Stetson Faculty United

Stetson Faculty United, a long-dormant AAUP chapter revitalized in October 2010, represents faculty members at Stetson University, a private institution located in central Florida. Stetson has 2,400 undergraduates (who are taught almost exclusively by the faculty of Stetson’s DeLand campus) and another 1,100 graduate and professional students. Sixty of the university’s 190 faculty members belong to the AAUP chapter, all of them on the DeLand campus.

Here, Joel Davis, an associate professor of English and the chapter’s membership coordinator, shares his thoughts about the chapter’s early successes and the challenges it faces.

What is your chapter’s proudest accomplishment?

We grew very quickly, thanks to chapter leaders Susan Peppers-Bates and Nick Maddox. We also owe a lot to senior and retired faculty who stepped up at critical moments, lending their gravitas to some of the more impassioned expostulations of their juniors. And we have to thank our whole membership for being vocal and smart enough to forge a unified political alliance. We’re able to discuss the problems Stetson faces from the faculty’s point of view.

What is the best strategy for recruiting new chapter members and leaders?

We were able to create a strong AAUP chapter because we tapped into deep and abiding faculty dissatisfaction over issues like salaries, the mistreatment of our retired colleagues, and a lack of shared governance. Our chapter president, Bill Nylen, speaks to groups of faculty at both departmental and college levels, explaining why people should join the AAUP. I want to keep asking members what they want to work on, and then help them get the resources to lead on their own projects. It can be a great organic and nonhierarchical strategy, but I think we have some way to go to achieve it.

What are your current goals for the chapter?

Well, it’s still early, but we want to make faculty jobs easier. A lot of the workload that faculty face could be done by administrative assistants. Faculty are burdened enough.

We also want to work on outreach—to the Student Government Association as well as to the board of trustees. We have to keep all channels of communication open.

What is the biggest concern of faculty at your institution right now?

Neither I nor my chapter can speak for “the faculty” as a whole. I can say that the issues that brought us together were salaries, our retirees, and our attenuated role in shared governance. The struggle we face is the way that universities are becoming corporatized.

Why has tuition been going up for thirty years? Well, it’s not because the ranks of faculty are continuing to swell. Since the early 1970s there haven’t been huge waves of hiring faculty. Nor is it because salaries are increasing at a breathtaking pace. Instead, administrations are getting much larger, and they’re building and staffing amenities for students to make campuses attractive. And I think they’re sinking a lot of money into athletics programs, largely on the premise that they advertise “the brand” of the school. From an administrative perspective, it’s all perfectly rational. Administrators tend to think in terms of increasing revenue streams or finding new ones.

What is the most divisive issue within the chapter?

Ten percent of Stetson’s net revenue is spent on athletics. There’s a camp that finds that offensive, and a faction that believes we cannot win that battle—we can’t convince the administration or the trustees to decrease the resources being diverted from the core mission to subsidize a Division I athletics program. And both sides are right.

Nevertheless, this state of affairs presents our chapter with an opportunity, and this opportunity is similar at every single Division I institution whose athletics program consumes more revenue than it produces. Every time we hear there isn’t enough money for raises or professional development resources, we can point out how much revenue is being used to subsidize athletics programs that lose money, and we have every right to ask to see concrete evidence that sports teams are cost-effective ways to enhance an institutional “brand.”

Year after year, the administration says, “Once our revenue reaches this level, we’ll be able to spend it on research and merit scholarships and professional development and faculty compensation, but we have to spend money over here on landscaping, athletics, dining facilities, before we can pay you.” And every cycle ends the same way: we’ve spent the money, we’ve seen the results, we’re ready to get paid—oh, wait, there’s another financial disaster. We can’t break that cycle without understanding the institution’s finances and pressing to be included in financial decisions.

What is the biggest challenge facing higher education now?

It’s the corporatization of the university. By far.

Look at for-profit schools. They set their tuition based on how much student loan money students can get. Almost all faculty are adjuncts, and there’s no accountability. There are huge default rates. If you take corporatization as far as it can go, it looks a lot like for-profit higher education.

In English you see corporatization at a pretty advanced stage. A good-sized English program has around a hundred graduate students teaching introductory writing courses to undergrads. The administrators keep them around for inexpensive labor. The next step is adjuncts—paid by the course, no benefits. Whenever you hear administrators say that the faculty needs to be more “nimble” or “flexible” or “fast on its feet,” that means they want to be able to hire and fire people at will, respecting neither educational best practices nor workers’ rights to a living wage with reasonable stability. This trend is inimical to academic freedom and shared governance.

What is the best event the chapter has hosted?

We had an Assembly of State Conferences regional leadership workshop. It ended with a talk on finances by Howard Bunsis, chair of the AAUP’s Collective Bargaining Congress. The keynote speaker was AAUP president Cary Nelson. The AAUP and ASC officers really broadened our awareness, and the strategies they suggested have already borne fruit.

What is the worst idea the administration or trustees had in recent years?

Even before the global financial crisis of 2008, our administration had been encouraging senior faculty to retire, with the understanding that they would continue to enjoy relatively generous health-insurance benefits. Quite a few retired—many earlier than planned, because they wanted to help the university and their more junior colleagues. But in 2010, the administration and trustees abruptly decided to cut retiree benefits. One of the most offensive moments was when the administration explicitly argued that a 3 percent faculty raise could be paid for only by cutting retiree benefits. It was a transparent and repellent attempt to get faculty to sacrifice their retired colleagues. We called the bluff and pointed out the many other revenue streams that could be diverted to pay for raises, and the faculty senate voted unanimously against the administration’s proposal. The administration and trustees ignored us, however, which is ultimately the worst thing they have done in recent memory.

What is the best thing done by the administration or trustees in recent years?

The provost insisted that we redraft the faculty bylaws, which offers us a chance to introduce many best practices outlined in the AAUP’s “Redbook.” Her commitment to institutional consistency is invaluable.

What one piece of advice would you pass on to other chapters?

Get interested in finances. Follow the money, and learn how to read financial statements.

What do you know now that you wish you’d known six months ago?

Here’s one thing I learned at the ASC workshop: faculty representation consists of a lot more than one faculty member with one vote on a committee. Real representation means that the faculty member can share information with constituents freely and can raise issues in that body on an equal footing with other members.

Would your chapter make a good profile? Contact gbradley@aaup.org.

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