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.

Open letter from the WMU-AAUP: A call for greater transparency, shared governance, and consideration for all WMU employees

The following open letter to administration was widely shared by the WMU-AAUP on March 26. Given the frenzy of email activity that week, some in the WMU community missed this important communication. We include it here along with an update: To date, the Chapter has received no formal response from administration to the letter as a whole or to any of the specific requests made in it.

The WMU-AAUP recognizes the unprecedented challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. Challenges require that we rely on our values, and therefore we refer to the Preamble of the 2017-2020 agreement between Western Michigan University and WMU-AAUP. “The University serves as a model of shared governance, civil discourse, and inclusiveness. The faculty are essential for the success of this model.” At this unprecedented moment in time, honoring this principle is more important than ever.

Many WMU employees learned from their supervisors last Friday not to expect work for the next five weeks, or to expect drastically reduced hours. Efforts to protect students during this crisis are both legally and morally required, yet employees’ physical and emotional well-being surely matters as well. How many of these employees, including some students, will be willing and able to return to WMU if and when administration deems them “essential” again? What will be the impact on WMU’s reputation with students and their families, and on prospective employees of all sorts?

To date, decisions involving curriculum, curriculum delivery, and future fiduciary practices in response to the pandemic have been done behind closed doors. Decisions relating to the educational process should be made after consultation with the faculty and academic staff through their unions and through campus governing bodies. Financial exigencies used to justify harsh decisions about employment should be communicated transparently and completely. There was a clear message sent to the administration by means of the employee survey, that transparency, communication, and collaboration were lacking, but strongly desired. Currently, as these concerns are being ignored, we demand that WMU administration act immediately in response to the following requests:

  • Immediately appoint WMU-AAUP members to the task force itself, honoring the principles of shared governance in so doing. We also recommend the appointment of representatives from all other employee groups.
  • Call a virtual meeting of the task force with the expanded membership.
  • Provide a complete and detailed report of the financial situation that has justified these measures, as well as share the numbers of WMU employees impacted by these measures, on a partial pay or no pay status.
  • Consider alternatives that protect the jobs and well-being of all WMU employees, at a time when, in the words of President Montgomery: “we are in this together.”

We are surprised and deeply saddened to witness the dismissal of our colleagues, to hear that they are being asked to deplete their sick and annual leave, and then take unpaid leave. Although the 80 hours of additional COVID-19 leave pay (the minimum required by the Department of Labor’s Families First Coronavirus Response Act), provides an extra two weeks for a full-time employee, the employment insecurity will likely extend well beyond that period. Even more concerning, there are still questions about how employees deemed “nonessential” could possibly be expected to pay for COBRA if the shutdown continues.

We are alarmed by the decisions made that impact the most vulnerable employees and students in our WMU family, and we stand in solidarity with them. We fully support the statements of the PSSO and APA, along with the principles for COVID-19 response put forth by the national AAUP. We strongly admonish the lack of transparency guiding the decisions resulting in the reduction and elimination of the ‘non-essential” and “conditionally essential” employees. We must work together, to both clarify challenges and create solutions, that do not irreparably damage this university that we all love. As we work to protect students, we must also protect the employees who make WMU work.

WMU-AAUP Chapter
814 Oakland Drive
Kalamazoo, MI 49008

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)