Lack of faculty input prompts lawsuit

By Mas Rahman

Nobody is arguing that splitting the department of Rhetoric, Communication and Journalism into two departments was a bad idea.

But the way it was done is causing a rift between some Oakland University professors and the OU administration, and reinforcing feelings that the general atmosphere at OU isolates the faculty from the administration.

It has escalated to the point that OU’s chapter of American Association of University Professors, which represents full-time faculty members and special lecturers, filed an Unfair Labor Practice lawsuit last November against OU because it felt its members’ rights are at risk. On Wednesday, April 1, AAUP received judgment from the Michigan state office of administrative hearing and rules’ employment relations commission in their favor.

Vice President of the OU chapter of AAUP, Karen Miller, urged OU’s board of trustees at the April 1 board of trustees meeting to ask the OU administration to accept the judgment and not appeal. But AAUP said they were told that OU would appeal anyway.

OU spokesperson Ted Montgomery declined to comment on the matter, citing OU policy not to comment on pending litigation.

This grievance suit came about because Ron Sudol, dean of OU’s college of arts and sciences, decided to split Rhetoric, Communication and Journalism into two departments: Writing and Rhetoric, and Communication and Journalism, in spring 2008. According to AAUP, Sudol did so in violation of OU constitution, because he did not take in adequate faculty input.

Joel Russell, chemistry professor and the president of OU’s AAUP chapter, said that Sudol, as dean, did have the authority to split the department, but only after receiving advice of the College of Arts and Sciences’ executive committee and assembly, in accord with the college’s constitution.

“We filed a grievance, and suggested that [Sudol] consult with us — that would be all that’s required … It doesn’t mean he has to do what we tell him,” Russell said at the AAUP general meeting on Friday, April 3. “But he chose to take the tactic ‘I’m not going to ask because this is my prerogative and I’m just gonna do it.'”

Sudol said that the suit is without merit, because the division was educationally beneficial and that the faculty of the previous RCJ department had been asking to be split up for years.

“I know the faculty across the university supports this endeavor,” Sudol said.

Russell said he knows the division was supported, but still held that Sudol should have taken more faculty input. Thus, AAUP filed a grievance against OU.

Russel said OU first defended itself by saying this was a government issue, not a contract issue. Then, AAUP presented OU administrators with a copy of a grievance settlement in 1999, signed by OU president Gary Russi, that promised OU would not use this defense again.

Russell said the administration’s next response was saying that Russi did not have the authority to sign this agreement because it was not signed by the board of trustees afterward, and that AAUP accepted at their peril that whoever signed that agreement had the authority to do so.

This has AAUP members worried about the validity and insurance of any agreement signed by OU administrators that is not signed by the board of trustees as well.

“This means that any agreement we sign with the administration is probably worthless,” Russell said. “We would need the board’s chairman’s signature on absolutely every agreement … you apply for sabbatical … until the board’s chairman signs off on it, who knows what could happen.”

The court’s judgment tells OU they have to follow the 1999 agreement.

Russell said OU has 24 days after April 1 to appeal the decision, and expects that OU will appeal. He and other AAUP members said they feel that the legal cost OU is taking up is a waste of university resources and student tuition money.

‘One-way communication’

This recent news comes at a time when several AAUP members feel that the general atmosphere at OU is one that isolates the faculty from the administration and the board of trustees, and that faculty opinion isn’t valued.

“Within the last year, they have chosen to isolate themselves more,” Russell said.

Some members agreed with Russell.

“I don’t think we’ve ever been more separated from the administration as we are now,” said Sean Moran, a history professor who is running for AAUP president against physics professor David Garfinkle, at the AAUP meeting. Moran said he intended to hold the administration accountable.

“It seems to be across the board: it’s governance issues, personnel issues,” Moran said at the meeting. “A lot of them seem to have no rationale given … you’re not told why it has to be this way. It’s presented non-negotiable.”

Many members said they not only feel isolated from the OU administration, but from the board of trustees as well.

“The supreme authority is really the board of trustees, but we have no access to them,” said Francis Jackson, a nursing associate professor, at the meeting. “We’re told that to talk to them, we have to go through [Victor] Zambardi. They don’t speak to us, they don’t meet with us, everything they get is filtered through the administration.”

Zambardi is OU’s vice president of general counsel, as well as secretary and general counsel to the board of trustees.

Calls and e-mails to Zambardi, trustee David Fischer, trustee vice chair Henry Baskin and trustee Dennis Pawley for comment were not returned by press time.

Russell said that he has been pushing for a faculty liaison to the board for a long time, but doesn’t know if the trustees even know of this desire. He said having a faculty liaison like the two student liaisons to the board would help because then the faculty could give the board live feedback at the board meetings, instead of having to sign up to speak days in advance.

Russell said that he knows the trustees are busy, but that he wishes the board would meet with faculty sometime. He said AAUP invited the board to meet faculty in May 2008, and that the then chairman of the board said they’d get back to them.

“It’s been 11 months, and we haven’t heard anything,” Russel said.

Upcoming negotiations

Members of AAUP have contracts that expire this summer. Negotiations for contract renewals officially begin on May 15, but AAUP is preparing already.

Mike Latcha, chief negotiator on AAUP’s bargaining team, said AAUP is meeting with academic departments, and urged all departments to talk to them to be represented during negotiations.

“Unfortunately, not every academic unit has sent members to our forum,” Latcha said at the meeting. “If your unit doesn’t have a meeting scheduled for 2009 negotiations, get in touch with us immediately.”

He asked faculty and staff, as well as students, to keep an eye on their website www.oaklandaaup.org for news updates. OU’s AAUP also has a Facebook group called “Oakland University AAUP” and a Facebook fan page that has contact information and news updates.