Chapter Profile: University of Akron

The AAUP chapter at the University of Akron in Ohio was established in 1932 and chartered as a collective bargaining chapter in 2003. It represents more than 750 full-time tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty members. In January, the chapter ratified its second contract, which includes raises in the first two years, improvements in benefits and governance provisions, and a comprehensive article on non-tenure-track faculty.

Here, David Witt, co-chair of the chapter’s communications committee, answers some questions about the chapter’s challenges, strategies, and successes.

To what do you attribute your chapter’s accomplishments?
Everything we’ve accomplished has been possible only because of our affiliation with the AAUP. The Association’s values and principles bind us together as a professional, political, and social unit. They provide a basis for our faculty to elect the most earnest and talented chapter officers and negotiators, in whom they can entrust their professional and financial well-being.

How do you recruit new chapter members?
We visit every new faculty member at the start of each academic year. We have a table at the fall employee orientation, where we give out buttons, pens, and membership forms, and we point new faculty to a Web page set up just for them.

We encourage faculty to use the chapter as a resource. The new-faculty page contains an invitation to “Ask Us Anything,” and faculty do so regularly. During negotiations, we’ve rented tables in the student union, offering faculty an opportunity to stop and talk as they pass by. Both of these actions have resulted in new members.

That said, our experience tells us that the quality of our communications is our best recruiting tool. From the outset, Akron-AAUP has communicated regularly with our faculty in unvarnished, plain language. Our simple guiding principle seems to work: we don’t hide anything. Telling the truth is a novel idea in an otherwise corporatized environment.

When we act on behalf of faculty, we publicize the results, which are almost always favorable. For example, prior to our first contract, the administration unilaterally changed health-care cost contributions. In response, we filed an unfair labor practice, we obtained a grant from the AAUP’s Collective Bargaining Congress and distributed $500 apiece to faculty members who were hardest hit, and we publicized both of these actions widely. While most faculty received no immediate financial remedy, we all felt proud of the collective action to take care of our own. And when the unfair labor practice charge was settled in our favor, we won enough to make every faculty member whole again for his or her initial losses. With each action, more membership forms came in.

How do you develop new leaders?
We are a relatively new chapter, but we do see the problem of the recruitment of new leaders out on the horizon. One strategy is to recruit a brand-new negotiating team for each contract, on the theory that the experience will inspire those involved to move into elected positions. So far, that approach seems to be working. We also have established a departmental liaison group consisting of one chapter member in each academic department, and this serves as a pool of potential new leaders. Once we have identified promising potential leaders, we try to send them to the AAUP’s annual Summer Institute. About half of our elected officers are Summer Institute “graduates.”

What is the biggest concern of faculty at your institution right now?
The biggest problem is shared governance, although it isn’t always identified that way. In our second contract, we made progress in establishing the voice of the faculty in governance. The administration now includes the faculty union in some joint projects, such as institutional accreditation. But it continues to devote massive resources to projects without any faculty advice. We are learning that not everything can be negotiated, and we are enlisting alliances more frequently with the faculty senate.

How does your chapter work with the senate?
Faculty senates and faculty unions can and should work together to voice faculty concerns and enhance shared governance. Both share the general goal of an effective campus community. In our case, most senate members are also active chapter members.

UA’s faculty senate has purview over matters like curriculum development and some academic policies. The senate has opportunities that the chapter does not have. The UA president and provost meet with senate leaders each month and regularly address senate sessions. Conversely, the union has power that the senate does not have. Senate resolutions and the results of its committee deliberations are all advisory and have no legal teeth. The chapter negotiates principled contract language with the administration, which is legally binding.

What do you see as the biggest challenge facing higher education now?
Hands down, it is the corporatization of the academy, which brings an array of threats to academic professionals and their students. Without the constant vigilance of the faculty union, backed by a legally negotiated contract, corporate-style administrations are free to market, trade, and otherwise capitalize on the intellectual work of faculty and sometimes barter the faculty themselves. For example, our members understand the need to employ contingent faculty, but we fully expect them to be accorded the resources necessary to do their work. The administration doesn’t see this. While we regard all who teach as colleagues in the academic community, the corporate model of administration sees contingent faculty as mere expendable employees. These are precisely the conditions that led workers to unionize in the early part of the twentieth century.

What was the best event the chapter ever hosted and why?
Several chapter events stand out. One was our first “press conference” early in the spring 2002 semester, when we announced that we had started a card drive to bring collective bargaining to Akron. Several activists had been working hard over the winter break on the drive. We didn’t intentionally keep our actions quiet, but the administration was completely clueless about what we were doing. By the time of the press conference, we’d collected cards from more than 30 percent of the faculty, and more than two hundred faculty members showed up to hear our organizing plan— along with significant numbers of rather stunned administrators who had never before been subjected to public discussions about their actions.

What was the administration’s worst idea in recent years?
My computer doesn’t have enough memory for this one. In the recent negotiations administrators proposed a “reduction-in-force and furlough policy” that would have allowed them to remove teaching lines down to the individual faculty member or course offering. Of course, the faculty union communicated this to the faculty and, like magic, fifty new members sent in their forms. There was also the ill-fated proposal to require DNA samples from all new hires.

How about the best thing done by the administration recently?
For the union, it was the furlough policy proposal and the DNA flub. We really don’t have to recruit members since they do it for us. I think, however, you are asking about a positive thing they’ve done without having been forced. That brings up a key point: without a union, faculty would be in the position of having to appear grateful for little bits of advancement or recognition. That said, the administration has greatly improved the physical facilities and campus grounds in recent years.

What thoughts or advice would you pass on to other chapters?
Stick to AAUP principles and statements. Read them, refer to them, run your chapter by their guidelines.

Ask the Collective Bargaining Congress and national staff for assistance and advice. Our experience is that members of the national staff see their work as much more than just a job.

Get involved by sending representatives to the Summer Institute. You will make contacts and meet activists who have more good ideas in an afternoon than many of us have in a month.

Watch a video of David Witt talking about the faculty union movement at the University of Akron and his work with the Akron AAUP chapter.

Listen to the bluegrass stylings of the Ad-Hoc Post-Tenure Under-Appreciated Band, made up of Akron faculty including Witt

Would your chapter’s story make a good profile in Academe? Send an e-mail to Gwen Bradley.