Photo courtesy of Jeremy Johnson
When I arrived at OU as a freshman, I was full of hope and ambition for a campus that, at the time, felt welcoming and exciting. I, like many others, was looking forward to the opportunity to leave a mark on-campus and improve the lived-experiences of the students that would come after us. OU’s vision statement claims to aim to “unlock the potential” of those within the OU community, but as I continue through my journey at OU, I have come to realize that OU’s words are merely a performance.
What is OU if not us?
Currently, as many within the OU community are well aware, the AAUP is in negotiations with the Oakland University administration to decide on the contract that faculty will operate under for the next several year period. As we’ve seen through editorials in the Oakland Post and from AAUP official statements, those negotiating for the OU administration have been especially harsh and intransigent during this negotiation period. They have attempted to majorly reduce contributions to faculty health insurance, raise tuition on children of faculty seeking to attend OU, limit workplace agency for professors, drastically reduce job security for Special Lecturers, and much more. Not only would the wide variety of university-proposed policies hurt professors, but the learning environments that students experience would be significantly diminished. As a student activist and member of the Oakland University Student Congress (OUSC), I am appalled to see my university going to such lengths to steal benefits from the faculty in the spirit of generating profit, all while the cost of attendance for students continues to rise.
In a recent letter to the editor in the Oakland Post, the OU negotiating team stated: “Our joint mission is to support students and student success as best as we can and not allow labor relations to interfere. You know that Oakland is endeavoring to provide a fair compensation package for the faculty.” Professors, like student employees, are laborers that sell their work for wages. The OU negotiating team’s attempt to paint the AAUP’s potential work stoppage as interfering with student success is abhorrent and demonstrably misguided. As the AAUP has explained numerous times, faculty working conditions are student learning conditions, and if OU truly cares about student success, they will give professors every resource they need to be successful. OU’s proposed changes serve only to reduce the value we receive out of attending and working for our university – and it is our university.
While I am widely disappointed, I am not surprised to see the behavior exhibited by OU’s administration when workers at our university begin to recognize their worth.
I have witnessed firsthand how OU will punish university employees when they demand substantive change to their workplace and insist their mental and physical health be prioritized. Throughout the last few months, OU administrators have demonstrated that they are willing to rob student employees of their financial security and their ability to pay for a college education if they speak out about their coercive and toxic work environments. The OU administration routinely refuses to acknowledge their wrongdoing or resolve workplace issues when they are brought to their attention. Phrases like “there is nothing we can do” or “we will take it under advisement” are seared into our minds by the sheer amount of times we have heard those statements when trying to impact any sort of positive change.
The treatment of student workers, faculty members, and OU staff are all undeniably connected. Whether it be the gutting of the AAUP contract, the elimination of remote work options for student employees and entire student positions with no recourse, or the insulting $500 bonus to OU staff members that were “lucky to have their jobs,” each deliberate subtraction of benefits or accommodations for employees highlights the disdain OU has for its own workers. While the disregard for our wellbeing does not always look identical, it rhymes, and OU’s treatment of workers cannot continue to be this poor.
With every conflict that has transpired over the last year between OU and its employees, OU has attempted to infantilize and minimize the struggle its workers are facing. OU, at every step, has treated the advocacy from its workers as if they are children throwing a fit or feeling “entitled” to misbehave; nothing could be further from the truth. Not only has every employee who has pushed back against the university been respectful and conscious of the context in which their activism has arisen, but the childlike behavior and entitlement have come exclusively from the administrators who refuse to acknowledge their role in actively destroying all that makes OU worth attending.
What is OU if not us?
I have been a member of OUSC for the last several years and I have held a variety of positions within the organization. I, as well as my peers, have undertaken massive initiatives to change the way OU functions using the power that Student Congress grants us. Over the course of my time at OU, I have seen many administrators claim to love student activism and seeing big, bold initiatives from OUSC, only to dismiss student advocacy or outright punish student activists for pushing back against the destructive decisions made by the university. OUSC is meant to be the group that represents the will of the student body, and that is impossible if the only time we can fight passionately for students is when it is not damaging to the OU image. It appears as though OU is only interested in activists when they are subservient to the will of the administration and are willing to act as an appendage of the university.
This same philosophy maps perfectly onto OU’s actions against the AAUP. OU supports and cares for their faculty insofar as it is beneficial for them politically, and most importantly, financially; however, the support ends when the collective power of faculty threatens the administration’s control over the university. It is an inescapable dialectic that the OU administration is averse to resolving.
Put plain and simply: OU has demonstrated they are unwilling to listen to student activists, student workers, and faculty members, and seem solely interested in maximizing profit and their image in the public sphere while ignorant to the needs of the student body. Even though administrators claim, “my door is always open,” those in the community with concerns about administration’s actions are often ignored or retaliated against for walking through the open door. The only reason OU exists is because of the people that work to make it function and the students that choose to attend the university. There is no profit to be made without us, and if the OU administration is unwilling to serve our interest, then they do not belong at our university.
What is OU if not us?
The turmoil and conflict on campus at OU has left much of the community wondering: where do we go from here? Recently, OUSC passed a pair of resolutions, C.R. 22-17 and C.R. 22-18, that advocate for the protection of employees at OU. C.R. 22-17 is a letter of support for the AAUP in its fight for healthy working conditions, and C.R. 22-18 is a resolution advocating for the protection of student employees’ mental and physical wellbeing as we continue to navigate the pandemic. OU’s administration is aware of the passage of both, yet has not acknowledged OUSC’s support for the AAUP and has contemptuously dismissed our advocacy for student employees.
The profit and PR focused mindset that the OU administration has adopted is the reason the price of college has become so exorbitant in the first place, and perpetuating this kind of capitalist greed will only lead to more suffering. The only solution is for students, student workers, faculty, and staff to stand together and push back fiercely against any injustice that is perpetuated against any group at OU. We live in an intersectional world, and hazardous and destructive working conditions for one of us will eventually lead to the mistreatment and disregard of all of us – the only option is to protect each other. OU’s decision making and behavior speaks for itself, and there is no telling when the next workplace, department, or student group will be robbed of their agency and dismantled. It is abundantly clear that OU fears collective action and works to keep us too weak to fight back against them. If this were not the case, they wouldn’t work so hard to keep us in a state of starvation.
None of what I have said is meant to be inflammatory or alarmist – but you should be angry. If you are an employee of OU or a student, this is your future the administration is dismantling – it is personal. However, it does not have to be this way. We can be better. In fact, we must be better. We owe it to all those that will come to this university long after we are gone that may suffer at the hands of a greedy administration through no fault of their own. We owe it to ourselves, and everyone else, to stand up for each other when no one else will.
You must recognize your own self-worth, not only as an employee or student, but as a human being. We pour an astronomical amount of time and money into this university, we make it function, it is not absurd to demand that we be treated fairly and our experience at OU be prioritized. Never let anyone fool you into thinking you’re asking for too much. We are at an impasse and we must ask ourselves: what kind of university do we want? OU is nothing without the people that make it function – it is our university – and it is time that all of the OU community has their needs met. To all the OU administrators: if you do not want to protect students and professors in your negotiations with the AAUP, leave OU and find a new job, we do not want you here. To all in the OU community: we must be unwavering in the face of injustice and fight hard to protect each other. This cannot be allowed to continue.
What is OU if not us?
OUSC Steering Chair