Unilateral Governance at Union?

AAUP alleges antiunion activity and violations of shared governance at Union County College. Findings could translate to association sanctions.

November 17, 2015

Did Union County College snuff out shared governance at its Cranford, N.J., campus? That’s the conclusion of a new report from the American Association of University Professors, which could result in AAUP sanctions against the college.

Last fall, the national AAUP office received a letter from its collective bargaining chapter at Union alleging the dissolution of the faculty shared governance body and other unilateral changes to tenure and promotion standards and to academic matters. The letter closed with a plea for help in the “massive attack on all aspects of our shared governance structure,” and a declaration that at stake was “whether collegiality and higher education standards can survive at this community college.”

At the center of the claims was President Margaret McMenamin, who took office in 2010. Robert A. Gorman, a professor emeritus of labor law at the University of Pennsylvania, eventually visited the campus on behalf of AAUP to investigate, and substantiated many of the claims through a review of documents and interviews with about a dozen faculty members.

Among other findings, Gorman determined that McMenamin in 2012 presented the faculty union with a binder containing some 100 contract items that she considered no longer subject to collective bargaining. New Jersey law is unusual in that it prohibits public-employee bargaining for nonmandatory issues, but a number of concerns beyond pay and immediate working conditions -- such as tenure and promotion criteria, picking a college president, and developing curriculum -- are voluntarily incorporated into faculty collective bargaining contracts across the state anyway. That was the case at Union before McMenamin, and the jewel of sorts was the existence of the Faculty Executive Committee, a representative body that produced faculty bylaws and a faculty handbook on shared governance issues.

McMenamin and the union debated the changes for about two years, but Union had a power play: it had petitioned the state’s Public Employment Relations Commission in advance for a decisive ruling on the scope of negotiations, meaning a definitive judgment on which provisions were mandatory in bargaining. The commission sided with Union, saying that many of the provisions the faculty union wanted to negotiate were not mandatory items, in that they impinged of the “managerial prerogatives” of the college. All nonmandatory provisions -- many of those things considered by colleges and universities across the U.S. to be the domain of the faculty -- were now up to Union.

Gorman, who prepared the investigative report for AAUP, wrote that although “this purpose might not be unlawful under New Jersey state law, it runs afoul of AAUP-recommended principles and standards relating to participation of the faculty in shaping the governance of the college.”

Pointing the commission ruling, McMenamin disbanded most faculty committees, including the Faculty Executive Committee. Union even refused to let it use a room on campus to hold its final meeting in June, saying in a letter to committee leaders that it would “never authorize the use of any college room or facility for a committee that no longer has legitimate standing.” In the committee’s stead, Union created a College Assembly of faculty and staff members and students, whose bylaws have been set by the administration. Ten minutes were afforded to “discussion” of the changes at a recent meeting, according to the report.

With limited faculty input, or in some cases against faculty input, Union also replaced departments headed by faculty-chosen chairs with new academic divisions headed by deans. The tenure and promotion process is now largely in the hands of the administration; while the faculty Peer Evaluation Committee for reappointment promotion escaped the ax, its election procedures and policies have been changed by the administration. For the first time, all candidates for reappointment, promotion and tenure are to be interviewed by the college president and vice president for academic affairs. AAUP says several faculty members have been denied promotion without being given a reason, despite positive recommendations for their peers.

“According to faculty members who met with this representative,” Gorman wrote, “this accretion of authority to the [administration] on personnel matters has induced many faculty members to fear reprisals for any public criticisms or other adverse comments directed against the president” and other administrators.

The report also notes Union’s embargo on discussion of these changes. “There is no legal bar to such steps as giving notice of changes sought by the administration, explaining the reasons behind those changes, and listening to the positions of the [union] (or for that matter, the faculty generally),” it says. The report also charges that several faculty members, including the former chair of the Faculty Executive Council, were threatened with adverse personnel actions for speaking out.

Union declined to participate in AAUP’s investigation, according to the report, forwarding requests to its legal counsel -- who in turn pointed to the employment relations committee ruling as grounds for its actions.

In an emailed statement, McMenamin underlined that ruling to Inside Higher Ed.

AAUP’s report “acknowledges the import of the New Jersey Public Employment Relations Commission’s comprehensive and binding ruling, which removed a number of provisions that infringed on the college’s managerial prerogatives,” she said. “In fact, prior to the legal ruling, the AAUP [chapter] had already agreed to remove many of these provisions.”

McMenamin also suggested that her leadership has benefited the college, saying that its graduation rates were the lowest in the state before her arrival. But after 20 years of “single-digit graduation rates, I decided to refocus the entire institution on students and student success,” she said. “Most of our faculty and staff have welcomed that change and our efforts have paid off with a near tripling of our graduation rate” from about 5.9 percent in 2009 to 15.7 percent in 2013.

She added, “The change has been difficult for some to accept but our students deserve it, our taxpayers demand it and our nation needs it.”

Greg Scholtz, AAUP's national director for tenure, academic freedom and governance, said McMenamin’s legal rationale ignored “the widely accepted notion in American higher education that effective academic decision making is joint or shared.”

AAUP’s understanding of shared academic governance is that “no critical decisions should be reached without involving the faculty and that decisions bearing on the curriculum, academic policy and faculty appointments should be made primarily by the faculty,” Scholtz added. “Most reputable colleges and universities follow principles of shared governance as we understand it, and one result of their doing so, we believe, is a better education for their students.”

The association censures institutions for violations of academic freedom, and sanctions them for violations of shared governance. The report could lead to Union’s sanction at that AAUP’s annual meeting in June.


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