Faculty, Governance, and Financial Crisis at the University of Florida

Faculty must fight unnecessary cuts and forced restructuring.
By Kim Emery

Recent experience at the University of Florida suggests that the role of faculty in university governance during a time of financial crisis is conditioned by several factors, some of them local. Most important, it reveals that addressing the question of faculty governance in the context of crisis risks confusing two questions better kept separate: (1) what role should faculty play, ideally, in governing institutions of higher education? and (2) what actions can faculty take now, in the context of existing circumstances, in response to the current crisis? While the first question calls for an abstract and analytical answer, the second requires an immediate pragmatic and political response.

What conditions do we currently face? Decades of declining state support have left public institutions, in particular, dangerously vulnerable to drastic reinvention. A disempowered professoriate now represents less than one-third of instructional staff nationally, while most teaching (and much research) is performed by vulnerable adjunct, part-time, and term-contract employees. The direct impact of the current financial crisis, however, may be less dramatic in some instances than initially predicted. At the University of Florida, for example, we are not facing the enormous cuts originally feared, at least not in the short term. Thanks to the federal stimulus package and significant tuition increases, Florida’s universities have actually seen a 1 percent increase over last year. Nonetheless, restructuring, program closings, and staff and faculty layoffs are going forward at the University of Florida; the official rationale has been that because stimulus funds are nonrecurring, they should not be used to cover recurring costs, such as salaries, despite the federal government’s explicit intent that the funding be used to save and create jobs. This year alone, the University of Florida has laid off eleven full-time faculty members and declined to renew the contracts of many others—but it also appointed more than a hundred new full-time faculty members.

University President J. Bernard Machen has been straightforward about the strategy, remarking at a board of trustees retreat last February that he viewed the then anticipated budget shortfall as a “once in a generation” opportunity to push through changes otherwise unacceptable to the university community. Restructuring had been attempted repeatedly in recent years with no success, first under an earlier president’s “strategic plan” and later under the guise of a “five-year plan” and claims of fiscal mismanagement in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

These efforts to shift support from core academic units to the professional schools (especially health sciences), from undergraduate to graduate education, and from faculty in the unionized portion of the university to nonunionized faculty have occurred in the context of what might well be conceived as a crisis in higher education governance in Florida. The 2003 dissolution of the statewide board of regents during Jeb Bush’s tenure as governor led to a long legal struggle over the state’s obligation to recognize and negotiate with the faculty’s union, the United Faculty of Florida (an affiliate of both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers). A court of appeals ultimately decided the case in the union’s favor. Meanwhile, a referendum established a new statewide board of governors with constitutional authority but left in place the local boards of trustees created by Bush’s plan. The situation at Florida’s flagship university is further complicated by a long-standing legal arrangement that puts somewhat less than half of the University of Florida’s full-time faculty in the unionized bargaining unit; faculty in the health sciences, agriculture, and law are not included. The university-wide faculty senate thus includes both unionized and nonunionized faculty and was recently restructured to apportion more seats to representatives from the nonunionized colleges—which, not incidentally, also include proportionately fewer tenure-line faculty than the unionized colleges. The fit, not surprisingly, is imperfect.

For example, when the faculty assembly of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences voted 112–1 and 111–0 to demand the immediate reinstatement of tenure-track and other full-time faculty laid off last year, the senate steering committee refused to allow the issue to be aired on the floor, thus saving the upper administration significant embarrassment. However, whereas the faculty senate has only consultative powers as a strictly advisory body to the president and the board of trustees, the union has recourse to binding neutral arbitration and, if necessary, the courts, to enforce its contract. The first union grievance brought on behalf of last year’s laid-off faculty resulted in reinstatement: the arbitrator ruled unequivocally in the faculty member’s favor. The other laid-off faculty who had brought grievances were subsequently reinstated.

Although faculty in general are understandably wary of appearing obstinate or uncooperative, the most appropriate role for faculty to play in such circumstances—arguably, the only real option available—may be to serve as an obstacle to administrative prerogative run amok. The push in Florida, begun under Bush’s administration and continuing with Governor Charlie Crist, is clearly toward stronger top-down management in the interest of expanding state-subsidized research and development for private enterprise, increasing the number of term-contract and at-will employees, disempowering faculty, and in the process decreasing both academic freedom and the quality of higher education. To participate in decisions about where to cut or which colleagues to lay off when such cuts are unnecessary and the official organs of faculty governance are either crippled or corrupt would be neither practicable nor principled: it would pit faculty members against one another needlessly and lend legitimacy to a project misconceived from the start.

The view from here suggests that the real financial crisis in higher education is not so much the short-term deficit brought on by global recession as the untenable system of casualized labor, commodified knowledge, and commercialized services associated with the ongoing privation and privatization of public higher education. Taking the long view, Florida’s faculty face the responsibility not to participate in this process but to stop it.

In Florida we are fortunate to have a certified faculty union and a collective bargaining agreement that protects our right to speak out, limits the reach of layoffs, and makes tenure meaningful. In this era of crisis, when not merely the university’s financial health but also its very academic integrity is at risk, faculty must fight the temptation to keep our heads down and wait it out. In the past year, the United Faculty of Florida has spearheaded a successful campaign to prevent a planned 10 percent cut to higher education, won a precedent-setting case against selective layoffs, and significantly enhanced faculty rights and benefits in negotiated agreements across the state. For good reason, faculty are joining the union in record numbers. At the University of Florida and on other unionized campuses, faculty are responding to the current crisis by contributing their dues, time, and expertise to the only organization with the legal standing to ensure an independent faculty voice, secure inalienable faculty rights, and guarantee a seat at the table where critical decisions about the terms of our employment are actually made.

For faculty elsewhere, the answer is: organize.

Kim Emery is associate professor of English at the University of Florida and the author of The Lesbian Index: Pragmatism and Lesbian Subjectivity in the Twentieth-Century United States. Past-president of the UF chapter of the United Faculty of Florida, she has also served on the steering committee of the UF faculty senate. She is currently completing a book on queer theory and the corporate university. Emery’s e-mail address is [email protected].