Concern about “disastrous” pandemic consequences from a lack of “clear and decisive” WMU leadership

an urgent letter to President Montgomery and Provost Bott from the WMU-AAUP Executive Committee

August 30, 2021

Dear President Montgomery and Provost Bott:

We, the members of the WMU-AAUP Executive Committee, are writing to you to express grave concerns relating to inadequate COVID-19 safety measures and accommodations. We worry that the WMU community will experience unnecessary and disastrous consequences resulting from a lack of clear and decisive leadership and guidance, and we are alarmed by the growing disconnect between Administration and those of us on the frontlines who interact on a daily basis with students. Our concerns are interrelated, and deal with our Contractual agreement, COVID-19 safety measures, shared governance, and communication. We describe these concerns below.

• Unilateral Dismissal of Item (2) in the June 11, 2020 Letter of Agreement: First and most alarming is the apparent unilateral dismissal of the Letter of Agreement signed June 11, 2020. The second item in this LOA states that “Faculty with accommodation requests- including, but not limited to shifts in the delivery format of their courses related to health and/or safety concerns may use the ‘Request for Reasonable Accommodation’ form to make their requests.” Because of health concerns related to the unavailability of the vaccine for those under the age of 12, rising cases of the highly virulent Delta strain of the COVID-19 virus and lack of social distancing in the classrooms, some faculty members have requested a change in format. Many others are growing increasingly concerned and are watching with great interest to see how these requests are handled.

The language of the LOA is clear – such requests can be made due to “health and/or safety concerns.” As communications with WMU Office of Academic Labor Relations(ALR) make clear, and multiple recent rejected instructor requests confirm, the administration position is that there is nothing in the LOA that extends beyond decades-old rights granted under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Specifically, reports from our members are telling us (with email documentation to confirm), that the current Administration position is that no such accommodation request will even be considered unless there is a health condition for the instructor that is supported by a physician’s letter. Importantly, there is no mention in the LOA that “health and/or safety concerns” must somehow manifest in instructors’ own serious medical conditions. The very presence of this language in this LOA makes clear that it does indeed offer something in addition to the federal ADA. Health concerns on the part of instructors aregrounded in science and worsened by recent evidence of the carnage spreading across the country from the Delta variant. For parents with unvaccinated children, for those with immunocompromised spouses or cohabiting elderly parents, the Administration’s response is to turn a blind eye.

The Office of Institutional Equity (OIE) has rejected without review any requests that are not accompanied by a physician’s documentation of the instructor’s own health condition. If such documentation of an instructor’s own health condition is provided, then the negotiations begin, with the Administration beginning with offers of better PPE (hand sanitizer, plexiglass shields—notably, neither recommended by experts) and larger classrooms. Very few such requests to switch instructional mode to virtual have been approved.

We are seeking a dialogue with WMU Administration on how to implement the LOA moving forward that respects the language in the LOA and that supports members of our Bronco family who are experiencing justified and sincere COVID-19-related “health and/or safety concerns.” Specifically, we suggest that a process be put in place, ideally outside the OIE structure that focuses on ADA accommodations, that would facilitate processing these requests and handle appeals.

• Campus Community Vaccination Mandate and University Community Leadership: Second, we are concerned about the refusal to mandate COVID-19 vaccination for those seeking to work or take classes on campus. There is universal agreement on the part of experts that achieving very high vaccination rates is the one pathway to the post-pandemic. University vaccination mandates serve the dual purpose of protecting those on campus and in the surrounding communities, and in sending the message of the singular importance of vaccination. Mandating vaccination on university campuses has been encouraged by Dr. Anthony Fauci, Chief Medical Advisor to President Biden, as well as by innumerable medical experts, public health leaders, and medical associations. The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld, via summary judgement, the mandate at Indiana University. At last count, 10 public universities in the state of Michigan have universal vaccination mandates, and well over 800 universities and colleges nationwide. Despite overwhelming faculty support for a vaccine mandate here at Western Michigan University (as indicated in a poll of members taken well before the threat of the Delta variant became apparent and before FDA approval of the Pfizer vaccine), the WMU administration has not opted to enact a WMU community vaccination mandate.

Instead of a vaccination mandate (and in the absence of a more limited mandate for on-campus residents), WMU administration has chosen to institute an onerous testing and badge system, with weekly testing (at least through September) for those without documentation of vaccination. This plan was created without any consultation with the COVID-19 Fall Task Force. The lack of transparency about the decision-making process as well as the resources that will be required to implement this policy (including financial, personnel, and enforcement) is concerning. WMU has failed even in the basic task of messaging: conveying the very clear and widely accepted message of the critical importance of vaccination.

• Abandonment of Basic Notions of Shared Governance: Third, the failure to involve faculty in decision-making to design policy that affects every aspect of our professional lives as well as the health of ourselves and our families is of great concern. What has happened to the notion of shared governance? The alternative to the WMU Administration’s unilateral strategy, partnering with faculty, is a pathway that is being chosen by many other universities. Alienating faculty at a time of such turmoil ignores the very real potential downsides, both in hindering the successful developing and implementing policy that affects the university’s bottom line, and in stirring faculty discontent at the very moment that we all need most to feel that we are all on the same team. We are all fully aware of the great challenges that have resulted from this pandemic; at times like these, even small gestures of partnering and mutual respect and support can go a very long way in easing concerns and reaching an institution’s goals.

• Failure to Communicate Clearly and Provide Support: Finally, there is an ongoing failure to communicate clearly with instructors about their obligations with regard to COVID-19 safety measures and strategies for successful implementation/enforcement in classrooms. WMU’s COVID-related policies are communicated with long, narrative style emails directed at multiple constituencies simultaneously, and when available online, they are spread across different websites/links. A deep read of all of these various announcements and emails still does not produce clear guidance regarding what is required of instructors in the classroom. As one example, it was only after much effortthat our WMU-AAUP officers have been able to learn from Academic Labor Relations (ALR) that enforcing the universal mask mandate (the temporary mask mandate enhancement announced in August) is an instructor obligation. What about the vaccination/system requirement for students that is documented with the “badge?” Are instructors required to use this badging system to determine who is permitted to be on campus? The recent language suggests this is optional.

COVID-related policies were developed and implemented by Administration and Administration must take responsibility for communicating expectations to classroom instructors. Given that ALR has indicated that failure to enforce the universal mask mandate could result in Contractual disciplinary action against instructors, it is absolutely imperative that Administration communicate that instructors are required to enforce this mandate in their classrooms. Additionally, we faculty need administration guidance on best practice for implementing this mask mandate. For example, should we cancel class if we cannot achieve full compliance via persuasion? Direct and clear communication of faculty responsibility for enforcing this mandate, along with guidance on how to enforce it, will help us partner with administration on this critically important policy. Being able to inform our students that we are required to enforce the mandate (resulting in most if not all instructors doing so) will help us in our efforts to achieve full compliance.

Even the requirement that faculty document vaccination status or be tested weekly through September (at least) has not been communicated as well as one would expect. Effectively conveying this information directly to instructors likely would reduce the sheer volume of individuals requiring weekly COVID-19 testing at Sindecuse and would reduce the necessity of follow-up for “noncompliant” faculty by ALR. In other words, improved communication is efficient – it’s “win-win.”

• Relevance for the Current WMU-AAUP Contractual Agreement: Article 21.3 of our Contractual Agreement speaks to the requirement that “Prior to the issuance of a formal notice of violation or imposition of corrective action or penalty for alleged violation of these rules by a faculty member, Western shall take steps to ensure consistency of rule interpretation and application.” Surely, the very first step would be to make a sincere effort to communicate the rules to faculty. Whether you believe this is necessary or not, we are informing you now that COVID-19 rules that place obligations on faculty and classroom instructors have not been clearly communicated.

The WMU-AAUP Contractual Agreement with the WMU Board of Trustees, Article 21.2.3, speaks of safe working conditions. Failing to honor the LOA, refusing to mandate vaccination, communicating mixed messages about what is required of instructors and students (even the dates that testing will begin changes from message to message) – we view this package of leadership decisions as a violation of Article 21.2.3 in that it contributes to unsafe working conditions.

Beyond a failure to honor our Contractual Agreement, we are concerned with the implications of these concerns for the potential to have a healthy and successful Fall 2021 semester. The WMU-AAUP is dedicated to partnering in a successful Fall semester at Western Michigan University. We are committed to our students and our profession. But we on the Executive Committee need you to know that, along with this passion for our students, there is a growing sense that recent Administration actions are eroding the extraordinary culture here at WMU. We hear concerned faculty members using language like “increasingly demoralized,” along with very real consideration of resignation to protect beloved family members. Universities thrive when we are all behave as though we truly believe that we are on the same team, fighting for a shared vision. We can’t let expediency and hesitation guide leadership decisions.

We have made our best effort to communicate our grave concerns to you as clearly and respectfully as possible. We do not know how else to express to you that these concerns reflect leadership decisions that carry great cost – great cost as measured in student learning and enrollment, great cost in time and effort on the part of ALR and the WMU-AAUP, trapped in a black hole of disciplinary procedures for faculty who did not even know the rules, and most important, great cost as measured in unacceptably high risk of unnecessary illness and loss of life.

We await your response. We are anxious to learn how you will handle, moving forward, LOA-related requests for a change in mode of instruction, and we await clear communication (to be sent to all instructors) regarding instructor obligations and support. And we implore you to reconsider your position on the universal vaccination mandate.

Respectfully,

The WMU-AAUP Executive Committee

Disrespect and Denial: The Final Days of Faculty Negotiations With Western Michigan University

An Open Letter to Members from the WMU-AAUP President and Vice President

As Western Michigan University professors put the final touches on their Fall classes and prepare to teach students in classroom conditions that are uncertain and ill-defined, WMU’s leaders continue to play solo against the will of faculty and students, deviating from pandemic safety procedures adopted by over 800 universities and colleges nationwide, and failing to follow recommendations made by the U.S. Chief Medical Advisor. WMU’s poorly planned and half-hearted health protocols unnecessarily put students, staff, faculty and the entire Kalamazoo community at much greater risk of serious illness and death.

In the midst of such unprecedented fear, danger, and chaos, WMU continues to make salary proposals at the negotiation table that can only be described as insulting. These financial offers are not just low, but seem designed to send a message to WMU faculty about how little the University values our work and the entire academic mission. Such disrespect would be bad enough in normal times, but, after a year of sacrifices by faculty and staff — financial and otherwise — and an astonishing, relatively unrestricted $550 million dollar donation, such a lowball salary offer seems primarily to be an expression of disdain and managerial might.

In some ways, the story of 2021 negotiations is a familiar one: The WMU-AAUP selected a diligent, highly capable team that has presented proposals on behalf of the faculty that have been realistic and empirically-based. Specifically, each of our proposals, including those related to compensation, have been heavily researched, and presented against an exhaustive backdrop of relevant facts and metrics. In short, our approach has been data-driven, aimed at providing a path forward that would be reasonable, in objective terms, for both parties. This year, however, WMU changed tactics, hiring Dykema, a powerful national law firm with a reputation for union-busting, to sit across from us at the table.

Shamefully for WMU, this same law firm, to which Western has been paying hundreds of thousands of dollars, has close ties to the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a right-wing pressure group (co-founded by attorney Richard D. McLellan, from Dykema) which was involved in setting the stage for extremism in Michigan during the anti COVID-19 lockdown protests in April 2020. According to reports, the Mackinac Center tacitly condoned and overtly encouraged extremist far right sentiments which culminated in the attempt to kidnap Governor Whitmer. The Mackinac Center is also associated with the Flint Water Crisis, opposition to environmental protection, climate change denial, the privatization of prisons, and campaigns to obliterate unions. In addition, WMU Trustee Shelley Edgerton is listed as Dykema “Senior Counsel” on the WMU Board of Trustees website.

Motivated by ideology, Western Michigan University seems to have chosen this moment in history to use public funds and students’ tuition dollars to bring its own employees to their knees. With this in mind, it is hardly surprising that our AFSCME colleagues and part-time instructors (PIO) too have been enduring negotiation tactics by WMU that seem aimed to demoralize, rather than to arrive at a fair deal. In addition, WMU seems committed to an expensive and ill-conceived top-down rebranding project, against the advice of WMU’s own faculty experts, and even as enrollments continue to fall. Instead of taking responsibility for its own marketing failures, WMU leadership is attempting, once again, to make faculty and staff pay the price.

Though the WMU-AAUP has had a number of important successes during this grueling summer of negotiations — all diligently reported to our members — the real story now is WMU’s continued commitment to salary proposals about which it should be embarrassed. The fact is that, at the moment, WMU administration seems less interested in arriving at an agreement that is fair, respectful and good for teaching and learning than in being able to declare victory over its employees. To be sure, this impression is strengthened by the fact that WMU continues to compensate its elite administrators (and private attorneys) like corporate CEOs. It does so even as it insists it cannot afford to fairly pay its other employees, including, apparently, those whom it expects to actually teach in, or clean, classrooms full of students who may or may not be vaccinated.

When this year’s contract negotiations come to an end, as always, both parties will leave with only some of what they wanted. It is simply the way of negotiations that compromises must be made that leave no one entirely happy with every specific outcome. However, with the administration apparently committed less to making fair compromises than to “winning,” the damage done both to livelihoods and morale will be devastating and long lasting. To be clear, we are running out of ways to try to explain to WMU administrators that, so long as they treat WMU faculty and other workers as opponents to be subjugated rather than as respected colleagues, our university cannot thrive. A campus community managed by elite administrators determined to nickel-and-dime the rest of us is both unethical and unsustainable. Western works because we do.

In solidarity,
Cathryn Bailey and Natalio Ohanna
President and Vice President of the WMU-AAUP

Members are invited to attend this Wednesday’s Solidarity Happy Hour (5-7 at Montague House) where we’ll answer questions and discuss options for moving forward. In addition, this Friday at 10 a.m. there will be an all-member Chapter Zoom meeting where we’ll formally consider member motions for decisive action in response to the serious concerns described above.

Western Michigan’s Pandemic Budget Priorities: Won’t Students Pay the Price?

Uncertainty deformed almost every aspect of academic year 2020-21, including basic pedagogies and other conditions associated with teaching work. Given this historically unprecedented pressure on learning itself, and the uncertainty now facing us for the coming school year, why has so much of Western Michigan University’s budget cutting actually seem focused on dismantling, rather than strengthening, academic quality and student experience? And with unjustified “austerity”measures still aimed squarely at the solar plexus of teaching and learning — including unreasonable teaching loads and lowball salary offers — what will be the likely consequences on prospective students, faculty, and future enrollments? Is the Western Michigan University being created by today’s budget decisions one that we can still feel comfortable selling to future students and their families?

For example, at WMU, in addition to a retirement incentive that peeled away scores of accomplished content experts and talented teachers, paltry budgets for part-time instructors were decimated. Of course, at universities long dependent on such “temporary” instructors, the impact on students was entirely predictable: In a 20-21 teaching/learning scenario already guaranteed to be chaotic, many faculty were assigned higher course loads, not lower ones, as might be expected in the midst of a teaching and learning crisis. An obvious consequence is that students were expected to settle for a smaller slice of their instructor’s time and energy precisely when they needed more of it. There was also the devastation of part-time instructors’ livelihoods — not to mention staff colleagues, for example, advisors — many of whom had contributed to WMU’s core academic mission for years.

As our overworked WMU professoriate continues to encounter lowball salary offers at the negotiation table, the effects of ongoing budget cuts on teaching and learning must be honestly acknowledged. One is that many faculty have been forced to choose either to abandon critical research and service commitments or to take time away from students. Given that many scholarly projects are time-sensitive, research cannot simply be postponed until (or if) the university decides to reinvest in academics. Unfortunately, interruptions to the research momentum of some faculty can irreparably damage their investigations and projects. In addition, much of the service that faculty have been forced to jettison to make room for higher teaching loads — not to mention the loss of scores of essential staff colleagues — cuts into important services for students, no matter how hard faculty and remaining staff try to keep that from happening.

As usual, the consequences have fallen especially hard on already vulnerable faculty and students, including faculty and students of color, international faculty and students, LGBTQ people, and women responsible for child care. And for some especially vulnerable students, close contact with instructors, during the pandemic more than ever, can mean the difference not only between success and failure, but between life and death. In addition, some faculty members’ morale has been so badly shattered by constant demands of more sacrifice (from comfortable and protected elite administrators), it will be impossible for them to marshal their usual enthusiasm in the classroom. This, of course, is the same passionate energy that makes many WMU classes attractive to students in the first place.

As universities like WMU have made the odd decision to de-prioritize academics during the pandemic, they have become less recognizable to teacher-scholars focused on academic essentials. But this is also a crossroads moment of opportunity. After all, if we are truly committed to rebuilding Western in this competitive enrollment environment, shouldn’t our first priority be high quality student learning, and the faculty research and scholarship, advising, library, and student mental health support necessary to sustain it? Even as the pandemic continues to threaten many other WMU offerings, the core academic mission — the excitement of cutting-edge knowledge, research opportunities and close work with faculty experts — should loom larger on universities’ radar than ever. Instead, it seems that teaching and learning are being treated as unnecessary, luxury expenses even though WMU’s budget is quite robust, and was so even before Western received that staggering $550 million donation.

Of course, WMU still has a chance to learn good lessons from the pandemic. Rather than marking the end of learning-centeredness, the pandemic might be heard as a call to recommit to it. As WMU continues to consider its salary offers at the negotiation table, let’s ask ourselves what WMU imagines it can offer students that is more important than academics? It will be a terrible insult, not just to professors, but to all the students and families now placing faith in Western to get it right, if teaching and learning continue to fall so low on WMU’s list of spending priorities.

Required vaccinations at WMU: A Letter to the President and Provost

As more and more colleges and universities adopt mandatory vaccination policies, the WMU-AAUP is continuing to urge Western to take more assertive campus safety steps. Below is a message sent to the President and Provost this morning reiterating the importance of public health, as well as considerations of shared governance, and the importance of making our campus an attractive option to students and their families.

Dear President Montgomery and Provost Bott,

A few months ago, we reached out to you urging you to do everything possible to respect the faculty’s will that vaccinations be required for all who will be living, working, or studying on campus. As the pandemic continues to rage, fueled by low vaccination rates, we are writing with the same urgent message: please help enact a vaccination requirement at WMU, not because so many of our neighboring institutions have already done so (and 643 colleges and universities nationwide), but because it is the right thing to do, and it reflects the will of the faculty.

As a reminder of the WMU-AAUP’s position about this, please recall that, at an all-member WMU-AAUP meeting, faculty insisted that faculty, staff, and student voices should help determine pandemic safety steps, given their potential life and death impact on WMU, Kalamazoo and beyond. A full Chapter vote followed and the results couldn’t have been clearer: an overwhelming majority agreed that vaccinations should be required, and, further, that faculty should determine the best modality for their course offerings, and other work, during the pandemic.

This Chapter vote reflected specific concerns shared at the Chapter meeting, for example:

-WMU could be perceived as downplaying the pandemic, with images of unmasked students on WMU’s home page. Faculty noted that, despite great uncertainty about safety in upcoming semesters, WMU continued to promise 75% FTF classes in Fall.
-Mixed messages about the determination of upcoming course modalities, including the process and basis for decision-making. Western claimed that faculty have been consulted, but many faculty have reported little evidence of this.
-In addition, faculty have expressed serious concerns about the expectation that they should be charged with enforcing classroom mask policies in an environment in which vaccinations remain voluntary.

As expressed in a petition sent to Governor Whitmer, signed by many WMU faculty who joined over 2000 other members of the Michigan Public University Communities, including faculty, students, and staff, a vaccination mandate could nearly eliminate the risk of severe COVID-19 illness and complications. It would increase safety on campus, attracting students who would otherwise be hesitant to put themselves at risk. It would also signal to all that Michigan’s public universities are science-driven institutions recognizing that vaccination is our civic duty.

In short, there is no clearer statement that WMU could make about shared governance, and campus and public safety, than to honor the clear and unequivocal wishes of WMU’s Board-appointed faculty and announce a vaccination requirement immediately.

Respectfully,

Cathryn Bailey, President of the WMU-AAUP
Natalio Ohanna, Vice President of the WMU-AAUP