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.

Why should I care about the WMU-AAUP’s 2021 negotiations? Four core values at the heart of the struggle

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

Foundational WMU-AAUP values and concerns:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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