Solidarity No More?

An institute for labor studies finds itself facing the ax -- and its supporters are striking back.
June 20, 2007

Plans to potentially shutter the Institute for Labor Studies at the University of Missouri at Kansas City have come to symbolize much more than the end of one, relatively small program for those faculty members involved with trying to save it. To many, the plan reflects an ideological attack and the continuing intrusion of corporate interests in higher education, a lack of shared governance in the decision-making process and an imbalance in the curriculum.

“I look at the business school, which has 47 full- and part-time people on its Web page, its faculty Web page, and I think there’s a remarkable imbalance here,” said Judy Ancel, director of the Institute for Labor Studies, essentially a one-person shop that will shut down unless the Kansas City administration reverses plans to cut off the funding.

The chancellor expects to make a decision about whether to withdraw funding within the next couple of days: If he decides to do so, he said the institute will shut down within the next fiscal year (although not necessarily at the fiscal year’s start, July 1, as many supporting the institute fear).

“I clearly see it,” Ancel said of the situation, “as an attack on working people.”

But just as some would see the proposed cuts as problematic, other professors might see a reason to support the stated rationale for slashing the institute’s funds: to comply with a Board of Curators’ mandate to cut the budget by 1 percent mainly by making administrative cut-backs – and sparing degree programs from harm. The University of Missouri at Kansas City has cut about $10 million in administrative costs over the past two years, its chancellor, Guy H. Bailey, said Tuesday.

“What I’m looking for are any consolidations or reductions that can be done without affecting degree programs and things that students are paying tuition dollars for,” Bailey said. The question, he added, is whether the university can continue to offer a labor studies certificate program in collaboration with Missouri's St. Louis and Columbia campuses -- in which current and would-be union activists take six courses offered by the three campuses over interactive video -- without an administrative presence at Kansas City. "Can we achieve the same things?" without the institute, Bailey asked.

“If the economics department decides that offering this certificate is an important thing, they can simply do it. We already have the structures in place that allow them to do it through continuing education."

The Concerns: Unshared Governance and Ulterior Motives?

Yet, the institute’s backers describe its value as extending far beyond the certificate program. The 22-year-old entity – led by Ancel for 18 of those years -- also offers credit and non-credit coursework and customized training for unions, and is active in community outreach – working with high school students, immigrant communities and even operating a weekly radio show, the Heartland Labor Forum, that airs Thursday evenings and Friday mornings (at 5) for “the factory crowd.” Kansas City’s economy features two automobile assembly plants, vibrant construction, rail and trucking industries and a large government workforce.

“It's an urban land grant institution,” Ancel said of Missouri-Kansas City. “It aims to develop a professional workforce...We have strong professional schools like the business school, the law school and the medical school. We have one employee [in reference to herself] who is trying to provide that kind of professional training for our unions.”

Ancel only learned of the university’s plans to potentially withdraw support for the institute – and therefore terminate her position -- in a May 30 letter from the provost addressed to a partnering community college. The letter was cc’d to Ancel and the economics department chair. (The economics department houses the institute). “To be notified in such a manner, it hurts,” she said. “It shows a total lack of recognition for either the validity of the program or the efforts that I’ve put in as director.”

Bailey has since apologized to Ancel for the letter, acknowledging in an interview Tuesday that the university’s “communications to her were not what I’d like them to be.” He explained the circumstances, indicating that the university needed to give a required one-month notice to end the institute’s contract with Longview Community College before July 1 in order to clear the way for potentially cutting the institute during the upcoming fiscal year.

But “it’s a question,” the interim chair of Missouri-Kansas City's economics department said, of “governance issues.”

"The department of economics was not notified, the Institute for Labor Studies was not notified,” said Peter Eaton, the interim chair and an associate professor of economics. “The only reason we found out anything was because of this letter that was sent to our community partner...there was no consultation. There was no hint even that this was going to occur. And that’s just not the way you run a legitimate organization.”

Other concerns expressed about the cuts lie in a perceived bias against the economics department itself, which specializes in heterodox – or non-mainstream – approaches to economics. In listing the affiliations of various department members, the Web site names the Association for Heterodox Economics, Association for Institutional Thought, Association of Social Economics, Conference of Socialist Economists, and the Union for Radical Political Economics, as some examples.

David Brodsky, an independent scholar and member of the UMKC chapter of the American Association of University Professors, circulated a message online to rally support for the Institute this week, arguing that the decision to potentially shut down the center constitutes an ideological attack on the economics department. “In the United States and elsewhere, the corporatization of higher education is simply an acknowledged public fact,” Brodsky said in an interview Tuesday. “Corporations by definition are not very friendly to labor and labor studies.”

Money Matters

The institute’s supporters have also argued that the university will save little money by cutting it: Ancel said the entire program has about a $100,000 budget (including her salary), about $57,000 of which is provided by the university and system-wide extension funds. Tuition and fees comprise another main source of revenue. "It doesn't [seem to] matter," Ancel said, "that the program generates more money than [the university is] going to save."

Yet, Chancellor Bailey said that the reduction of administrative costs in non-degree programs necessarily involves cutting a number of smaller-ticket items. Many of the savings in the recent round of administrative cost reductions came from the cumulative effect of eliminating (relatively) small expenses, he said.

A Faculty Senate committee, Bailey said, will be involved in recommending areas for budget cuts in the coming months – although he described the Institute for Labor Studies itself as an administrative, contractual structure, as opposed to an entity developed by faculty initiative.

“When you eliminate an administrative position in business affairs, no one complains about it. When you eliminate one in academic affairs, it’s harder to do,” Bailey said. “I understand that, I understand these are things people have been doing for awhile.”

“We’re under a Curators’ mandate…Our financial situation is not great. What we need to focus on,” Bailey said, “is our core mission of students getting their degrees.”


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