Making a Tangible Difference in Campus Culture in One Year

Chapter building at a small Catholic university with no tenure-track faculty.
By Simeon Dreyfuss

Marylhurst University’s AAUP advocacy chapter is not even one year old, yet it has already made a tangible difference in campus culture. Most important, faculty have reversed five years of systematic disenfranchisement, which extended to such traditional areas of faculty purview as policies that affect students and curricula, with faculty often hearing about changes only after they had been enacted. The improvement is still fragile, and much remains to be done. But instead of increasing faculty powerlessness, there is now a nascent awareness that the faculty should be meaningfully involved in the decision-making process. Many of those in leadership positions, though not all, understand that faculty have a legitimate role in university governance. Although there certainly is no agreement about what that role might be, acknowledgment that the faculty should play a role represents a huge step forward.

Spur to Action

Perhaps it was the animated fire that rippled across the former president’s PowerPoint presentation about the university’s budget at an all-staff meeting, accompanied by her childish giggle, that coalesced the sense among the faculty that something was seriously wrong. Who knows her internal experience? We certainly theorized among ourselves. It seemed she thought the fire was cute, even though the budget message concerned layoffs. What troubled us most was the disconnection between her manner and her message, more evidence of what we felt was her lack of appropriate gravitas. We were, of course, aware that enrollments had declined and that at a tuition-driven institution the budget therefore had a large hole. We understood that sacrifices would need to be made. We had hoped, however, that they would be shared.

In isolation, her graphics might have been dismissed as a tone-deaf joke, but such tone deafness is rarely isolated. More often, as in our case, such behavior follows a pattern. When we started talking about what to do, faculty members identified many “breaking points.” Perhaps it was the commencement speech in which our former president quoted randomly a remark by W. H. Auden, and, with that same giggle, commented, “Whoever he is.” One of our communication faculty members commented that he wished he had taped the speech as an example of everything not to do.

Clearly, something needed to change. Faculty felt the university had endured years of bad decisions with no one being held accountable. Marylhurst had invested heavily in administrative structures, and though the budget was opaque, it was clear that the ratio of academic to nonacademic expenses was wildly different from the ratio at similarly sized institutions. We had gone from a relatively flat administration to a hierarchical structure with layers of management between us and the president. At the same time, faculty and staff withstood a reduction in contributions to retirement benefits along with two years with no raises followed by a year with a pay cut, and faculty received a mandated increase in teaching load. In the midst of all of this, the president had reorganized her leadership team to exclude deans and the chair of our University Faculty Council, the equivalent of Marylhurst’s faculty Senate.

Another breaking point for some faculty was the administration’s sustained “dialogue” about trust and respect when we felt afraid and anything but respected. It did not seem that our leaders understood the nature of faculty work: the president had been the CEO of an electrical utility, and the vice president for human resources had come to us from the health-care industry. We felt strongly that no one in the university’s leadership was advocating effectively for the concerns of the faculty.

There is much more to recount, but surely the contours are clear. We are certainly not unique in our situation, but we are on the bleeding edge of many problematic trends in higher education.

In late spring 2013, meeting in private and using personal e-mail addresses, a group of faculty from across disciplines began to craft a letter to the board of trustees articulating our sense that the university was in trouble. We asked that the board fairly and dispassionately evaluate the performance of the university’s leadership. We planned to bring the letter to the whole faculty for endorsement at the start of the fall term, but others within the university structure were talking with the board, and in the middle of the summer, our group of faculty got word that if the faculty had something to say to the board now would be the time. Working through the leadership of the University Faculty Council, we held an online vote and sent our letter to the board with the endorsement of the faculty body. Within a month, the president had resigned. An interim president was named, and a yearlong search process for a new president began.

That letter was only one of the initiatives that the faculty group undertook. Another was to explore the possibility of forming a faculty union. It was clear to the group that far more was wrong at Marylhurst than one problematic leader. All of those in the upper leadership had either encouraged or cooperated with the disempowerment of faculty. If the situation was going to change, the impetus would have to come from faculty.

To Unionize or Not to Unionize 

Marylhurst’s faculty ultimately chose to form an AAUP advocacy chapter and not to pursue a unionized chapter. When faculty unionize, one central question is, Who can be a member? This is a legal question, and labor law does not favor academic workers, although in our case there are factors in our favor as well as factors suggesting that winning recognition as a union would be extremely difficult.

Marylhurst is a private Catholic institution that serves primarily adult and other nontraditional students. About 70 percent of our courses are taught by adjunct faculty, and those of us with full-time faculty positions can hire and fire adjunct faculty. This circumstance would suggest that we might be regarded by the law as “supervisors” and thus not eligible to be members of a union. It is, of course, an odd institution where most full-time workers are supervisors, but following the 1980 Supreme Court decision NLRB v. Yeshiva University, in which most full-time faculty members in private institutions were denied the right to pursue collective bargaining under the legal framework of the National Labor Relations Act on grounds that they were “managerial employees” and thereby excluded from the act’s coverage, proving that full-time faculty at a private institution are not “supervisors” is an uphill battle.

What makes our case interesting is that we are an institution without a system of academic tenure where faculty members serve without contracts. Indeed, all Marylhurst faculty are at-will employees, and on any given day our jobs can be terminated without explanation—even in the middle of a term. There is no functional grievance procedure, and just this year we finally instituted a “rank and advancement” policy, though the board made it clear that, given the institution’s financial circumstances, any advancements in rank would likely be in name only, without any additional compensation.

While there might be interesting legal questions about whether or not we are “supervisors” in the eyes of the law, and while there are private universities, even Catholic ones, at which administrations have voluntarily recognized and negotiated with a faculty union rather than legally challenge it, our group of faculty ultimately did not want a protracted unionizing fight. Rather, we wanted a means to change the culture of the institution, so we formed an AAUP advocacy chapter, which was officially recognized in November 2013.

Accomplishments

Our new chapter has already had significant success in the areas of governance, university budgeting, the faculty role in administrative searches and evaluation of administrators, and program and quality issues. The pattern established with the original letter to the board has been repeated several times: many of the initiatives passed by the University Faculty Council in the 2013–14 academic year had their origins in AAUP discussions.

Governance. We formed a governance committee and, jointly with the faculty council, drafted principles of shared governance. We then met with the interim president and other administrators several times to discuss the faculty’s legitimate role in university governance. We have started discussions about how best to structure our own faculty governance body, perhaps including the eventual reorganization of the University Faculty Council into a bicameral body with a new faculty senate.

University budgeting. We sent a letter to the interim president, endorsed by the faculty council, about the need for faculty involvement in decisions about the university’s financial situation. We advocated for a more humane approach to layoffs in times of financial exigency, and though the experience in the latest round of layoffs was hard, it was arguably better than in the past. An AAUP chapter initiative led to the formation of a faculty committee dealing with budget and finance. Though Marylhurst is only beginning to include faculty appropriately in the budget process, this committee can point to important accomplishments. It has begun to pry open the books of the university, weakening what some have described as a “cult of secrecy” around university finances; two committee members now have access to budget spreadsheets, though to get access they were required to sign confidentiality agreements. The committee offered suggestions for the emergency budget realignment last fall; alternatives offered by the faculty resulted in fewer layoffs than might otherwise have happened. Not least of all, the administration actually brought the faculty finance committee into discussions around the formation of the 2014–15 budget, albeit in limited ways.

The faculty role in administrative searches and evaluation of administrators. We articulated the principle that the faculty should choose our own representatives on search committees for university administrative positions. We have been only partially successful in enacting this; clearly the principle has not been affirmed administratively, though our AAUP chapter will continue to advocate for it at every appropriate opportunity. Bylaws of the board of trustees specify that four faculty members should serve on a presidential search committee. As advocated by the AAUP chapter, and in a change from past presidential searches (in which faculty members were appointed to the search committees), the faculty elected our own representatives to the presidential search, and objected strongly (though unsuccessfully) to the idea that the provost counted as a faculty representative. The faculty finance committee was intimately involved in the (ultimately failed) hiring process for a new vice president for finance and facilities. The chapter raised objections to the hiring process for another new vice president, which faculty and staff became aware of only after the position had been filled. And we forced a public conversation on the composition of the search committee for a new marketing director. Though this committee was ultimately appointed by the administration, the faculty members on it were recommended and endorsed by many faculty. Finally, the AAUP chapter advocated for an annual process to determine faculty views on the effectiveness of university leadership. This process was endorsed by the University Faculty Council, and a joint work group developed a tool for compiling faculty views on the performance of the deans and the provost.

Program and quality issues. We crafted a letter objecting to the lack of faculty involvement in a program review process initiated by the board. This draft letter was publicly discussed with the provost at a faculty council meeting. Though the letter was not advanced beyond that meeting, faculty were subsequently more involved in the process. A group within our chapter produced a preliminary report examining the links between academic quality, university mission, student satisfaction, and retention. It examined issues from the adjunct faculty model to faculty compensation, adequate support for faculty development, and the equalizing of expectations across campus for student workload per academic credit. It also suggested a variety of potential strategies for increasing class sizes, including a potential shift from three-to four-credit courses. As it was designed to do, this “think piece” has fostered many ongoing conversations and encouraged collaboration across schools and colleges.

Most important, the existence of the AAUP advocacy chapter has helped foster a sense across the university that faculty need to be appropriately involved in making university decisions. If nothing else, decision makers at the university now understand that when faculty are not included, we will both raise the issue and connect the specific instance to broader patterns of faculty disenfranchisement. Clearly, this shift is still in its early stages. Marylhurst has an ongoing need for faculty advocacy for appropriate inclusion. Our AAUP chapter gives us the opportunity to explore our collective views about enacting shared governance and a means to engage other parts of the university concerning those views.

In early June 2014, the board announced the name of Marylhurst’s new university president. We note with some anticipation that before she began her rise through the rungs of academic administration, our new president was a member of an AAUP faculty bargaining team.

Marylhurst’s AAUP chapter looks forward to working with the board, the new president, and her administration to shape our university’s immediate and long-term future.

Simeon Dreyfuss is chair of interdisciplinary studies and president of the AAUP advocacy chapter at Marylhurst University. He also served for fifteen years as director of Marylhurst’s liberal arts core program. Correspondences concerning this article can be addressed to sdreyfuss@marylhurst.edu.

Comments

As a student at Marylhurst I am very happy to read about this development. The school has so much going for it, leadership should reflect these positives by including those who create them . . . primarily, the teachers.
Rod Endacott -- Interdisciplinary Studies Program

Marylhurst as a school:

I had an elderly male teacher asks me out. The same teacher used me as an alibi in his personal drama. He informed me if a certain someone asked about him that his alibi was a reason for the approach.
Another male teacher/ department head grabbed my leg over coffee. He also criticized my car for being a low class status. I am a student. It gets from me point A to point B so my car works.
Some teachers did help me learn in depth on certain subjects. Not all teachers are bad.
The science department is a joke. There were plastic Dinosaurs and a painted plaster, fake fossil, in the small display case within the science building. The "science building" only has two rooms. Most of the building are offices for the department heads.
A department head and a career counselor approved of my BA internship at Marylhurst. Graduate school at Marylhurst did not accept that internship. The career counselor did nothing about her misguidance. She was like, oh well. Thanks for screwing with my future.
Not mention their graduate school is a joke for several reasons. The teachers are not updated, think projector slides. I was refused application assistance on materials I needed to provide for grad school, by the department's academic advisor. Perhaps they don't need the money.
There is no book store on camps. That's right. A university without a bookstore. The bookstore was dismantled to save money. The bookstore consists only of a low-grade cafe with obvious desperate business hungry managers.
The dean of students/ counselor was laid off. He critisized students for failing a class even for health issues. He didn't actually counsel. Instead he made referrals to low budget counselors at other schools and businesses.

As a Maryhurst Employee:

The school is in debt several million dollars. There were 2 rounds of lay offs with in two years even HR got laid off.
HR fired individuals who did not fit in with their clicks. They made up reasons since OR is a fire at will state. They were u rational and illogical when acting like a defense attorney for their clicks. Karma is awesome.
The cafe on campus tries to be super but fails. Due to budget cuts I can smell the desperation retaking off the manager who lacks knowledge in coffee. The assistant manager is worse since she makes icky drinks but explains why and how she knows what she made is right. She puts half and half in Americanos. Yes it preserves the shots but please be considerate of the lactose intolerant. Also she takes advantage of personal advertising for her non-affiliated school music. Stop being self fish and save poster room for students.
Marylhurst is the school for adultra slogan is the nice way of saying, we cannot afford dorms, sports teams, and so forth.
There you have it, Marylhurst University in a nutshell.

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