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

What will it take for WMU to drop its “financial emergency” rhetoric?

A message from the WMU-AAUP President and Vice President

Given the brutal year that WMU professors have had, you might imagine that WMU would be approaching ongoing negotiations with the WMU-AAUP with a renewed spirit of compassion and moderation. After all, when the pandemic crisis hit, WMU professors leapt to answer the call for shared sacrifice. We scrambled to move our courses online, to care for traumatized students, and even to donate part of our salaries to offset a “financial emergency” projected by administration that never materialized. As unmanageable teaching and service loads proliferated, marginalizing scholarship and research, faculty rose to the occasion again and again.

Many faculty members, some at the pinnacle of their careers, even went so far as to accept early retirement incentives to free up resources that WMU insisted it so desperately needed. Some professors, to be sure, have been consistently skeptical of the university’s intentions. Others, however, believed that, as the pandemic crisis began to ease, and financial exigency claims became even more implausible, WMU would be motivated to recommit to academics and to restore collaborative and respectful partnership with faculty.

Unfortunately, although WMU-AAUP negotiations are still in the early phases, WMU seems to be heading down a path with built-in expectations for ongoing sacrifice by the faculty, and the many other WMU workers whose terms of employment are shaped by the WMU-AAUP Agreement. Some early signs suggest that WMU would like to extend the “pandemic emergency” narrative indefinitely into the future, thereby justifying ongoing sacrifices that WMU employees have rightly identified as unnecessary, unwise, and unfair.

To put things in perspective, what’s happening at WMU has been happening all over the nation as emboldened administrators have sought to make permanent changes by leveraging and extending the momentum of pandemic fear and chaos. 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.” The full report is here.

Instead of acknowledging and rewarding faculty labor and sacrifice, such institutions seem determined to squeeze employees as hard as possible. Fortunately, at WMU and at many other institutions, faculty have adapted to the new reality. We are emerging from the pandemic fog and, once again, doing what we do best: focusing on empirical facts and rational arguments. For example, as confirmed by an outside analyst, and even before the stunning $550 million donation, WMU’s own records have consistently demonstrated its financial health, and we are empowered by knowledge such as this. In addition, we faculty members understand that any ongoing erosion or disinvestment in academics will be a gut punch, not just to the professoriate, but to the basic viability of the university.

What’s happening at the negotiation table is about so much more than faculty salary, benefits, and working conditions, then. It is a fight for the identity of the university as it will exist in the post-pandemic future. With this in mind, we continue to hope that WMU will become more focused on collaborating with its employees to strengthen and rebuild our academic core and less intent on “winning.” To be sure, our exceptionally well-prepared and determined negotiation team is entirely up to the task. But we can’t help but imagine how much better things would be for everyone if WMU committed to treating faculty members as partners rather than adversaries.

Dr. Cathryn Bailey, WMU-AAUP President
Dr. Natalio Ohanna, WMU-AAUP Vice President

WMU faculty experiences and perspectives: Can we quote you?

WMU faculty have rarely been shy when it comes to expressing their preferences, insights, point of view, or simply sharing their experiences. But in the past year, faculty have been unusually forthcoming, and through many and various modalities, for example:

  • WMU-AAUP surveys, for example, about workload concerns
  • official Chapter referendums on particular issues, for example, about the administration’s academic restructuring plan and pandemic safety
  • official Chapter votes, for instance, in the election for WMU-AAUP President and Vice President
  • scores of emails to the Chapter, many with wrenching accounts of workload violations and other abuses
  • poignant testimonies, sometimes tear-filled, at WMU-AAUP meetings, especially about careers and lives damaged during the university’s pandemic response this past year

As we proceed through what is shaping up to be a challenging negotiation process, your ongoing generosity with your thoughts and experiences matters more than ever. If you feel moved to do so, then, please take a few moments to tell us about your experiences or perspective (staff@wmuaaup.net) either specifying your wish to remain anonymous or with permission to use your name. Whether you’re describing challenges you’re facing, your reasons for supporting the WMU-AAUP, or your love for our university, we want to hear from you. While we won’t be able to feature all faculty submissions in graphics like those contained in this post — to be circulated in social media and through other means — each faculty voice will help us continue to build a picture of the challenges we’re facing and the strengths that will see us through them.

When WMU faculty voices are dismissed…

The WMU-AAUP has taken many steps to ensure that its initiatives and statements are rooted in the will of its members. First, we have used numerous surveys, polls, and votes. The results have been impressive, including in the November election for Chapter President and Vice President — with very high numbers of participation — and, on a number of key issues, remarkably univocal. In addition, at all-member Chapter meetings, and meetings of the Association Council (department reps), and in countless emails and one-on-one meetings, WMU faculty have spoken out in unusual numbers and with extraordinary candor.

To be sure, no organization can satisfy the wishes of all its members and there’s no use pretending otherwise. But it’s also good to keep in mind that a classic divide-and-conquer strategy used against those engaged in collective action is to question the basic legitimacy of the group expressing concerns. Far too often, here’s what happens: Instead of listening to repeated worries, suggestions, and complaints expressed by campus community members, including faculty, administrators insist that such expressions are those of a “radical fringe” and don’t represent a supposed “silent majority.” No matter how many voices speak up, nor how loudly or reasonably — including through damningly direct performance evaluations — administrators may continue to justify actions and policies by effectively dismissing whole swathes of the campus community as disgruntled, whiny, or difficult. Such administrators may be listening to some faculty voices, of course, especially those that consistently, and sometimes publicly, celebrate and applaud them.

It is frustrating and dangerous when such dismissive and trivializing strategies are used against any group, but it is especially pernicious when it happens during negotiations, and when the group in question is a legally recognized collective bargaining unit, the official voice of its members. As we have all seen in recent years, tirelessly spreading rumors that cast doubt on the legitimacy of elections, polls, and properly collected qualitative data is a tactic employed by those desperate to believe they are right. No matter what. It is precisely because of such stubbornness and wishful thinking that the WMU-AAUP, including the individual voices of its members, must continue to speak up. This is especially important now, as we are in the midst of negotiations, fighting not just for faculty salaries and decent benefits, but for the ongoing viability and dignity of the professoriate.

During negotiations, the WMU-AAUP will be finding new ways to share members’ experiences and messages of concern, then, for example, in graphics like the one below. Please contact us at staff@wmuaaup.net if you have experiences you’d like the Chapter to consider highlighting in these campaigns.

Imagining a New Deal for Higher Education

A vision for a more equitable and sustainable future.
By Lisa Levenstein and Jennifer Mittelstadt

(in the Spring 2021 issue of Academe, published by the AAUP)

In March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States and upended colleges and universities, students scrambled to pack up dorms and apartments while faculty abandoned their offices and frantically moved labs and lectures to Zoom. Meanwhile, a burgeoning financial crisis in higher education was on the horizon. Locked in our homes, we learned that colleges and universities were losing money as students demanded refunds on housing and summer enrollments declined. COVID-19 was also affecting state legislatures, which would be hard-pressed to sustain prepandemic levels of funding.

By late March, members of Congress acknowledged but failed to stem the mounting crisis. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act provided $14 billion to colleges and universities, $10 billion less than it provided to the airline industry, which employs only one-sixth of the workers found in higher education. Lacking substantial government support, college and university administrators began to unleash a tidal wave of cuts while maintaining tuition at historically unprecedented highs even as students and their families lost the ability to pay bills. By the end of June, more than two hundred institutions had implemented layoffs, furloughed employees, or failed to renew contracts—affecting more than fifty thousand employees. At the City University of New York, one of the largest public higher education systems in the nation, 2,800 adjunct faculty members lost their jobs.

(Continue reading at the AAUP’s Academe site)

Taking stock of WMU academic labor relations

a message from the WMU-AAUP President and Vice President

Dear Colleagues,
Almost nine months ago, we reached out to you as candidates for WMU-AAUP President and Vice President. With faculty labor being exploited, and faculty input being all but ignored, we asked you to stand with us to advance goals and values aimed at restoring shared governance. After being elected by overwhelming numbers in November, taking office in January, and completing our first semester as your Chapter leaders, we are now in a position to both take stock and also share some new concerns with you.

To begin with, we are confident that having new Chapter leadership in place is bringing about positive change with respect to WMU-AAUP and campus dynamics. The Chapter has stepped up efforts to take direction from members; adopted a collaborative, but skeptical, approach to administrators; increased its emphasis on building partnerships across campus; and embraced the fundamental AAUP values on which our organization was founded. Our focus is on academic freedom, shared governance, equity, and the protection of contractual due process.

In recent months, then, your WMU-AAUP has been more engaged, more assertive, and more vocal. Unsurprisingly, the Chapter has also been facing a backlash. Against the backdrop of pandemic fear and confusion, WMU seems now to imagine a compliant faculty happy to make endless sacrifices. As many of you have reported, there seems to be a greater expectation that professors should simply obey, sometimes with little regard for the Contract, Departmental Policy Statements, or even considerations of basic fairness.

Unfortunately, as the WMU-AAUP has become more proactive in defending members’ rights, we are experiencing instances of administrative stonewalling, delay, and apparent attempts to marginalize and intimidate us. To take an especially bold example, last month, WMU invented a new hybrid faculty-administrator position titled “Interim Associate Director of Academic Labor Relations.” WMU then appointed the previous WMU-AAUP Grievance Officer to the post just weeks after he had resigned his position with the Chapter. WMU has effectively moved him from one side of the table to the other while nominally preserving his faculty status.

The impact of unprecedented administrative stunts of this sort is, predictably, chilling for faculty members involved in, or contemplating pursuing, contractual processes or concerns. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that WMU is engaged in such maneuvers while repeatedly and summarily dismissing substantive and credible faculty concerns, complaints, and grievances. Again, there seems to be a worsening pattern in which WMU Academic Labor Relations is reluctant to collaborate consistently with the WMU-AAUP in good faith.

To be sure, we will continue to use all the tools at our disposal to address overreach and abuse while remaining open to opportunities for collaboration with our administrative colleagues. But the most powerful recourse we have is, of course, rooted in the faculty’s determination, knowledge, and unity. We share this message with you, then, as a sign of new possibility. After all, if the WMU administration is busy devising new strategies to distract the faculty or dismiss our voices, this is a sure sign that they know we are a force to be reckoned with.

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

This message was originally shared with WMU-AAUP faculty by email on May 18, 2021.

2021 Negotiations begin!

WMU-AAUP contract negotiations officially began Thursday, May 13. As you may know, our exceptionally hardworking negotiation team members — Whitney Decamp (Chief), Charles Crawford, Regina Garza Mitchell, and Robert White — bring considerable experience and expertise to the process. They are well prepared, and eager to bring faculty priorities to the bargaining table.

The Chapter will provide ongoing negotiation updates. We will also be in touch about how members and allies can support this process to help ensure that we have a successful outcome. This is a critical moment to recall that our strength is in our unity and that the terms of the WMU-AAUP Contract have implications for nearly every other WMU employee group. Whether you are a member or an ally, please share the bargaining platform widely to demonstrate your support for our team, our union, and our university.