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Post-Union Disunion

Post-Union Disunion
December 23, 2010

Bowling Green State University trustees justified recent sweeping changes to a key governing document as a necessary response to faculty unionization, but some professors there say the board is engaged in a retaliatory power grab.

Faculty voted in October to grant collective bargaining powers to the university’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), and the board responded Dec. 10 with changes to the Academic Charter that eliminated numerous faculty committees and stripped professors of their existing roles in the evaluations of deans, directors and chairs.

“This set of changes is allegedly done in response to collective bargaining, but there are so many changes that go beyond that, that clearly something else is afoot,” said David Jackson, president of Bowling Green State University’s Faculty Association, the AAUP union. “It certainly appears, to us anyway, that the administration is using the collective bargaining election and the need to negotiate salaries and benefits to justify wholesale changes.”

Also of concern to Jackson and others is the elimination of the faculty’s role in determining financial exigency, which universities can invoke to dismiss tenured professors. Removing even the faculty’s advisory function in this area, as the trustees have done, constitutes “a clear taking of power,” Jackson said.

Carol Cartwright, the university’s president, said the changes to the charter were merely an acknowledgment that the union is now the “exclusive representative” of the full-time faculty for all matters related to wages, working conditions and grievances. That necessarily means that Faculty Senate committees shouldn’t be in the business of addressing those issues, she said.

“It was to draw a sharper distinction between management responsibilities and faculty responsibilities,” Cartwright said. “Nothing has changed in the charter with respect to the faculty’s governance responsibilities for academic matters.”

But not everyone agrees with Cartwright’s assessment. Indeed, the current chair of the Faculty Senate, which remained neutral on the unionization issue, said she’s concerned some of the charter changes do in fact remove faculty from deliberations on some academic and curricular issues.

“You significantly curtail, and dare I say disenfranchise, not only faculty but also staff,” said Kristine Blair, the Senate’s chair.

By way of example, Blair points to the elimination of the Faculty Senate Budget Committee, which helps review the impact of new academic programs, among other duties.

The board’s actions also tweaked significant language in the Academic Charter, weakening the role of the Undergraduate Council. The group’s voting members include elected faculty, appointed students and deans, all of whom previously had the power to “approve” academic reconfigurations, which include the reduction, consolidation or elimination of existing academic units. Now, the council is only empowered to “advise” on reconfigurations.

Some professors are also concerned about the elimination of committees that might naturally be phased out in a union environment, but for which no adequate replacements have been created. No one seems to argue, for instance, that the functions of the Committee on Faculty Personnel and Conciliation, which handles grievances, would be transferred to the bargaining unit. At the same time, the union has yet to form a substitute committee to handle grievances, and there is no contract spelling out how grievances will be processed.

“The current process is eliminated without a replacement in place,” said Jackson, an associate professor of political science. “Maybe this means they’re not going to drag their feet. Maybe this means they mean to negotiate quickly and in good faith, but I’m not optimistic given the way they fought the election.”

Cartwright does not dispute that the contract negotiations will take time, and that “many things will be in limbo.” Even so, she suggested the administration is open to finding a process for dealing with faculty who have already entered the grievance process.

“The grievances represent a slightly different challenge, because there are some people who are in the pipeline, and we have asked [to] sit down with the union to work out a way to deal with those that are already in the pipeline,” Cartwright said.

A meeting between administrators and the bargaining unit has been scheduled for Dec. 29, union officials said.

Similar Actions at Akron

For observers of the union movement in Ohio’s colleges, the recent events at Bowling Green State evoke a sense of déjà vu. The actions taken by the trustees there are not dissimilar from the steps board members took at the University of Akron, where faculty committee powers were dramatically altered in the wake of a 2003 unionization.

“My view is that what happened here was sort of discretionary on the part of the board, not necessarily required at all, and I would argue that is what is happening at Bowling Green as well,” said Steve Aby, an education bibliographer in Akron’s library, and a member of the Akron AAUP chapter’s executive committee.

Rudy Fenwick, who is also a member of the Akron AAUP executive committee, described the Akron board’s actions as “retaliation” for the unionization of the campus. Expressing sentiments similar to those that would be made at Bowling Green, administrators at Akron had argued that the elimination of faculty committees, including Budget and Planning, was necessary after the union was recognized. But other campuses in Ohio, including Wright State University and Cleveland State University, did not see fit to make those changes after their faculty unionized, Fenwick recalled.

“I’m not a lawyer, but it seems on that basis there was certainly precedent for continuation of those committees,” said Fenwick, who is now chair of the Ohio Faculty Senate, which represents Faculty Senates at the state’s four-year universities and medical schools.

Larry Gerber, chair of the AAUP’s National Committee on College and University Governance, said there has been some communication between concerned Bowling Green faculty and the national office, but no decision on steps forward. While not familiar with the intricacies of the case at Bowling Green, Gerber said he would reject any suggestion that traditional systems of governance in higher education are incompatible with collective bargaining.

“Collective bargaining is a way of strengthening traditional governance systems, not undermining them,” said Gerber, a professor emeritus of history at Auburn University, which has an AAUP chapter but not collective bargaining.

“There are many traditional areas of governance related to curriculum where the union is not involved,” he added. “There are major areas of education policy where a traditional Senate -- faculty representative bodies -- still have an important role to play.”

 

 

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