a national climate that increasingly treats teaching and learning as mere commodities, will market considerations and upper administrative priorities drive decisions about curricula? We are already witnessing unhealthy competition as colleges, and even departments, feel pitted against one another in a bid to secure their narrowly defined “profitable” futures, even if this seems likely to damage the university as a whole. Will a model that aims to reward entrepreneurialism and innovation instead jeopardize long term and historically valuable commitments, such as the institution’s longstanding identity, its liberal arts core, and employee morale and job security? We can probably all agree that efficiency and productivity are important considerations for any organization, but is this model really suitable for a complex, diverse, socially-responsible public university?

While defining and preparing to implement the new budget model, SRM-speak has already become well entrenched in WMU’s culture, including in how administrators propagate its associated aspirations and excuses.This includes both rationales for further belt-tightening as well as promises about potential rewards in some fantasy future. For example, loss of staff colleagues supposedly generates staffing “efficiency.” Raising faculty workloads — despite the implications on students and faculty research — has a net positive impact on a department’s bottom line. By contrast, equity adjustments to faculty and staff salaries would fail to match with SRM priorities. The unprecedented uncertainty of the recent past, administrators suggest, will transform into certainty once SRM is fully adopted and calibrated; like an invisible hand, its internal logic and sense will ultimately prevail. Meanwhile, if faculty, staff, and mid-level administrators are hardworking, innovative, and patient enough, it is implied, we will reap the rewards while less enterprising units will ensure their obsolescence.

This scenario would be bad enough if it were actually plausible that the SRM model is what now compels the institution toward budget austerity. But given that the scarcity and belt-tightening mindset has dominated WMU’s climate for years — with, for example, faculty and staff conceived primarily as a financial liability rather than as a resource — the “new budget model” sounds more like the latest rationalization for ongoing, endless austerity, even in the wake of an incredible $550 million donation. Further, for many faculty, staff, and administrators who’ve been around for a while it’s pretty hard to believe that the administration will begin rewarding units for their sacrifices and contributions, invocations of “SRM” notwithstanding, when such hard work and productivity has rarely been rewarded in the past. Indeed, it’s impossible to miss the fact that there always seem to be administrative rationalizations available for why some areas of campus deserve funding and others do not.

Despite Western’s insistence that SRM is a method, not a vision, this model has quickly taken on a life and identity of its own. It has already become a smokescreen behind which administrators need no longer take responsibility for the values driving their own budgetary decisions, and which discourages questions from faculty and staff. But dressing up promises and threats in SRM garb does not change the fact that it is individuals — including administrators and members of the Board of Trustees — who decide what is worth investment at Western Michigan University and what is not. When, for example, our staff colleagues were summarily eliminated in 2020, that was because WMU administrators, including both high level administrators and deans, made the decision to do so. Euphemistically referring to this as a RIF (Reduction in Force), as such acronyms often do, deflects responsibility from the actual individuals who made and rationalized the decisions.

The fact remains, however one labels the university’s budget model or its employee eliminations, that each and every decision about what deserves to be preserved and invested in, and what is superfluous, will be fundamentally human and values-driven. And the sheer fact that there will be arbitrariness in the “system” is evidenced by WMU’s repeated reassurance of subsidies for items which WMU leaders deem most worthy. Although SRM is a signature innovation under the president’s leadership, it is already functioning to provide the same kind of cover we’ve seen under past administrations: rationalizations for unnecessary and unwise budget cuts to essential services and personnel, and justifications for pet projects and potential short-term revenue streams. Whether SRM goes down in WMU’s history as yet another formula for university “executives” to point to while they spend and cut as they see fit will depend on us. How willing are we to challenge the ascendency of SRM jargon and demand accountability from the actual people behind each momentous budgetary decision?