Faculty negotiations extended to Aug. 31, administration takes weekend off from bargaining

The deadline for faculty contract negotiations has been extended for the third time to midnight on Aug. 31. If agreements are not made by the deadline, a work stoppage is possible.

Photo courtesy of Oakland University

The deadline for faculty contract negotiations has been extended for the third time to midnight on Aug. 31. If agreements are not made by the deadline, a work stoppage is possible.

With less than a week before students return to campus, the deadline for faculty contract negotiations has been extended to midnight on Aug. 31. This is the third extension past the initial midnight Aug. 14 deadline. The OU administration has taken the weekend off from bargaining, so there will be no sessions Friday, Saturday, Sunday or Monday.

The Oakland University chapter of the American Association of Professors (OU AAUP) and the OU administration are still far apart on key issues. In response to the deadline extension, OU AAUP members have voted to authorize “job action” from their bargaining team. If an agreement is not reached before the deadline, a work stoppage is possible and could disrupt the start of the fall semester.

“In the past, faculty who are in the bargaining unit, have not engaged in instruction until there is a tentative agreement,” OU AAUP President and Associate Professor of History Karen Miller said. “I don’t know if a job action would include anything new. Or would simply be a kind of modernization of what we’ve done in the past … It’s something that we do not entertain lightly.”

Key issues separating the sides include faculty benefits, salaries, pay for special lecturers, processes for hiring/firing and classroom modality. Relations between the two parties soured at the beginning of August when the administration presented their economic proposals. Since then negotiations have been some of the most bitter in the history of OU.

“I am hearing extraordinary anger from faculty members about just an enormous list of things,” Miller said. “Every time we are in the process of changing our faculty contract … Those years are almost always a little more tense than normal. But between the return to campus with COVID [and the] fairly difficult negotiations over the contract this is really worse than any beginning of the semester I have ever experienced period.”

It is important to note that COVID-19 has significantly impacted these negotiations. Last year the pandemic led to a one-year extension of the old contract, pushing negotiations back a year until this summer. 

Due to the circumstances of COVID-19, both the administration and faculty union are more steadfast in their positions. The faculty argue that they stepped up to the plate last year and deserved to be fairly compensated for those efforts. The administration justifies a conservative economic package by saying that the pandemic has hurt OU’s bottom line. The most recent summary from the administration, released Aug. 12, elaborates this position.

“[A] contract must reflect the economic and enrollment challenges Oakland and the entire university community have been facing for the past few years. Oakland has been striving to maintain programs and faculty staffing levels in the face of diminishing resources and enrollment. Oakland’s resources have diminished by nearly $40 million over the course of recent years while still employing and supporting the same corps of faculty. In response to this reality, Oakland’s focus at the bargaining table has been to find the means to support pay increases while at the same time provide a more affordable (but still robust) benefit package. If this is accomplished, then Oakland will be better able to move forward. If modifications are not realized, though, then Oakland’s ability to retain employees and students will be frustrated, an outcome that could result in dramatic restructuring when the parties return to the table when the new contract expires.”

Faculty members have gone public in recent weeks, expressing their frustrations on social media and through editorials published in The Oakland Post. Generally, those editorials argue that the path the administration is taking during negotiations will hurt students, faculty and the long-term wellbeing of the university. Quotes from these editorials include:

“To propose these cuts after faculty have scrambled to learn how to teach online (some for the first time) on a moment’s notice during a global pandemic, often while counseling students who had lost family members, jobs, or any stability, is the height of cynicism. It is, honestly, a slap in the face,” Associate Professor of English Alison Powell said.

“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,” Associate Professor Mechanical Engineering Michael Latcha said.

“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,” Associate Professor of English Andrea Knutson said.

“In this current bargaining year, the administration is playing hard ball, insulting and devaluing the work that I and my colleagues do with proposals that would cut our compensation and drastically reduce our role in decision-making about the academic affairs of the university. What’s even worse—tuition and administrative costs have been rising every year since I’ve been here at OU,” Associate Professor of English & Creative Writing Annette Gilson said.

The administration on the other hand has been tight-lipped for the duration of negotiations, declining interviews and providing few updates via the office of the provost. President Ora Hirsch Pescovitz did publicly praise the faculty in August. The praise did not sit well with faculty however, as, in their view, her statements in public did not accurately reflect what OU has been bringing to the bargaining table.

In response to current economic hardships and out of a desire to not be locked into a “very undesirable” deal long term, OU AAUP has proposed signing a two-year contract instead of the standard five-year agreement. It is unclear at this time how realistic that outcome is. The two sides will resume negotiations Tuesday, Aug. 31.