In Search of Self-Governance, Unionization?

Embattled Faculty Senate at Ohio U. endorses pursuing collective bargaining amid an impasse between professors and administrators.
October 15, 2008

Ohio University’s Faculty Senate voted 23-18 with three abstentions Monday to endorse a movement toward unionization -- calling on professors to “begin the process of organizing themselves into a collective bargaining unit for the purpose of negotiating a contractual agreement with the university, instituting meaningful shared governance, to which the university administration would be bound by law."

Professors supporting unionization stress the three words "meaningful shared governance" as being something a collective bargaining unit can achieve that, amid administrators' disregard, the Faculty Senate has not.

"Without a contract that can back you up in a court of law, I don't think that we have an administration that cares one way or another how faculty feel," said Joseph Bernt, a professor of journalism, Faculty Senator and secretary of Ohio University's (currently non-bargaining) American Association of University Professors chapter. "Everything has just turned into a top-down process."

Faculty-administrator relationships at Ohio University have been strained for some time now, with two votes of no confidence in the leadership and a 21-point list of grievances accompanying the Faculty Senate resolution on collective bargaining. In an e-mail to faculty Tuesday, with the subject line "Commitment to Collegiality," President Roderick J. McDavis urged careful consideration of the implications of unionization, including for "the relationship between individual faculty members and their chairs and deans," and the culture of the institution more generally.

"The truth is there has not been collegiality for some time between faculty and administrators," said Marsha L. Dutton, a professor of English and vice president of Ohio's AAUP (the chapter president is currently on a study abroad program). "We're already hostile, we've been hostile for a long time, and we have no way of talking about our concerns."

"This is about this fact that the faculty has no structure that allows a balanced negotiation of anything with the administration," Dutton said. "Of course, we all would rather have better salaries, but it's not about salaries, it's not about any specific problem. It's about the fact that we have no way to negotiate regarding our own professionalism."

Unionization and Excellence

The resolution includes a list of actions by administrators and trustees that have "jeopardized the respect and trust of the faculty," including "an explosion of highly paid administrative positions," a contract extension for McDavis despite the negative faculty votes and without a comprehensive evaluation of his performance (although the board agreed to evaluate him after the contract renewal was negotiated), and "a growing fear that faculty control of the curriculum will be lost to administrative mandates."

In addition, "the provost has been stonewalling the Senate, having signed only one of the last nine Senate resolutions that required her approval," said Ken Brown, a professor of chemistry and author of the collective bargaining resolution (a list of Faculty Senate resolutions, including those signed and not signed by the provost, is on the body's Web site).

"I read the situation as faculty feel that their voices are not being heard," Kathy Krendl, the provost, said in an interview. "They feel disconnected from some of the decision-making processes, and this is where, I think for me, the conversation should go to more of a conversation about shared governance, and about what it means to play an active and constructive role in shared governance. It's clear that our president is the major decision maker on many decisions, and I think often faculty have not agreed with his decisions. I think that has less to do with shared governance and more to do with accountability."

"This is a case where I think we want to take the right steps to address the problem at hand, and I think that a union is not the correct step to answer some of the concerns of the faculty."

In the text of her remarks to the Faculty Senate Monday, however, Krendl doesn't focus on faculty concerns, specifically, but on questions of the relationship between academic excellence and unionization, suggesting, more or less, that there isn't one.

She said, for instance, that 76 percent of AAUP members are not doctoral degree-granting institutions (as Ohio is), and that "in academia reputation matters and, fairly or not, an institution is judged in part by the company that it keeps. In Ohio, the unionized institutions are either Tier 3 or Tier 4 institutions, according to U.S. News [ & World Report] rankings. Whatever the AAUP has brought to those institutions, it has not been the ability to build their academic reputations."

Arguing that some talented faculty will be turned off by a unionized campus, her written remarks state, "Then again some people are gamblers. They are willing to put 204 years of academic excellence at risk by joining in a partnership with the AAUP that by its own accounts is having financial difficulties keeping its operations together."

In response, Gary Rhoades, the incoming general secretary of the AAUP and a scholar of faculty unions and labor conditions, said, via e-mail, "In doing her 'research' on unionized institutions, the provost need[ed] have looked no further than the list of peer institutions of Ohio University, which includes three unionized campuses, the University of Connecticut, University of Delaware, and the University of New Hampshire.

"As indicated on the Ohio U website, all three are ranked more highly by U.S. News & World Report than are Ohio U, all three have higher graduation rates, higher research expenditures per faculty member (at NH by a factor of nearly four), and two of the three have higher average faculty salaries (no salary data is provided on the Univ of NH on the Ohio U site). So the provost might aspire for the university to achieve the academic excellence of some of Ohio University's unionized peers, whether in student achievement or research productivity. Not to mention the achievements of research universities such as SUNY Buffalo and Rutgers, among other universities, which are unionized, and are not so distant from the great state of Ohio."

"Finally," Rhoades said, "a key issue in terms of Ohio University 'moving up' the status hierarchy is to ensure that faculty have an appropriate, central role in governance matters surrounding the academic future of the institution."

Krendl said in an interview Tuesday that she was focusing in her research on institutions that have unionized in the past decade, as opposed to colleges with a longer history of collective bargaining. "And when I look at institutions that have opted to unionize in the last decade, I don't see Tier I institutions in that group," she said. ""If we're trying to build our academic quality, our academic reputation, is this something that will enhance it? I don't see that in the data."

She added: "I'd like for us to study these issues as scholars."

When Distrust Permeates

"I am often bothered that we characterize unions as a bad thing, that it's unfortunate that a faculty needed to have a union. I don't believe that," said William G. Tierney, a professor and director of the Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis at the University of Southern California.

"There are times when Faculty Senates are the norm in terms of [being] the voice for the faculty. But there's nothing that says it has to be the only voice. And if one type of structure doesn't work, then they should try another one," said Tierney, who has written extensively on academic governance.

"In the work that I've done, the crux of how an institution moves forward is the ability of an institution to have trust permeate the culture," said Tierney. "At this particular point in their history, it sounds like there's a lack of trust on that campus in particular between the administration and the faculty. If we're going to restore trust, there's not one solution but one possibility is the creation of a union."

Sergio López-Permouth, chair of Ohio University's Faculty Senate and a professor of mathematics, likens the situation between administrators and faculty at the university to an (un)-neighborly one.

"Suppose that you have two neighbors, they have friendly conversations and they make agreements shaking hands and that works very well with them for many years. But then, one day, one of the neighbors starts realizing that the other one isn't living up to the agreement," López-Permouth said. "You might grow frustrated enough that you feel that maybe you should hire a lawyer and have the lawyer present every time you have a conversation with your neighbor."

"What are the stakes going to be of doing that? Well, maybe your neighbor will be very careful before making you promises anymore. If it's going to help us or hurt us, depends."

"I'm hearing strong voices on both sides of the issue" of collective bargaining, López-Permouth continued. Yet, "nobody has said things are fine.... Nobody's happy with the status quo."

Richard Vedder is one critic of the administration who does not think that collective bargaining is the way to go. "If asked by the president or provost or other senior officials to be of some use in the campaign against unionization, I would gladly join in even though I have been critical of these individuals myself," said Vedder, an economics professor at Ohio University and director of the Washington-based Center for College Affordability and Productivity.

"A lot of the concerns people are having now about the university are temporary concerns, personalities of the current president, current trustees, current financial problems and so forth, that I don't know that unionization could do much about in any case," he said. "Unionization is a major change in the way universities are organized. I hate making long-run structural changes in the way universities operate in [response to] what hopefully are short- to intermediate-length problems."

A resolution is still awhile away. Supporters of a union at Ohio University still need to collect a sufficient number of signatures before the State Employment Relations Board could hold a vote on establishing a collective bargaining unit for faculty. Dutton, of the AAUP chapter, said she's in no rush, "because we really want people to be able to talk about it first."

As for what will ultimately happen, said López-Permouth, the Faculty Senate chair, "Your guess is as good as mine."


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