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)