Letter to the editor: destroying a university, 101

Oakland+University+Associate+Professor+of%0AMechanical+Engineering+Michael+Latcha.

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Oakland University Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering Michael Latcha.

Michael Latcha, Contributor

If you wish to learn how a thriving university can be systematically dismantled and torn apart, then look around you. Our faculty and student body work to create a vibrant, growing and exciting university but their efforts are repeatedly diminished through incompetence, mismanagement, and political ambition. If you think I’m being overdramatic, consider the facts:

Since 2015, the Oakland administration has decided to spend 65% more on themselves, that is, more pay and more benefits for more administrative positions, while only spending 16% more on student aid and only 4% more on instruction. Does this sound like a university committed to education or simply to taking good care of themselves and their friends?

The recently completed union negotiations with the OU clerical and technical staff, folks with direct contact with students and faculty, concluded with only a one-year commitment to these valuable community members and an insulting $500 “bonus.”

The administration completely botched the “Return to Campus” with a vaccine mandate that was announced far too late for students and faculty to get vaccinated before classes begin, with unrealistic deadlines during classes for vaccine compliance, and with absolutely no procedures or guidance for what to do with students and staff who cannot, or will not, be vaccinated by the October 1 deadline.

The administration positions in the ongoing union negotiations with the university professors – the only folks on campus who actually carry out the mission and work of the university – feature the following: 

  • Gutting the retirement contributions for full-time faculty – The current faculty retirement contributions were hard-won over a period of nearly 40 years, taken in place of pay raises and dwindling health care benefits.  These contributions are often the only “pension” available to retired OU faculty members, many of whom spend their entire careers at OU.  Oakland is seeking to slash them, without returning to the benefits the faculty sacrificed to obtain them.  By the way, these retirement contributions are only available to 2/3 of the faculty. The administration has steadfastly refused to even offer them to the part-time faculty who teach nearly half the credits at OU.
  • Slashing the tuition waiver benefit – Nearly 40 years ago the faculty and Oakland agreed on a procedure where faculty dependents could attend OU at absolutely no cost to the university.  Now Oakland claims that the very expensive management software they choose to use cannot accommodate this procedure, and their solution is to slash this benefit – that was specifically designed for faculty to give to each other with no cost to the university – and reap a huge financial windfall.
  • Refusing to consider market adjustments to faculty salary – Based on joint faculty/administration market studies done in 2012 and 2015, the OU faculty seriously lag behind their counterparts at universities across the US, and even more so when compared to other comparable research universities. In 2012 and 2015 the faculty was able to get small amounts of money to address this issue, about 10% of what was necessary.  This administration, however, now steadfastly refuses to consider market adjustments to salary or even acknowledge the existence of the problem.
  • Eviscerating summer pay – Because OU faculty are grossly underpaid and happen to work in one of the most affluent and expensive counties in the US, it should come as little surprise that many, many OU faculty teach in their “off” semester to supplement their incomes.  And by now it should be no surprise that Oakland is looking to slash this opportunity, offering to drastically cut summer pay and looking to substitute even lower-cost, inexperienced, part-time faculty for the important work of educating our students.
  • Seeking to dictate how courses are taught – Oakland is also trying to use the pandemic as an excuse to attempt to take control of how courses are to be offered, in-person or online.  For 27 years the faculty have had the right to decide how a course will be taught, but now Oakland, blessed with a faculty who pivoted online over the span of 4 days in March 2020 to continue to teach and nurture students, is now looking to exploit those same faculty and force them to teach in ways that have been shown to be ineffective, unpopular, but much more profitable.
  • Reducing faculty salaries – Even though it has been shown the OU faculty is already underpaid, the administration is intent on reducing faculty salaries.  The “raise” money the administration has offered is actually less than the amounts that the administration plans to take away through higher insurance premiums and tuition payments, and reduced summer pay and retirement contributions.  We are hardly surprised, for this is the same administration that moved half of the millions of Federal dollars they received for student Covid relief into “reserve funds,” out of sight and out of touch for students and faculty.

Yes, Oakland University is being systematically dismantled and destroyed by its own administration, as faculty, students and staff are desperately trying to prepare to learn in the upcoming semester.  Are we going sit by and watch, or are we going to make our voices heard?

Michael Latcha, PhD joined OU in 1986, is an associate professor of Mechanical Engineering, and has been a member of seven faculty bargaining teams, leading the last four as the chief negotiator.

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