Why the WMU-AAUP continues to thrive in the face of incredible challenges

Despite ongoing legislative attempts to throttle collective bargaining efforts by making it harder for unions to maintain robust membership, WMU faculty overwhelmingly continue to support the WMU-AAUP. In fact, though some form of so-called “right to work” laws have been in place in Michigan since 2013, 90% of eligible WMU faculty continue to support the union as full dues-paying members.

As some collective bargaining units across the nation have struggled to maintain membership in the face of increasing anti-union challenges, our union membership numbers are especially impressive. Out of a total of about 900 eligible faculty, only 45 tenure-track and 11 term faculty have committed to opting out. While we continue to reach out to to a handful of additional WMU faculty who have not yet submitted cards, the overall numbers are remarkably positive. Again, 90% of WMU faculty continue to fully support the Chapter as dues payers despite explicit attempts to dilute our solidarity.

No doubt this success is due, in part, to the WMU-AAUP’s implementation of a comprehensive member outreach plan in recent years designed to respond to the latest anti-union threats. This plan has included direct, intensive outreach to new faculty, including over the summer, and ongoing targeted communications throughout the year in the form of letters, phone calls, office visits, and emails. In addition to this painstaking work by WMU-AAUP staff and officers, AAUP department representatives (Association Council members) are on the front lines with respect to engaging with colleagues who have questions about membership, or somehow simply forgot to submit their dues card.

Our member outreach plan, combined with plain old elbow grease, is surely part of the secret to the Chapter’s impressive success, but the deeper explanation is likely much simpler: the WMU-AAUP’s impressive record of fighting for fair salaries and decent benefits, of doggedly standing up for faculty rights, and of offering critical guidance through a maze of bewildering processes, especially the rocky shoals of tenure and promotion.

In short, WMU faculty have a deeply rooted ethos of supporting our collective bargaining unit because of the value it brings to our individual and collective professional lives. As higher education withstands wave after wave of insult and assault, including threats to the basic viability of the professoriate, we invite you take a moment to celebrate the fact that WMU faculty are standing strong. We are, in fact, more united than ever in our commitment to fight for what is right and fair as we head into another negotiating season.

How successful are we at WMU at expressing our research-intensive values?

How many undergraduate students know the difference between a research-intensive university and one that is overwhelmingly teaching-focused? Even if students can recite some of the differences, how many of them even care? Further, to what extent are faculty members in touch with the reality of how well our university actually measures up to the values and mission associated with being research-intensive?

At universities like WMU that identify and market themselves as both research-intensive and focused on undergraduate education, these may be especially important issues to grapple with. After all, if we, ourselves, are not clear about how well our institution fulfills its claims to be research-intensive, we can’t help students appreciate this quality. As we reflect, then, here are a few reminders of some criteria generally associated with being research-intensive.

Such universities:

  • invest in faculty scholars and researchers, providing workloads, facilities and other resources (e.g., library, equipment, grant preparation, and travel funding) that facilitate and nourish such activity
  • place a high value on attracting and supporting promising graduate students across a broad range of disciplines; while such students may directly contribute to the teaching mission, their identities as scholars is primary
  • facilitate and encourage individual faculty efforts to incorporate their research into their teaching by, for example, providing grants and release time
  • foster and maintain specialized undergraduate majors and internships, instead of supporting only the most popular, fashionable ones
  • eliminate institutional roadblocks that impede interdisciplinary collaboration, for example, team-teaching or joint research projects

When considering our university, how would you respond to these questions? What other criteria are critical for assessing a university’s designation as research-intensive in ways that might matter most to faculty and students? And what other questions should we be considering when we ponder the future identity of our university as research or teaching-focused?

The invisible labor of WMU professors: Three lessons from your own workload stories

Probably the most striking conclusion of the workload comments faculty have shared with the WMU-AAUP over the past few weeks is that, when it comes to research, teaching, and service, we professors are in the best position to tell our own stories. In fact, in sharing the interesting, sometimes idiosyncratic, details of their work responsibilities, faculty have described feeling isolated and misunderstood, not just by administrators, but sometimes even by faculty colleagues.

For example, one faculty member observed that “there seems to be an assumption that because I have a heavy teaching load that I must not care about scholarship, but I never stopped writing and publishing articles even though I’m given almost no time to do it.” Conversely, another professor shared that he is almost afraid to talk about how low his official teaching load is with colleagues outside his department because “it gives people the wrong idea. The fact that my official teaching credits are low doesn’t do justice to how much time I’m actually required to spend working with individual graduate students.”

Other faculty described frustrations about how research, scholarship and creative activity are recognized and valued. As one professor explained, “Scholarship in my field takes time and my department understands this. But for people in departments that emphasize lots of co-authored articles rather than books, it must look like I’m just sitting on my ass.” Another faculty member emphasized the painstaking process of securing and managing external grants, and of how this “basically becomes an entire job unto itself, in addition to the actual research the grant is supposed to fund.”

Not surprisingly, service was another area about which faculty expressed frustration, suggesting that too much of this work was rendered invisible by “bean counting administrators.” One professor described the increased pressure he’s felt over the years as his department’s faculty numbers have dwindled. “At the same time, the service demands have gone up,” he said. “There seems to be no recognition that fewer faculty members are being asked to do more and more.” Another faculty member explained that much of what claims her time seems to fall outside the recognized workload parameters, for example, “Every single week a handful of students stop in for informal advising discussions. I want to help them, but they aren’t even ‘my’ students. Am I supposed to turn them away?”

Though no single, overarching theme emerged from the workload stories shared with the WMU-AAUP, three were repeated enough to serve as cautionary lessons.

  • First, there is the recognition that the work faculty do across colleges varies, sometimes dramatically, and that no numerical system can fully do justice to this diversity.
  • Second, WMU professors are aware that the best experts for determining what counts as meaningful research, teaching and service work in their field are to be found in their field.
  • Third, more discussion is needed among faculty across departments and colleges to better understand and appreciate the diverse value we bring to WMU. Now, if only we could find the time!

Additional examples of labor that faculty feel may be misunderstood or rendered invisible:

– writing, customizing, and uploading student reference letters for graduate schools, professional programs, and academic employment

– engaging in industry consulting work that may be both expected and appropriate to one’s academic role

– informal academic and personal advising of undergraduate students, especially those who arrive underprepared

– driving time to teach courses at WMU distance learning sites, especially in the winter

– serving on diversity and inclusion initiatives, especially for faculty of color

– remaining current in one’s academic discipline, especially when one’s field is international in scope

– dealing with the ongoing demands of accreditation reports and other documentation

– completing a myriad of WMU online trainings, for example, cyber security and bullying

– direct individual supervision of students, especially graduate students, in required internship or performance activities

– completing time-consuming academic program review documentation as periodically required by administration, especially when this work has no apparent consequences

– piecing together small funding opportunities for routine academic work in the absence of sufficient support for conference and research travel (especially when international)

– completing professional activity reports, especially when one’s accomplishments do not fit neatly into its categories

– work done for the Lee Honors College, for example, scholarships, thesis committees, and serving as speakers

– participating in curricular overhauls, for example, essential studies

– facilitating the needs of increasing numbers of students who require special accommodations, for example, extra exam time

– assisting with departmental, college, and university recruitment efforts, e.g., spending time with prospective students and their families

– multiple (rather than streamlined) progress (and midterm grade) reporting for undergraduate students, for example, those on probation

If you haven’t yet had a chance to share your workload story with us, please send it!

Note: Faculty find much of this work to be both important and satisfying, but wish that it were better factored in during formal and informal assessments of their overall contributions. Also, some details have been altered to preserve anonymity.

Talking with new faculty: What does the WMU-AAUP do anyway?

Though departmental and disciplinary cultures vary, one thing most faculty new to WMU share is a lack of clarity about what our faculty union is and how it impacts campus life. This is partly because the WMU-AAUP is an unusually vigorous, well-established, well-organized faculty collective bargaining unit when compared to those that may exist at other colleges and universities. With that in mind, here’s a brief summary that might to help us respond to new colleagues’ questions:

What does the WMU-AAUP do for faculty here at Western?

Because the WMU-AAUP can focus and harness the power of the entire body of Board-appointed WMU faculty, we are a formidable advocate for colleagues in countless ways. In many situations, the WMU-AAUP is the only line of defense between a faculty member and the considerable might of the WMU administration.

A few examples of what we do:

  • push for salary increases, reasonable healthcare costs, and many other benefits, through the grueling contract negotiation process
  • support individual faculty who believe they’ve been treated unfairly and/or in ways that violate the WMU-AAUP Agreement
  • hold regular workshops to help faculty colleagues succeed through the promotion and tenure process
  • exert a powerful influence in WMU’s culture of shared governance through our participation on key committees, as well as ongoing formal and informal conversations with administrators

How can new colleagues best support the union?

  • sign and submit your dues card, and join the over 90% of WMU faculty who’ve already done so; this will ensure your access to all WMU-AAUP faculty services
  • attend our Faculty Barbecue on Sept. 5th at Montague House
  • attend our New Faculty Luncheon on September 20 with your department’s AAUP representative (Association Council member)
  • attend the all-Chapter meetings held each semester and offer your input
  • follow the WMU-AAUP on this blog, our enews, Facebook, and Twitter, and visit the WMU-AAUP’s website for quick access to critical resources
  • stop by our regularly scheduled morning coffees and happy hours (dates announced in our emailed enews)
  • stop by and see us at Montague House! we love to meet our new (and longtime!) colleagues

What’s the mission of the AAUP in general?

“The mission of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) is to advance academic freedom and shared governance; to define fundamental professional values and standards for higher education; to promote the economic security of faculty, academic professionals, graduate students, post‐doctoral fellows, and all those engaged in teaching and research in higher education; to help the higher education community organize to make our goals a reality; and to ensure higher education’s contribution to the common good. Founded in 1915, the AAUP has helped to shape American higher education by developing the standards and procedures that maintain quality in education and academic freedom in this country’s colleges and universities.”

Is investment in core academics included in WMU’s plan to address its enrollment declines?

WMU’s enrollment has been in decline for years, due partly to predictable demographic shifts, and WMU is responding with another marketing initiative to make the university more attractive to a shrinking group of traditionally-aged prospective students. It’s no surprise that amid all of the plans for feel-good slogans, enhanced residence halls, and other student enticements, faculty are asking questions about the university’s investment in its core academic mission. For example:

  • How is the ongoing shift away from full-time tenure track faculty toward part-time instructors consistent with WMU’s promise to provide a world-class education?
  • Is WMU’s investment in its “research-intensive” status sufficient to help prospective students distinguish WMU from community colleges and other, more affordable, four-year institutions?
  • Will core university basics, including traditional disciplines and general education, be starved in order to feed trendy majors?
  • Will significant, ongoing investments be made in academic advisors, librarians, counselors, and academic student success programs to help students progress in WMU’s relatively open enrollment environment?

There are, of course, more general questions underlying these worries about the university’s value commitments in the midst of its increasingly assertive push to identify and draw in more students. For example:

  • How committed is the university to investing in quality over time, enhancing WMU’s long term reputation for excellence, rather than quick fixes?
  • Given that its employees — faculty and staff — have always helped distinguish WMU as special, what investment will be made in actual people, above and beyond funds spent on facilities and marketing materials?
  • How does WMU see its responsibility to respond to campus climate issues, for example, concerns about racial and gender equity, as consistent with its efforts to attract more students?

Though “austerity” is not a word WMU uses in describing its response to its enrollment decline and the more or less predictable budget contraction that accompanies it year after year, many faculty and staff feel the threat of austerity in the air. With that in mind, it is reassuring that the university is making proactive, concerted efforts to make WMU more appealing to students. But, for many of us, after years of watching our academic departments shrink and wither through attrition and disinvestment, often even as our counterparts at competing universities grow and flourish, it is understandable if WMU faculty have serious concerns.

Will faculty lines continue to melt away as state-of-the-art buildings are erected and new WMU billboards and tv commercials appear? Will faculty and staff be left to foot the bill for glitzy marketing strategies that may feel good in the moment but have little long-term impact? Whether WMU chooses to see this latest chapter of enrollment decline as an opportunity to substantively invest in the people at the heart of its core academic mission remains to be seen.

Post-tenure review, working conditions and FARs

As you may recall, last spring the WMU-AAUP fielded concerns from faculty about surprise performance evaluations leading to increased teaching loads. Since we are continuing to hear from faculty about this, we want to make sure all Chapter members are aware of the issue, and also get your assistance as we continue to assess the scope and depth of the concern.

First, the reports we’ve received are:

– that individual tenured faculty member are being subjected to surprise reviews of their “research productivity” by deans and/or chairs which is then being used to justify increased teaching loads. Some faculty are already working with this increased load, others have successfully appealed it, and others are still unaware that these changes may be on the horizon

– that the FARs (formerly PAR, “faculty activity report”) are serving as the primary, or even sole, basis on which “research productivity” is being assessed by deans and/or chairs; faculty have raised concerns about the appropriateness of using FARs for this purpose, especially given widespread questions about their legitimacy and accuracy.

– that the tenured faculty undergoing these performance reviews by their dean and/or chair have not been informed of the criteria they are being judged by, or about what process they might use to appeal this redesignation as teaching-focused, rather than research-focused, faculty members

– that there seems to be a general lack of awareness across colleges and across campus about these significant changes in faculty working conditions. While a number of individual faculty from various departments described open conversations and email exchanges about this with their deans or chairs, the flow of information is murky and partial, leaving some faculty colleagues feeling isolated and overwhelmed as they consider how best to respond, including whether or not to file a formal workload appeal

With this in mind, and so that we can get a better idea of the scope and depth of these concerns, please talk to your departmental colleagues, your chairs, and your WMU-AAUP departmental rep with the following kinds of questions:

– Have chairs received a “dean’s list” of faculty who have been designated underproductive and slated for greater teaching burdens?

– Have faculty colleagues been privately contacted by a chair or dean and informed that they should expect higher loads based on these reviews?

– Have faculty facing higher loads been provided with concrete details about the assessment of their scholarly activity and been provided instructions for how to challenge it?

As faculty members continue to come forward, and as we work to get a fuller picture of this issue, please be in touch as soon as possible with your colleagues, your chair, and with us (staff@wmuaaup.net).

Annual BBQ kicks off new academic year

Thanks to the efforts of WMU-AAUP staff, countless behind-the-scenes workers, and perfect weather, our annual member barbecue was a huge success. As we dive into another school year, one that promises both predictable and surprising challenges, it was gratifying to spend an evening catching up with old colleagues and meeting new ones. We faculty don’t have nearly enough opportunities to connect across campus and be reminded that the strength of the WMU-AAUP is in the determination and tenacity of its members.

As you’re looking for additional ways to connect with nearby and far-flung WMU faculty colleagues, here are a couple of possibilities for this semester:

  • Drop in discussion over coffee at Montague House this coming Tues., Sept. 10 at 9:30
  • New faculty luncheon for department reps (association council members) and new AAUP colleagues on Sept. 20 in Bernhard 157 at 1:30
    Fourth Friday happy hour for AAUP members on Sept. 27, 5:00 at Arcadia Brewing

Also consider following us on Facebook and Twitter where we make near daily posts, and keep an eye out for email updates. We are stronger together!