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.

How much do WMU administrators really make?

Fair employee compensation in a climate of administrative bloat

Anyone who doubts that U.S. higher education is increasingly based on corporate values need look no further than the compensation packages being offered to university administrators. And these dizzyingly high salaries and VIP perks aren’t only a feature of elite institutions, but are also becoming a fact of life at affordable regional universities like Western Michigan University. With the WMU-AAUP in the thick of negotiations over faculty salary and benefits, and after a year of sacrifices by WMU employees, this is surely a good time to look at what WMU thinks is a reasonable compensation to offer administrators.

According to documents the WMU-AAUP obtained from WMU by FOIA (after being required by WMU to pay a fee), we learned that:

  • the President, in addition to receiving a $450,000 salary, also has housing (and house maintenance and housekeeping) and car paid for, as well as club memberships, e.g., The Park Club and the Kalamazoo Country club, if he wishes. He is also provided an additional $50,000 per fiscal year as an “executive retirement benefit,” and up to $10,000 per year reimbursement “to purchase life insurance to cover the costs of health insurance coverage for his spouse in the event of the President’s death.”
  • the Vice President of Marketing, with a $230,000 salary, was offered a $12, 000 “bonus” simply for signing his contract. In addition, he receives a $625 monthly automobile allowance, club memberships, and was offered up to $10,000 for moving expenses.
  • the head of legal counsel takes in a $175, 000 yearly salary and a $625 monthly automobile allowance. This position is only one of several WMU in-house lawyers (and is in addition to what WMU is now paying a private law firm)
  • the Provost, who earns $315,000 annually, receives a $625 monthly automobile allowance, club memberships, and was offered up to $10,000 for moving expenses

In decades past, university administrators were often primarily professors, individuals with long service as faculty members who often remained rooted in, and primarily motivated by, academic values and concerns. As university administration has become more professionalized over the years, presidents, provosts, deans, and myriad others may have had relatively little experience with students or research, or with the critical dynamics of shared governance. Instead, such individuals are often hired for their willingness and potential to “manage” people, as well as campus and public opinion. Whatever the backgrounds and motivations of particular contemporary university administrators, many are extravagantly compensated.

Over the years, many faculty members, staff employees, and students have become accustomed to accepting the rock-star salaries of elite administrators. We may even have learned to make jokes about it. But when we watch our university happily hand administrators the sun, moon, and keys to the kingdom, at the very moment they’re telling WMU employees that we’re too expensive — sometimes even suggesting that we’re lazy or greedy— the time for humor has ended. Western Michigan University shows us how much it values its administrators with every paycheck and perk it provides to them. Just so, the employee compensation it now agrees to at the negotiation table will be the clearest possible expression of what WMU thinks the rest of us are worth as well, not to mention how much WMU values its core academic mission.

To show your support for fair pay, and the dignity and worth of the WMU employees who make WMU possible, join our outdoor rally on Wednesday morning, August 18th at Montague House, 814 Oakland Drive. We’ll convene at 9:30. Please wear red if you’ve got it, and bring friends and family. Let’s celebrate and support our university, our students, our negotiation process, and one another.

Time for Action! WMU-AAUP Rally on Wed., Aug. 18th

Members, allies, and all who believe in public higher education welcome

Now in the final weeks of negotiations, it has become clear that WMU’s idea of fair compensation remains far away from the realm of acceptable. In fact, despite the salary sacrifices faculty made last year — including a temporary pay reduction and forgoing a raise — WMU continues to advance a lowball offer. At this critical moment, we need you, and your colleagues, family, friends, and allies, to show up to support our negotiation team, and to demonstrate your determination to get a fair contract.

When: Wednesday, August 18, convening at 9:30
Where: Outdoors, on the grounds of Montague House, 814 Oakland Drive (ample WMU permit parking available very nearby)
Other details: Got a red shirt? Extra credit if you wear it! And remember to contact colleagues, and also to bring friends and family

Will WMU keep offering working-class students a research university education?

a message from WMU-AAUP President Cathryn Bailey

Many Western Michigan University professors exist only because, decades ago, a new emphasis on acquiring research intensive status transformed lots of humble land grant normal schools into fully-fledged universities. At far flung institutions, in cornfields and river valleys across the U.S., first-generation college students like me drifted into the classrooms of inspiring poets, passionate sociologists, brilliant engineers, and dedicated chemists, eventually becoming professors ourselves at former regional comprehensives like WMU. Unfortunately, the drive to populate U.S. universities with researchers and creatives has proceded unevenly, and now some of these institutions seem to see professors as a drain on their budgets. It should come as no surprise then, that, during the pandemic, some universities have been quietly transitioning back into undergraduate, teaching-focused institutions, while perhaps still touting their research and grad student missions and charging research-intensive tuition.

As someone who sprang from a working-class family with skepticism about intellectualism bred into its bones, ambivalence about scholars and scholarship is neither new or strange to me. But like lots of blue collar families, mine valued education, and at the humble Midwestern university I felt privileged to attend, I stumbled into the classrooms of professors whose passion for original, creative scholarship was contagious, conveying to young adults like me that we too could be creators of knowledge, technology, and art. Ultimately, through some combination of race privilege, good fortune, and hard work, I got a PhD in my 20s and my first professor gig just a few months later.

As a professor, I have simultaneously taught and engaged in my own investigations, solving problems and exploring curiosities together with my students. I’ve been honored and challenged by colleagues in dialogue with my writing and by countless students over the decades, especially those for whom, like me, education has been a lifeline. But during the pandemic, some universities’ commitment to an affordable, accessible public higher education rooted in original research, scholarship, and creativity has wavered. The fallout has been disturbing: exhausted professors, exploited part-time instructors, terminated staff colleagues, and stressed out students. Even when it is financially healthy — as Western demonstrably is — a university may disinvest in its academic core, and fail to address administrative bloat, placing its very mission as an accessible research-intensive regional public university at risk.

To speak from my own experience, I was hired at WMU, in part, because of how my intellectual engagement fueled my teaching. It has been jarring, then, to have heard from administrators in recent years that my scholarly work, and that of countless WMU colleagues, has suddenly become irrelevant. In recent years, WMU professors have increasingly reported being threatened with the “punishment” of additional teaching — an insult to both students and instructors — if their scholarly production failed to rise to some administrative standard that was often unclear, arbitrary, and ever elusive. Under the murky cover of the pandemic, however, the message to many WMU professors seems to have shifted again: Faculty must teach as many students as possible, as cheaply as possible, and with original scholarly exploration now regarded as a hobby to be indulged in their leisure hours. In recent months, WMU officials have even stated that research need not be an assigned part of a tenure track faculty member’s workload because “tenure is not required for employment.”

Most elite institutions will emerge from the pandemic with their research missions and brain trusts intact, but for other sectors of public higher education, the democratization of the professoriate, and commitment to affordable, high quality higher education, seems to be in grave danger. As the AAUP has reported, some of these institutions have even been violating policy and principles of shared governance in a race to close academic programs and eliminate professors and staff. It isn’t necessarily that administrators suddenly doubt the value for students of working with knowledge-creators, of course, but that such academic investment has been deemed too expensive, even as gargantuan athletics and administrative budgets may remain comparatively intact.

At the same time, how many of these universities are remarketing themselves to reflect their diminished commitment to supporting faculty research? For example, despite its apparent demotion of faculty research and creative activity, doesn’t WMU still highlight its research prowess, eager to distinguish itself from nearby community colleges and four-year schools? In short, the shift away from research-intensive missions seems to be happening quietly, incrementally, behind the scenes, driven by the gradual, often unilateral, decisions of individual administrators rather than by transparent, collaborative decision-making about the collective identity of the institution. To me, it sometimes seems as if such universities are assuming that working-class families like the one I came from, many sending a child to college for the first time, won’t be savvy enough to notice the difference.

Of course, none of this is meant to cast doubt on the value of four-year schools focused solely on undergraduate education, or, for that matter, on community colleges. They play a critical role in higher education and are to be respected. But no university should neglect or abandon its research mission without a long, serious, and transparent conversation, a structured process that includes professors, staff, students and their families. Certainly, any university that is reversing course needs to be forthright about that and figure out an honest way to attract both new students and new professors. As it stands now, some universities seem to be betting that prospective working-class students and their families simply won’t notice that they’re being expected to pay research university tuition even as the scholars necessary to fulfill such promises are being picked off, chased away, or gobbled up by unreasonable service demands.

Busting the myth of WMU’s financial crisis narrative

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

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

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

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

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

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

WMU’s emerging labor crisis: When our right to due process is threatened

a message from the WMU-AAUP President and Vice President

During the past year, WMU-AAUP members have come forward in extraordinary numbers with questions and concerns about unfair treatment by administration, including violations of the Contract and casual disregard for Departmental Policy Statements. In response, at nearly every meeting of the Association Council, Executive Committee and full Chapter, we have emphasized the importance of using all of the tools at our organization’s disposal to push back against an abnormally high level of unfair treatment that is transforming some colleagues’ once-joyful careers into misery. Among these tools are:

1) collaboration with administration: Where can we clear up misunderstandings and find common ground to work together toward mutually beneficial goals? This strategy involves informal conversation and advocacy with administration, especially the Director of Academic Labor Relations, who reports directly to the Provost. In normal times, this is our go-to approach.

2) workload appeals and grievances: Following the carefully outlined steps in our Contract, how can we resolve disputes with the administration that seem to be resistant to more informal adjudication? While it is formalized and governed by the WMU-AAUP Contract, in normal times, this process too is collegial and effective. In normal times, both parties agree to exercise intellectual honesty, to entertain alternative points of view, and to be open to accepting conclusions supported by reason and evidence.

3) legal channels: When incursions by the administration appear to be in violation of the law, especially labor law, the Chapter, or its members, may make legal challenges, for example, by filing an Unfair Labor Practice complaint.

4) collective actions and pressure from Chapter membership: Because the WMU-AAUP is, first and foremost, an academic collective bargaining organization, ultimately, our power to demand and achieve fair treatment from our employer is rooted in our members’ ability and willingness to act with unified determination when necessary.

In normal times, disputes arise between WMU-AAUP faculty and the administration, but these have tended to be sporadic and resolvable through informal means. In fact, it has not been uncommon for some university administrations to boast about their ability to avoid grievances, lawsuits, and campus protest by prioritizing healthy academic labor relationships. In normal times, WMU’s administration has embraced its share of responsibility to avoid the expense of time, energy, money, and morale that campus labor conflict inevitably creates.

Unfortunately, these are not normal times. As described in a recent AAUP national report, “COVID-19 served as an accelerant, turning the gradual erosion of shared governance on some campuses into a landslide.” Here on our campus, this erosion is visible in many ways, including the numerous violations that have recently led to faculty complaints and formal grievances:

  • explicit administrative commitments to treat most faculty research and service as “optional” or as “voluntary work” in order to assign heavier teaching loads
  • the misconception that department chairs and directors do not need to assign credit hours for research or creative activities to tenure-track faculty members because “tenure is not required for employment”
  • repeated violations of Departmental Policy Statements (the core of our shared governance at the departmental level) justified by the false, but apparently commonly held administrative view, that “the DPS is merely a suggestion” that can be ignored by administrators at will
  • the unilateral creation by WMU of policies that are in violation of, or in conflict with, the WMU-AAUP contract
  • administrators’ increasing use of the professional misconduct process, in violation of Article 22, to shame and censure faculty members by bringing spurious, or trivial, charges against them
  • the assignment of workloads to Fiscal Year faculty that are in violation not only of the workload procedures but also of basic fairness and the right to contractual annual leave
  • the creation of a hybrid faculty-administrator position (Associate Director of Academic Labor Relations) which has forced faculty to share and discuss highly confidential professional concerns with another faculty member
  • a new interpretation of the Contract by WMU’s Director of Academic Labor Relations, according to which, despite the obvious conflict of interest, Deans themselves can determine whether or not the very grievances brought against them have merit or not

Although we continue to believe in the power of using the full range of the tools to advocate for, and protect, members, the success of most of these Chapter strategies depends on the existence of a baseline relationship of respect between administration and the faculty. Though the WMU-AAUP Contract emerged from a historical context that included some tension and disagreement, it was also assumed that both sides would collaborate as partners to solve problems. In a meaningful sense, then, the success of our grievance process too depends on the existence of a genuine respect for shared governance.

We can both recall a time when the Office of Academic Labor Relations and the Provost worked in good faith with the Chapter to solve problems with the best interest of our university in mind. Generally speaking, both sides recognized our common ground and valued collaboration even in the midst of disagreement. Unfortunately, what we see now is an approach to academic labor relations that often seems more focused on demonstrating power than on what is fair, reasonable, and good for our campus community.

Our Contract, agreed upon by both Western and the WMU-AAUP, is intended “to promote orderly and peaceful labor relations for the mutual interest of Western Michigan University, its employees, and the Chapter.” But with so many new and egregious incursions and violations occurring, it appears that Academic Affairs may be abandoning its long commitment to problem-solve with the faculty in good faith. It is with both concern and hope, then, that we call upon all who continue to believe in shared governance and fair play to demand that our Contract, including our grievance process, be accorded the respect it deserves.

Cathryn Bailey and Natalio Ohanna
WMU-AAUP President and Vice President

The erosion of shared governance at WMU, and beyond, during the pandemic

why it matters and what we can do about it

It’s hard to overstate the disillusionment that many felt as their institutions withdrew collaboration with faculty, staff, and students when the pandemic hit. Not only were many university employees left scrambling to make sense of budget obfuscation, top-down program restructuring, and devastating layoffs, they also had to absorb the fact that many of the “partnerships” they’d shared with administrators had pretty shallow roots. At a number of universities, and as an investigation by the national AAUP has confirmed, shared governance has been gravely wounded during the pandemic. In fact, at some institutions, shared governance now appears to have been primarily a managerial tactic, an agreement made by administrators when such promises cost little.

Many university employees watched open-mouthed as decades-long policies and practices were swept aside under cover of “emergency.” Faculty and staff waited in nail-biting silence as deans rushed to compile lists of “expendable” employees and “unnecessary” academic programs. Tellingly, many such decisions were made according to criteria that were not shared, debated, or even plausibly explained to the campus community. Even life and death decisions, such as whether, when, and how to bring folks physically back to campus, often seemed to be summarily handed down from the top with little or no campus discussion.

Not only did it become clear that many well-paid university administrators across the nation were prepared to throw others overboard when times got tough, but many were also enabled by well-placed non-administrative apologists who urged co-workers to “stop complaining.” Shared governance, they claimed, echoing administration’s self-serving definition, doesn’t mean what the AAUP thinks it does. A university is a businesses, after all, and its presidents, provost, deans, and chairs are basically CEOs and managers charged with making the trains run on time.

But few of us are ready to concede that shared governance can be so easily tossed aside. At some of our colleges and universities, even as pandemic restrictions are easing, we watch as administrators continue to close rank, as public relations and marketing machines go into overtime, as critical financial information is manipulated or withheld. But we refuse to accept grim corporatism as the new normal. For one thing, at institutions like Western Michigan University, faculty have contractually guaranteed rights to participate in many aspects of self-governance and campus decision-making. It is a terrible failure, though, when faculty and staff are forced into legalistic squabbles to have their long relationships accorded a modicum of respect. After all, formal policies and legal contracts are meant to underwrite and guarantee healthy professional and collegial engagement, not to supplant fundamental academic values or basic personal and professional ethics.

Even though faculty can — and must— successfully wage contractual battles, then, much damage has been done. To many faculty and staff members, those decades of assurances about the value of their expertise and feedback now ring especially hollow. With the shallowness of many administrative commitments to shared governance now out in the open, it is not only the future of faculty and staff that is at risk, then, but their past as well. For some, their very sense of what their careers have meant — these professions and universities they have poured their lives into — threatens to collapse in the midst of institutional dissemblance and betrayal.

Although many of us are disappointed, hopefully we have learned a lesson about the importance of collective bargaining. For one thing, it seems clearer than ever that our most reliable companions on this winding, uncertain journey are not university leaders who insist they want to hear what we think. Rather, our stalwart allies are the policies and procedures we have at our disposal and the potential power of collective action to enforce them. If we have learned nothing else, let us have learned this: To get it in writing and hold feet to the fire when pretty promises and ceremony — including neutered “task forces,” “action teams,” or other merely decorative committees — replace genuine shared decision-making.

Some will say that this conclusion is unfair to administrators who, after all, are doing the best they can. But having the determination to enforce the legal, practical and ethical aspects of shared governance is good for the entire campus, including for administrators. Shared governance helps preserve a balance of power that discourages any of us from being as selfish, greedy, or shortsighted as we might otherwise be. We do others no favors by permitting them to treat us dismissively even if times are tough and they are “doing the best they can.” It is, in fact, in the very midst of uncertainty and fear that collaborative partnerships matter most. There is, then, nothing more hopeful, respectful or constructive — or more in keeping with deepest values that define both the AAUP and “university” — than for faculty, staff, and students to demand the immediate restoration of authentic shared governance.

Making sense of WMU’s spending priorities

A message from the WMU-AAUP President and Vice President

With key financial articles now under discussion at the negotiation table, the WMU-AAUP is continuing to flesh out a comprehensive and contextualized picture of WMU’s actual financial state and its spending priorities. It is with this in mind that there will be a special Zoom meeting on July 6 at 10 a.m. for all WMU-AAUP members.

Having already demonstrated WMU’s robust financial health, even well before the stunning news of the $550 million donation (a link to one of the reports is here), the WMU-AAUP has been engaged in an ongoing, systematic process of securing additional information. This has included big picture metrics as well as specific spending priorities. We have, for example, sent requests to WMU about how much the university is paying for:

1. The controversial “rebranding” initiative, described in this recent story in the Western Herald. According to WMU’s initial response, the budgeted amount for implementing the “new visual identity” in Fiscal Year 2021-2022 is about $670,000. It is not yet clear what, specifically, this will cover, but this article in the Western Herald suggests that the actual expense will be ongoing and open-ended.

2. The services of a national law firm, Dykema Gossett, with a reputation for union-busting, to represent WMU in its negotiations with WMU employee groups, including the WMU-AAUP and the PIO (these legal fees are in addition to WMU’s already-impressive stable of in-house attorneys). Our request was sent on June 8, but, as of this posting, WMU has not yet provided the information. For more about the anti-labor reputation of the law firm WMU has chosen to be its advocate, see here and here.

3. The services of the non-academic, corporate consulting firm Designvox, contracted by WMU to help facilitate/implement the administration’s academic (“interdisciplinary”) restructuring plan. Based on information we received on Friday — see here that our FOIA request was “partially denied” —Western paid this non-academic firm, see here and here, to review proposals related to curricular and program changes developed and submitted by WMU faculty.

We intend to make additional requests about WMU’s spending priorities, such as administrative salary and compensation packages, expenses related to Lawson Ice Arena, and various cosmetic changes on campus during the alleged financial crisis, e.g. new furniture and carpeting even as academic support programs in those same remodeled spaces were reportedly discontinued.

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

Rest assured that the WMU-AAUP will continue to seek access to the information we all need to separate fact from fiction with respect to WMU’s claims about its finances and spending priorities. As we have seen, and in especially dramatic fashion this past year, WMU is often remarkably clear about what it does NOT consider to be a high spending priority: staff job security, part-time instruction, faculty research, advising, salary equity, graduate funding, and many other aspects of our core academic mission. Only by continuing to shine a bright light on what WMU decides IS a high spending priority — the many things it continues to say “YES” to even as it stubbornly and repeatedly says no to its academic mission — will negotiations be based on reality rather than fantasy.

As we continue to fill in this financial picture, here are several things you can do: Keep an eye on your email, regularly visit the Chapter blog here, send a non-WMU email address to staff@wmuaaup.net, and, if you’re a WMU-AAUP member, plan to attend the all-member Zoom meeting on July 6 at 10:00.

With determination and in solidarity,

Cathryn Bailey and Natalio Ohanna

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!