Faculty concerned new university president won’t bring change

Worries about Oakland University’s future swirl in wake of the Jan. 10 and 11 open presidential search forums.

According to representatives from Oakland’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors, which serves as the faculty union, the faculty still have two big concerns: small issues were not fixed during current-President George Hynd’s term and Oakland doesn’t have a clear direction.

One example of a small issue involves Disability Support Services. Ken Mitton, president of Oakland’s AAUP and associate professor of biomedical sciences, said that while the office’s staff is excellent, the DSS is understaffed.

This is especially problematic for part-time faculty who are paid per credit hour. If they stay longer to accommodate a student’s need for more time on a test, they aren’t paid for the extra time. Also, many share office space, so it’s hard to find a place for students who need a silent environment.

“Sometimes, students end up in a hallway,” Mitton said.

Mitton said he informed Hynd of the issue shortly after Hynd took office, but the relatively small expense of hiring students to proctor exams outside of classrooms was never undertaken.

“I’m perplexed that that didn’t get fixed in three years,” Mitton said.

However, this led to bigger questions, as Mitton said at the forum for faculty. He said the extent of the president’s power is a mystery to him. Richard DeVore, chair of the Board of Trustees and search committee, assured Mitton that Hynd has always had the power to give more funds to DSS.

“If the president has the power to do this, it tells me that something around him is resisting,” Mitton said.

Mitton said that many faculty perceive the president as a figurehead with no real influence. He also questioned the relative influence of the president, Chief Operating Officer Scott Kunselman and the board.

Another issue involves the merit pay system that was agreed upon in the contract between the AAUP and Oakland administration in October 2015. Faculty are scored on a five-point system based on performance and expertise in their respective fields. The lowest score is one. Scores help each academic unit decide how much of a raise each faculty member receives, with each receiving at least 0.5 percent.

Some professors have received zero percent merit pay, which isn’t in the contract.

Mitton said the fact that some faculty got no raises hurts morale.

“It’s just mean-spirited to me,” he said.

While these issues are relevant to students and faculty, there is a bigger issue that affects the whole campus community and was brought up in numerous open forum sessions: Oakland doesn’t seem to have a direction.

Karen Miller, member of the AAUP executive committee and associate professor of history, has heard the complaint from students and faculty.

“Whoever comes in has an extraordinary leadership problem in front of them,” Miller said.

Miller said that the university was factionalized under former-President Gary Russi. The residual effects of that environment, combined with a lack of strong leadership to steer the university, resulted in conspiracy theories that a president has already been selected to benefit the board or campus politics. These theories aren’t helped by the fact that no literature was published regarding why Hynd is leaving.

“When people go to that space instinctively, that’s a bad sign,” Miller said.

A lack of direction is clear in situations that Miller declared “counterproductive.” One example goes back to October 2015’s contract negotiations.

Administration and faculty acknowledged that Oakland faculty are paid below their competitors. A committee was formed to measure how much, using a method that other universities have used.

It turned out that faculty were underpaid about $3.5 million at the time. Only the administrators were surprised, Miller said.

The contract allowed for a small fix, but faculty jobs at Oakland are still not paid competitively.

A similar study was done for administrative personnel, and their pay was adjusted to be competitive with other universities.

Students also don’t see a direction for Oakland. Miller said it’s obvious when they talk about the 8.48-percent tuition increase, announced in July 2015. Raising the tuition in one huge step was a shock to students, and they were not made aware of what the money would be specifically spent on, though Hynd discussed how it was spent after the fact. This lack of knowledge made students feel like cash cows, Miller said.

Miller has heard freshmen complain about this tuition increase, even though it didn’t directly affect them. She said that the upperclassmen were upset by it enough that it has become a part of Oakland’s student culture.

“That should not be our narrative,” she said. “Students should not feel that way about a tuition raise,” as it was ultimately spent on services to improve Oakland.

Finally, Miller said she hasn’t heard the why and how of strategic planning initiatives. Oakland’s long-term goals don’t have an obvious strategy or reason for existing.

While Mitton and Miller were happy that the open forums were held and that the presidential search will be open at the end, they are disappointed that there is only one faculty member — Karen Markel, chair of the Management and Marketing Department and associate professor of management — on the search committee.

Both Mitton and Miller insist on a president who has a background in academia.

When what Mitton calls “low-hanging fruit” hasn’t been picked, it’s difficult for faculty to trust that the next president will solve issues that could have been solved long ago. Mitton and Miller said that morale is low and will not rise until changes have been made.

“I have an enormous fondness for Oakland University, and I want it to do well, but I have concerns,” Miller said.