Letter to the editor: contract negotiations, a bridge ready to collapse

Oakland University Associate Professor of English Andrea Knutson.

Photo courtesy of asle.org

Oakland University Associate Professor of English Andrea Knutson.

Andrea Knutson, Contributor

I’m a member of Oakland University’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors, and while our bargaining team undergoes contract negotiations (happening now during a temporary extension of our contract), I want to record how this impacts me, and by extension, possibly, other faculty, who are watching as OU slashes and burns its relationship with us.

Below is Oakland University’s mission and vision statement:

Oakland University Mission Statement:
Oakland University cultivates the full potential of a diverse and inclusive community. As a public doctoral institution, we impact Michigan and the world through education, research, scholarship, and creative activity.
Oakland University Vision Statement:
Oakland University will unlock the potential of individuals and leave a lasting impact on the world through the transformative power of education and research.

Fourteen years ago I was excited to begin my career at Oakland University. I had just gotten my Ph.D. and was looking forward to teaching in the Midwest, continuing my research, and joining with a community to make important decisions about how best to prepare our students to become educated, ethical problem solvers and innovatorsto play my part in our collective pursuit of educational excellence. 

My time at Oakland University is, however, also marked by the anniversary of the I-35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis that killed 13 people in 2007. I was vacationing in Vermont, getting ready for a big move to Michigan, when I found myself fearing that a friend or family member was on that bridge. 

Since I’ve been at Oakland University, faculty have lost something in our contract negotiations: Oakland University chips away at our health care, faculty governance, and salary every chance they get, and it’s getting harder and harder to have respect for an institution that so methodically destroys not only our livelihoods, but our morale. We lose something every time. Faculty are always the losers. We have gotten used to losing. This year, however, negotiations are gearing up to be a bridge collapse. Here is OU’s mission and vision statement again:

Oakland University Mission Statement:
Oakland University cultivates the full potential of a diverse and inclusive community. As a public doctoral institution, we impact Michigan and the world through education, research, scholarship, and creative activity.
Oakland University Vision Statement:
Oakland University will unlock the potential of individuals and leave a lasting impact on the world through the transformative power of education and research.

These are nice sentiments, but OU will not be able to recruit or retain the faculty they want to meet the goals in these statements if they have their way in the current bargaining. Let’s assume Oakland University wants to impact the world with the transformative power of excellent teaching, research, and community engagement. Here’s what’s happening at the bargaining table right now, according to OU’s economic proposal. Let me begin by saying that Oakland University’s bar for faculty salary is already too low. OU does not pay their faculty a competitive salary. Because of this the primary means by which we are able to recruit and retain excellent faculty is the way that our retirement benefits work. Our retirement package helps to make up for the ways that we are underpaid. My salary is $71, 049.00, and my salary is actually below the average salary for Oakland University faculty.

Several contracts ago, our bargaining team gambled and in good faith agreed to meet one of OU’s demands, which was to cease their contributions to faculty health care costs after they retire in exchange for a retirement package that meant OU would contribute 16% of our salary to our retirement fund. This means that in a roundabout way my base salary is increased monthly by $2,635.00 because of the total compensation received in my retirement benefits. This translates, oddly, to a “salary” of $82, 416.00.

Currently, in OU’s economic proposal, my retirement percentage would drop from 16% to 11% and I would losein what is an enormous pay cut$3,552.00 per year. This, apparently, is OU’s response to a contract extension for one year, which happened because of the pandemic and which was essentially a pay cut because it froze our salaries while we incurred the costs of expanded WIFI packages, software, computer upgrades, childcare costs etc., to serve our students and Oakland University. I am happy to hustle for my students in an emergency to learn online pedagogies, to learn educational platform uses, to adjust my personal space, work countless hours, reach out to countless people, and help my students adjust mentally and emotionally to their new realities. We did this because we trusted Oakland to do the right thing and recognize our sacrifices when we bargained a new contract. Instead, we’re being punished.

“Let them eat cake”: OU’s Administrative Bloat Steals from Faculty

Oakland’s president, Ora Pescovitz, makes $483,171.00 and receives 17% retirement benefits, which equals an additional $82,139.00 for her (more than my entire base salary), which brings her monetary benefit to a total of $565, 310.00. In addition, Oakland University’s current 8 Vice Presidents receive a total compensation of $1,837,633.00, which is roughly the equivalent of the $1,855,850.00 the AAUP requested for our entire full-time faculty salary increase of 3.5% for a cost of living adjustment and the loss of a salary increase over the last 5 years. Also, the new Chief of Staff position OU added this year will cost $215,000.00 plus $34,400.00 for benefits for a total compensation of $249,400.00 Just eliminating this one position would pay for the entire faculty research budget.

This bridge is collapsing. Oakland University has proven over and over in the fourteen years I’ve been here that they’re willing to sacrifice the very faculty they need to fulfill OU’s mission and vision. They want educators? They want researchers? They want us to make this university run during a pandemic? I know what I do is important to my students, their families, and their communities. I know the “impact” I have on students. What will Oakland University have left after they’ve taken so much they’ve burned their bridges? This relationship will be broken, and the unfair and unjust treatment of their faculty will have repercussions. What we want most from our leaders is vision, transparency, and accountability, t hese are slipping away from our campus.

Oakland University doesn’t seem to understand that faculty aren’t the only ones on this bridge. Students are on this bridge. Students’ families are on this bridge. When OU dehumanizes their faculty, they dehumanize their students. Students can’t afford another tuition hike to pay for another administrator and faculty can only lose so much before there’s nothing left. I wonder: what will OU use to replace the bridges they’ve burned?

This letter to the editor was submitted by Andrea Knutson. Letters to the editor can be submitted to [email protected]