Faculty request BOT liaison, administrators actively nonresponsive to AAUP concerns


Maggie Willard

OU Founder Matilda Dodge Wilson’s statue outside of the Oakland Center where last week’s BOT meeting was held. With relations between faculty and admins sure to play a role in OU’s future, will admins respond to faculty’s request for a BOT liaison?

During the public comment portion of last Monday’s Board of Trustees (BOT) meeting, Oakland University chapter of the American Association of University Professors (OU AAUP) President Karen Miller urged the BOT to appoint a faculty liaison to better facilitate the process of rehabilitating the relationship between faculty and admins following this year’s nasty round of contract negotiations. Miller’s request and entire statement went unanswered during last week’s BOT meeting. 

Last week, The Post reached out to the administration for an interview to address the faculty liaison request and the current state of relations between admins and faculty. An individual significant to the governance of the university and these contract negotiations was requested for the interview. President Ora Hirsch Pescovitz, Chief of Staff Joshua Merchant, Vice President for Finance and Administration John Beaghan and lead university negotiator during contract negotiations and Assistant Vice President of Academic Human Resources Joi Cunningham were all specifically named in the request. As of writing, the interview request has not been responded to.

It’s not unusual for public universities to have a faculty liaison to the BOT. Central and Northern Michigan University, as well as Michigan State, have faculty liaisons to inform their BOT. The idea is to help provide perspective to Trustees who aren’t in the classroom. Miller elaborated on her vision for a liaison at OU.

“The idea would be that hopefully there would be some trust developed,” Miller said. “Hopefully that liaison could make recommendations to members of the board specifically on policy issues, and say, ‘if you do this, this would be good, this would be bad,’ and help them [make decisions] … [Also] that faculty liaison could be a kind of conduit to other connections with the faculty and with the student body.”

Back in August, the BOT selected Robert Schostak as their new chair. To the best of Miller’s knowledge, he has made no attempt to form a relationship with faculty leadership. Unlike other public universities where Trustees are elected, BOT members at OU are essentially political appointees made by the governor. They’re commonly selected due to fundraising or other political contributions, and not necessarily selected based on any knowledge of higher education. Schostak is an OU alum, appointed to the BOT by Gov. Rick Snyder in 2015.

While contract negotiations were settled in early September, with OU AAUP members voting to ratify the agreement on Sept. 30, significant developments in faculty/admin relations have come to light in recent weeks. 

Results of a recent OU AAUP survey reveal faculty’s lasting concerns about the administration due to their behavior during negotiations. In short, the survey revealed that a majority of faculty don’t believe that admins value or support the work they do as professors. 

This feeling from faculty was not in any way abated by last week’s audit committee meeting revelation that the university has significantly increased its financial portfolio. This revelation was noteworthy because the consistent narrative from admins during negotiations was that the university’s poor financial standing prevented them from offering a more equitable contract. Miller elaborated on faculty feelings about that revelation. 

“People were already really, really upset,” Miller said. “To have that announcement be made in the same board meeting where they ratify the faculty contract … I wouldn’t say that the anger has increased enormously. I think the contempt and hatred has, because the anger was already really, really hot. And to then find out because everybody was highly suspect … Every year we do a budget analysis … We don’t want to ask for money that the university doesn’t have. We already knew that the university was a whole lot healthier than they said it was … What is happening here is that the people who are in charge of the finances of the university seem to believe that the endowment is more important than the university. And until somebody can explain to me why they make the spending decisions that they do to prove me wrong, I’ve got to keep believing that.”

The idea of governance and university leadership’s vision for the future is a major faculty concern. The lack of transparency from admins in university decision making, has helped facilitate the faculty belief that people in power are trying to reform education and disregard faculty involvement in governance of the university. A liaison would be one way of restoring faculty faith in university leadership.

“Often [BOT members] feel that higher ed is broken and feel that they have been appointed to fix higher ed,” Miller said. “The problem is they don’t know very much about higher ed, but they go ahead and try to fix it … if board members want to be activists then they at least have to know what they’re doing. They have to understand [faculty] from our perspective. They don’t have to agree with us but they at least have to understand how we think and what we value. And it’ll make them much better board members. I think the more information that the board has access to, the better they can do their jobs. And it doesn’t help them to operate in a vacuum, where they’re not interacting with the student body or the faculty or the staff.”

A solidarity event that OU AAUP held via Zoom last week confirmed the gravest concerns OU AAUP leaders had about the university’s behavior during negotiations — that by lowballing professors, the university was going to damage its ability to attract and retain quality faculty. During the meeting faculty openly discussed the difficult career decisions that they are having to make following these negotiations.

“I do know of a few people who left. They were close to retirement, they declared retirement,” Miller said. “ … I know a lot of people who are on the job market … We have a lot of faculty particularly in the professional schools who could step away tomorrow. There’s a whole lot of job openings in nursing right now. There’s a whole lot … School of Business, School of Engineering. These are all people who could make the pivot into private enterprise, if they choose to. And if [administrators] create an environment where they feel unwelcome, why would they stay?”