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

WMU faculty questions highlight need for collaboration with faculty in university decision-making

Below is a partial compilation of questions expressed by Chapter members in recent weeks through emails, social media, direct conversations, and comments from various meetings. Do you share any of these concerns? What would you most like Chapter leaders to know about how WMU’s response to the pandemic is impacting you, your families, and your students? What can we all do to better ensure that faculty and staff are included as collaborators in WMU’s ongoing decisions during these volatile times?

Please attend today’s virtual all-Chapter meeting (Friday, April 17, 1:30-3) prepared to share your thoughts about the issues below, as well as your particular questions, concerns, and good news with Chapter leadership and other faculty colleagues.

WMU-AAUP member concerns (a partial list, culled from emails, social media comments, direct conversations, and comments made at various meetings)

  1. WMU will receive 15.5 million dollars as part of the federal stimulus package related to the pandemic. What will the WMU-AAUP do to ensure that there is transparency, and that the voices of faculty and other employees will be included, in WMU’s allocation decisions?
  2. When will decisions be made about how Summer II and Fall classes will be conducted? What steps is the Chapter taking to ensure that faculty will be involved in this decision-making?
  3. In its March 26th open letter to WMU about staff lay offs, the WMU-AAUP made specific requests, including that WMU “immediately appoint WMU-AAUP members” to a task force charged with collaborating in future decision-making, and that WMU “provide a complete and detailed report of the financial situation that has justified” staff layoffs, and “share the numbers of WMU employees impacted by these measures.” Did WMU admin respond to any or all of these demands? If not, what steps have been, or will be, taken by the Chapter to ensure that these WMU-AAUP requests, and those made in the future, will be taken seriously by WMU?
  4. How is the Chapter addressing the impact that admin’s policy decisions have on faculty research, for example, grant preparation support and access to campus facilities?
  5. How was the decision made to move summer classes online? Given the contractual issues involved, was the Chapter consulted first? How? What was the Chapter’s response?
  6. How has the employment of bargaining unit faculty been impacted by admin’s decisions, for example, term faculty contracts that have been frozen, or term position conversions that have been halted? What plan does the Chapter have for following up on this given the devastating impact on term faculty colleagues and their families?
  7. How has the work of individual faculty or faculty groups been contributing to the pandemic response efforts? Do we have a way of acknowledging and celebrating the efforts of faculty who are using their expertise to help address the pandemic?
  8. How is the Chapter following up on faculty concerns about both students and instructors being properly resourced with respect to distance education, e.g., access to high quality teaching and learning tools, and appropriate measures to ensure cyber security and the protection of intellectual property rights?
  9. Assuming there continue to be restrictions on large gatherings, what backup plan does the Chapter have for catalyzing member engagement, for example, effectively organized virtual meetings, or alternative forms of direct action, e.g., protests, should these become necessary as negotiations proceed?

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?

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.”

WMU without the WMU-AAUP? What a difference academic collective bargaining makes!

After more than four decades of living and working in the reassuring presence of a well-crafted, comprehensive, mature contract, it’s easy to become complacent about the guarantees and protections that have come to shape WMU’s campus life. And, to be clear, though the WMU-AAUP Agreement has been forged specifically between WMU and the WMU Board-appointed faculty, this foundational document impacts our entire campus culture. In short, the power of WMU’s professoriate to bargain for fair wages, decent benefits, and shared governance has led to the creation of a campus community that is far more transparent, democratic, and humane than it might otherwise be.

Because it is far too easy to forget what it used be like, consider the routine risks of living and working on a campus with no formal collective bargaining power:

  • compensation and benefit structures that may be decided on arbitrary, or so-called “market based” criteria, with little hope of predictable raises, or of avoiding drastic healthcare insurance increases;
  • tenure and promotion procedures that are opaque and draconian and that may include no formal avenues for appeal or challenge;
  • the power to summarily eliminate departments and faculty positions according to economic vicissitudes and administrative whims;
  • unchecked disciplinary procedures according to which administrators might determine a faculty member’s guilt and assign penalties with no provisions for due process;
  • a climate in which all mid and higher level decisions may be made by admin, including those with direct implications for academics, with little or no input from faculty

In short, before there was the WMU-AAUP, life here was a lot like it is at other non-unionized campuses at which faculty members function as laborers serving at the pleasure of management. Even an occasional, cursory glance at national higher education news makes clear that faculty colleagues at many other campuses live in a shadow of fear and uncertainty that impacts their wages, capacity to exercise academic freedom, and, yes, their mental health. The fact that many of us at WMU may no longer feel moved to actively celebrate the rights and advantages we have earned through our collective power is perhaps the greatest testament to the WMU-AAUP’s astonishing success over the decades.

And, again, though not all campus employee groups share equally in these advantages, the positive impact of the WMU-AAUP on the entire campus is evident, including:

  • a tendency for enhanced wage and benefits for many non-faculty employees, given how the WMU-AAUP’s negotiated wage and benefits packages influence subsequent agreements made with other employee groups;
  • a campus at which other employees are more likely to feel supported as they embrace their right to organize, for example, AFSCME, PSOA, POA, MSEA, IATSE, TAU, and the PIO, all further ensuring a healthy check and balance on unrestricted administrative power at WMU;
  • a climate of shared governance according to which there is precedent for employee demands of participation and transparency, an environment in which employees’ right to ask questions and expect answers becomes more normalized and likely

Though it may be true that the WMU-AAUP’s consistent success and effectiveness tempt us to take it for granted, as we prepare now for 2020 negotiations, it’s the perfect time to imagine life at WMU without our faculty union. In fact, we don’t have to tax our imaginations at all if we simply invite the perspective of longtime WMU faculty members, including one retired early WMU-AAUP leader who is eager to share cautionary anecdotes with all who will listen. “We were completely at their mercy,” he recalls, “and the only real leverage we had when we knew we were being treated unfairly was to quit our jobs, pack up our families, and leave.”

Why should I care about the WMU-AAUP’s 2020 negotiations? Four core values at the heart of the struggle

As the WMU-AAUP heads into 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!

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.

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 this semester 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, the best experts for determining what counts as meaningful research, teaching and service work in a given field are to be found in that field; WMU faculty are the best experts with respect to workload evaluations.
  • 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!

Below are additional examples of labor that faculty feel may be misunderstood or rendered invisible. What did we miss?

– 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.

How is investment in core academics part of WMU’s plan to address enrollment declines?

WMU’s enrollment has been in decline for years, due partly to predictable demographic shifts, and WMU is responding with a marketing initiative to make the university more attractive to a shrinking group of traditionally-aged prospective students. It’s no surprise that, amid the generation of new 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 poorly paid 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 sacrificed in order to feed trendier 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 worries about universities’ value commitments in the midst of increasingly assertive efforts to identify and draw in more students. For example:

  • How committed is the university to investing in quality over time, enhancing the institution’s long term reputation for excellence, rather than quick fixes?
  • Given that its employees — faculty and staff — distinguish a university as special, what investment will be made in actual people, above and beyond funds spent on facilities and marketing materials?
  • How does the institutions 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 most universities use to describe their response to enrollment declines, and the more or less predictable budget contractions that accompany them, many faculty and staff feel the threat of austerity in the air. With that in mind, it is reassuring when a university makes proactive, concerted efforts to become more appealing to students. But, for many faculty members, after years of watching our academic departments shrink and wither through attrition and disinvestment, it is understandable if we have serious concerns about investment in core academics.

Will faculty lines continue to melt away as state-of-the-art buildings are erected and new 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 we will choose to see this latest chapter of enrollment decline as an opportunity to substantively invest in the people — students, faculty and staff — at the heart of our core academic mission remains to be seen.

2020 WMU-AAUP negotiation team selected

The WMU-AAUP is proud to present our 2020 negotiation team:

Robert White, chief negotiator, School of Music
Regina Garza Mitchell, Educational Leadership, Research and Technology
Andrew Hennlich, Frostic School of Art
Michael G. Miller, Human Performance and Health Education
Glinda Rawls, Counselor Education and Counseling Psychology

Given the importance of assembling a dedicated, prepared, and effective negotiating team, the WMU-AAUP scrupulously follows a carefully delineated selection process (see below). These steps are meant to maximize faculty members’ opportunity to participate, while also respecting the need to compose a team with complementary strengths.

The result of this year’s process was a clear endorsement by the Executive Committee of the five 2020 members listed above, a selection unanimously upheld on Friday by a vote of the Association Council. We want to express our appreciation to all of this year’s nominees, including those not selected, as we pull together in solidarity to support Bob, Regina, Andrew, Michael, and Glinda.

Steps for selecting the team:

  • In September, a call for nominees was sent to the entire bargaining-unit faculty; members could self-nominate or nominate colleagues.
  • In October and November, the Executive Committee (comprised, according to our bylaws, of representatives from all of WMU’s colleges), interviewed nominees who had confirmed their willingness to serve on the team.
  • After all candidates were interviewed, there was in-depth discussion among Executive Committee members of candidates’ individual strengths, as well as how those strengths might best combine to create a formidable team.
  • Multiple votes were taken by the Executive Committee, with additional opportunities for discussion, resulting in a clear endorsement of the 2020 members.
  • The Executive Committee’s recommendations were unanimously approved by the Association Council on Nov. 15.

We invite anyone with an interest in participating in future negotiations, or with additional questions about the selection process, to contact us at staff@wmuaaup.net or give us a call. Together we are stronger!