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Courtesy of St. Xavier University

St. Xavier University in Chicago announced last month that it would no longer recognize the union that had represented its faculty members, effective immediately.

Laurie Joyner, president of St. Xavier, cited stalled, years-long contract negotiations; pandemic-related financial pressures; and the need to be “nimble and responsive” to external changes like declining enrollment as reasons for breaking ties with the union.

“The effects of the current moment magnify an ongoing fracture in the organization that we can no longer withstand. For nearly two years, negotiations between the University and the Faculty Affairs Committee have proven ineffective and unproductive, depleting critical faculty and institutional resources,” Joyner wrote in a May 28 email to faculty members.

The announcement was made as colleges across the country move to furlough, lay off and reduce compensation for faculty and staff to counter the financial impact of the pandemic. It came two weeks before the National Labor Relations Board issued a decision concerning Bethany College, stating it did not have jurisdiction over faculty members at religious institutions.

The independent union at St. Xavier, called the Faculty Affairs Committee, pushed back immediately against the university's decision to end recognition.

“For 41 years we were able to arrive at a collective bargaining agreement that was signed by both parties and that protected faculty,” said Michael O’Keeffe, an associate professor of religious studies and vice chair of the union. “This is the first time we have not.”

O'Keeffe said contract negotiations hit a rough spot after the university's lawyer began leading negotiations instead of its provost, who had led negotiations in years past. The university said in a statement that the Faculty Affairs Committee "was increasingly uncivil and regressive in their negotiations," and that the tied-up negotiations were responsible for slow progress on faculty compensation and "strengthening the teaching and learning enterprise."

The union filed a charge against the university with the NLRB but withdrew it after the recent Bethany College decision as “a strategic move, not a concession,” according to O’Keeffe.

“We expect that the law will be more settled within the next 6 months -- that the Trump NLRB's decision to deny thousands of university faculty federally enforced bargaining rights will by then be reversed,” Robert Bloch, the union’s attorney, wrote in a letter to faculty.

St. Xavier is a Roman Catholic institution founded by the Sisters of Mercy in 1846. At its start, the university says, it served women and poor students. Today, the university is coed and enrolls more than 3,600 students, many of them Hispanic or Latinx.

The university faces a $4 million to $9 million budget shortfall in the next fiscal year, caused by a likely 10 percent to 20 percent decrease in enrollment-associated revenue, Joyner said in her email to faculty.

In a statement, the university noted that it had made financial progress in recent years.

"We are now on more solid financial footing having recruited two of the largest first-year classes in our 174-year history; improved first-to-second year retention two consecutive years; increased our quasi-endowment; paid down our institutional debt by nearly 40 percent while holding tuition virtually flat; and secured the largest individual gift in nearly 15 years, establishing the University’s first endowed professorship. Still, the economic implications of this pandemic and ongoing challenges for higher education will be far-reaching and felt for years to come," the statement read.

In lieu of the union, Joyner announced several commitments to faculty, including one-time payments that will cost the university a total of $375,000, a 3 percent increase to base pay for faculty and staff earning $50,000 or less and a 2 percent increase for faculty earning between $50,000 and $99,999.

O'Keeffe said faculty members are skeptical of the university's claim that the union prohibits it from responding effectively to the pandemic and associated financial challenges.

"The financial claim, or the COVID claim, are being used to basically make the case that if we don’t have maximum flexibility, then we’re not able to respond in ways we think we should," he said.

Patricia A. Morris, chair of the Board of Trustees, doubled down on the university's anti-Faculty Affairs Committee message in a letter to faculty on June 1.

“To be clear, negotiations with the faculty affairs committee had become increasingly disruptive and the faculty affairs committee's lack of transparency untenable, depleting critical institutional resources and delaying the need for progress in areas such as your compensation. Continued delay and stalemate no longer served to protect our Mercy mission and did not allow us to adapt to external pressures or act on innovation,” Morris wrote. “The faculty affairs committee has repeatedly paralyzed the institution and prevented forward progress during a crisis in higher education and globally that demands agility, collaboration, alignment of core purpose and expeditious action.”

O’Keeffe noted that neither Morris nor Joyner, nor any other board members, had ever attended a negotiating session. Asked if the Faculty Affairs Committee would consider joining a national union like the American Association for University Professors, he said it was a possibility.

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