Letter to the editor: our response to this morning’s unusual Campus Communication email


Header from this morning’s Campus Communication.

On Wednesday, September 1, just one day before the official start of classes, Oakland University updated the campus community on the state of contract negotiations with faculty via email. Misleading and devoid of context, the University’s email demands scrutiny. For that reason, we have annotated the message, subjecting it to the same kind of analytic procedures and tests-of-truth that we, and our faculty colleagues across disciplines, work hard to teach our students to perform. For those, including students, who may not have seen the email, we have reproduced the entirety of Oakland’s message below, with our annotations interspersed.

To the campus community,

The university has the right to do whatever it wants with its email system. Is it right, however, to use it as a negotiating tool? Is it right to use university email to publish disputed assertions as facts in order to make the faculty look irresponsible? The university, ostensibly, comprises all voices in its “community.” To seize upon this means of communication is uncomfortably close to the use of state-run television in autocratic countries.

Ten hours of contract negotiations facilitated by a state mediator on Tuesday welcomed progress toward a new faculty labor agreement. 

Contract negotiations started in May. However, the university did not even propose an economic package until July. Then, less than a week before classes were set to start, the University took a long weekend off. An agreement could have been reached long ago but the university has clearly chosen to extend negotiations to the 11th hour. Doing so seems deliberately designed to cause faculty and students as much consternation and anxiety as possible. Is that good faith bargaining? How does that serve the university’s educational mission?

Also, the very presence of a mediator in these negotiations attests to the deeply contested nature of the negotiations. Both sides called for a negotiator because they could not agree on the basic terms of the negotiations, and certainly not on what might constitute “progress.”

Finally, “welcomed” is an odd word here. The metaphor suggests the hours of negotiation celebrated the arrival of “progress.” Perhaps “welcomed” was chosen over more logical choices like “led to” or “produced” because “welcomed” evokes warm feelings of universal approval. The grammatical structure of the sentence conceals the interest of the sentence, as if there were no possibility some might see the result of the ten hours as less than welcome.

Before the mediator adjourned the bargaining session and set it to resume at noon today, the university and the union agreed to a 24-hour extension of the current contract.

The only reason an “extension” makes sense is if both sides agree that the next 24 hours could produce movement that would lead to an agreement. If such movement is possible, why wait? Why did the university fail to offer any new economic proposals yesterday, after its long weekend off?

A primary, unresolved issue is a faculty union proposal to increase total compensation for part-time faculty by more than 10 percent. 

“Primary” is a loaded, value-laden word here. It raises the question of whose values are embedded in that word? Reading the document will not produce any person willing to take responsibility for the interests this communication serves.

As for compensation, more than 10 percent of what? What is their current compensation? Is the current compensation of “part-time faculty” satisfactory as it stands?  We don’t believe it is. We believe their labor is exploited. And note the omission here of the shameless, union-busting attempt to remove many of these same part-time faculty from the bargaining unit in a crassly opportunistic move based on an administrative technicality.

University negotiators view this focus as untenable. 

Why is it untenable? Where are university funds going that make this untenable? Let’s read on.

Such a dedication of resources would negatively impact compensation for all other employees, including tenured and tenure-track faculty members, as well as divert resources away from areas more directly targeted for student success and research. 

Notice the divide and conquer strategy at work here. Pitting the interests of one exploited group against other (more or less) exploited groups is nothing more than an attempt to chip away at the solidarity tenure track faculty, “part-time faculty” and administrative professional, clerical-technical and all other employee groups feel with each other.

And to what “areas” does OU refer? Why the lack of specificity here? What area could possibly be more targeted toward student success than the outstanding instruction provided by faculty, whether they are part-time or on the tenure track? And let’s not gloss over the absurdity inherent in “part-time faculty.” Does the designation “part-time” have any correlation with the work lives of the faculty it misnames? Do they work part time? No. Are their efforts really less targeted to student success than full-time faculty? No. What do “part-time” faculty do? They teach. They teach students. How many students do you think care which of their dedicated, hard-working professors are “part-time” and which “full-time”?

The university is therefore seeking more equitable compensation adjustments.

What does this phrase even mean? More equitable than what? Let’s consider: we contend that increasing the compensation of “part-time faculty” is a necessary component of “more equitable compensation adjustments” in recognition of the fact that part-time faculty provide instruction as valuable and vital as full-time faculty. Let’s also consider the equity of compensating the chief of staff $215,000, or the vice president of marketing, brand and communications $194,651 when the vast majority of faculty, whether full- or part-time make nowhere near that.  Are these positions even necessary? Do these salaries not contribute to the $17 million shortfall? What would happen if OU compensated members of the “community” according to the contribution they make to its core mission? It appears to us that the university is “seeking more equitable compensation adjustments” in the wrong places.

University operating revenue is particularly limited this year due to an unprecedented, 8 percent enrollment drop from last year. 

An enrollment drop that is largely attributable to a global pandemic. In recognition of this, the union proposed a shorter-term contract appropriate to these extraordinary circumstances– a proposal the university flatly refused to consider.

This has created a $17 million revenue shortfall. 

Declining enrollments are indeed costly. They may even constitute a crisis. We don’t dismiss this real concern, one that does require sacrifice to solve. But is that decline single-handedly responsible for the “shortfall”? What about the COVID funds designated to help with this situation that the university chose to place into reserve? Where did they go? Do the compensation packages of the president and the provosts contribute to this shortfall? Why are those most vital to the institution’s misson, its teachers (and especially its most economically vulnerable teachers), being asked to bear the brunt of this sacrifice rather than the ever-growing number of highly-paid upper administrators?

Compounding the university’s concern is a dramatic decline in the number of high school graduates in Michigan. Despite these concerns, the university is still striving to increase overall compensation for all faculty in a new union contract, including special lecturers, in a fair, equitable and financially responsible manner.

Striving? Does offering a 0% raise for the faculty in 2021-22 qualify as “striving to increase compensation”? Does cutting contributions to health care qualify? How about slashing the discount the children of faculty receive for tuition at OU which costs the university nothing? Does that look like striving? We’d like to see one proposal the university offered that seeks to increase faculty compensation. This claim is frankly untrue.

The university negotiating team will present a proposal consistent with these objectives when bargaining resumes. 

At last, the university negotiating team will present a proposal consistent with these objectives. When will this happen? Why wait so long?

University negotiators are hopeful that this will help resolve remaining differences in the bargaining process.

We hope the proposal will remove its insistence on taking away the power of faculty to decide which courses should be taught online and which in person. These decisions are best made by the departments that offer these courses. How could someone who hasn’t taught a history course decide the best way to teach that course? Universities function best when faculty and administrators share governance. Economic matters are an important part of any contract negotiation, but the authority to determine academic matters (such as how a course is taught) is crucial and best left to those with the expertise to make such decisions in the best interests of the students.

Finally, the email is simply attributed to “University Communications and Marketing.” Once again, this obscures the people behind its composition and content. Does “Communications and Marketing” speak for the University? Are they running the negotiations? Is this email part of a marketing campaign? Is there a person who takes responsibility for this “communication”? Leaving statements like this in the hands of those who specialize in public relations constitutes a prime example of the lack of transparency that all-too-often characterizes the University’s conduct. Who, exactly, is driving Oakland’s proposals? Who is willing to take responsibility for them? Who is willing to take responsibility for creating relations between the university and the faculty that are so strained that they may well be irreparable?

Robert Anderson & Jeffrey Insko, Department of English