When Bitter Bargaining Bleeds Over

After years of frustrating contract negotiations, president of U. of New Hampshire receives vote of "no confidence" -- but from union, not faculty senate.
April 28, 2011

When Mark W. Huddleston, president of the University of New Hampshire, traveled to the state capital, Concord, last week to appeal to the state Senate’s finance committee, it should have been a ho-hum affair.

Instead, Huddleston’s remarks, which were not necessarily radical in themselves, triggered a vote of no confidence -- called not by the faculty senate, as is typical, but by the local chapter of the American Association of University Professors, which represents the faculty.

Nearly 64 percent of the 202 faculty members who cast votes expressed no confidence in Huddleston, the local chapter of the AAUP announced Wednesday. About one-third of all faculty members cast ballots during the vote, a turnout that some hoped would be higher. "We wish that this vote had not been required, but it was necessary to get the president's attention and open more dialogue with the faculty," Deanna Wood, president of the AAUP chapter and an associate professor at the library, wrote in a message to her colleagues announcing the results.

Some faculty members described the vote as born of increasingly acrimonious contract negotiations, while others strongly questioned the wisdom of holding the vote in the first place. Huddleston, on the other hand, couched it as a bargaining tool.

“A vote of this nature is a tactic used in a difficult labor dispute,” Huddleston said in a comment issued soon after the vote, while acknowledging the faculty’s frustration at not having a contract (talks have been stalled for more than a year, said Wood). “The underlying issue is the uncertainty, even anxiety, everyone on campus feels -- faculty, staff and students -- about UNH’s appropriation from the state,” Huddleston continued, “and what it means to all that we do here.”

The immediate spark was Huddleston’s April 18 speech to the state Senate, which some on the faculty saw as insulting. Huddleston opened his remarks by stating up front that he was, perhaps surprisingly, not going to ask for more money. In fact, he said, he would not be seeking level funding, nor would he be fighting cuts beyond the 5 percent proposed by Gov. John Lynch (the House submitted a revised budget that would cut the university’s appropriation by about 50 percent, which Lynch does not support; it is now in the Senate).

Instead, Huddleston wanted time to allow cost-cutting reforms that were set out in the university’s strategic plan to take root. He also touted the university's benefits to the state's economy and work force. Each year, he said, students who are educated at the university contribute $562 million to the state’s work force, and the university over all pours $1.3 billion into the New Hampshire economy. “Those are remarkable returns on what in recent years has been a $68 million state investment,” he said.

Then, Huddleston pivoted to what galled some faculty members -- what they saw as a dismissal of academic virtues under the rubric of reinventing higher education so that it would be more affordable and less hidebound to customs and assumptions that, Huddleston suggested, need no longer be accepted.

“We still too-frequently convey information in 50-minute lectures delivered by a ‘sage on the stage’ to largely passive recipients in the audience three times a week for 15 weeks a term -- as if that schedule were Biblically decreed and as if that were the way that ‘digital natives’ actually learn today,” he said. “Worse, we remain wedded to a credentialing regimen of courses and majors and degrees that mainly reflect ‘seat time,’ rather than what students actually learn or need to learn.”

Taken on their own merits, such critiques were not grounds for a vote of no confidence, said David Richman, professor of theater and dance and an at-large member of the AAUP’s executive council for the chapter. But in the context of increasingly acrimonious negotiations, Huddleston’s comments struck some faculty members’ ears as dismissive and insulting.

“Reading this testimony, I conclude that the president has contempt for and ignorance of the fundamental enterprise of teaching and learning that must be at the heart of the university,” said Richman in a letter to fellow faculty members that laid out the rationale for the vote. “I am deeply anguished, since the business model the president describes has no room for, or interest in, the life of the mind and imagination as I understand these.”

Huddleston said that the characterization of his comments as being critical of the university, faculty and staff were “flat-out wrong.”

“The essence of my argument was: UNH is a superb institution, one in the forefront of efforts to ensure access and affordability,” he said in a written statement. “Please reject the drastic and injurious cuts proposed by the House and let us get on with our important work.”

Since the AAUP began representing the faculty as a union in the early 1990s, negotiations between the union and New Hampshire’s administrators have resulted in an impasse during every contract except one, said Richman. With each new contract, he said, the process has grown increasingly bitter. “I call it a triennial ritual of contempt,” he said. “I think that a difficult, bitter and adversarial contract negotiation poisons relations between faculty and administrators.”

Recently, these difficulties were illustrated in the report issued after a January fact-finding hearing. The arbitrator sorted through concerns over due process, largely siding with the union, though he made the union’s allowable period of appeal much shorter. He also recommended a total three-year salary increase of 8.75 percent, about half of which would be determined through across-the-board raises rather than predominantly through merit increases, as the administration wanted. The arbitrator also praised the fiscal health of the university and noted, perhaps wryly, that raises to the faculty would not likely be a hardship. “The university has had the resources to expand its management and administrative staff,” he noted.

The no-confidence vote, which follows other such moves in New Jersey, Idaho, Florida and Rhode Island during the last four months, is, of course, advisory in nature. But expressing the sentiment through its union is somewhat unusual because no-confidence votes are typically handled through faculty senates.

Ed Hinson, a professor of mathematics and the chair of New Hampshire’s faculty senate, argued that the senate, though it comprises only about 50 voting members, is ultimately more representative because it speaks for all tenure-track faculty. The union, though it has more than 400 members, does not include clinical, research and other faculty who are not in the bargaining unit. “This situation does not ‘dilute’ the faculty voice, so much as cut out a significant part of it,” he wrote in an e-mail, describing the vote through the union rather than the Senate.

The faculty senate, Hinson continued, was nowhere close to contemplating a no-confidence vote. “Senators have observed extensive faculty participation in the president's initiatives and have not felt that avenues of input have been closed off,” he said. “Speaking only for myself as an individual faculty member, I believe that in the current economic and political climate, the stated reason for the vote is insufficient to justify it, and that the timing is terrible.”

But Wood, of the AAUP, said the timing, while not ideal, could not be avoided. “The Faculty Senate was winding down its work for the year and the issue of the president's performance was not on the agenda for the final meeting of the year,” she wrote in an e-mail. “With only two weeks left of classes and the crunch time for faculty upon us, we felt time was of the essence.”

Both the administration and union representatives said they want to move on from this. And both sides praised Huddleston for attending a meeting of the faculty senate earlier in the week.


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