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Chronicle of Higher Education: ‘Talking Is over’: Hundreds of professors strike at Wright State

Faculty picketter

Excerpt from the Chronicle of Higher Education

Professors picketed at Wright State University on Tuesday to kick off a faculty strike. The labor dispute reached a boiling point after years of overspending without administrative oversight threw the Ohio university’s finances into a nosedive.

Wright State’s faculty union began the strike at 8 a.m. after failing for two years to reach a contract agreement with the university. About 560 of the university’s 1,700 faculty members belong to the union, which is a branch of the American Association of University Professors.

In November, Wright State’s Board of Trustees extended what it called its last, best offer. The union rejected it, though union leaders say they weren’t told at the time that they wouldn’t be invited back to the negotiating table. On January 4 the board voted to carry out the terms and conditions of that contract in the absence of an agreement.

Now the administration and professors are at loggerheads. The president says the university flirted with financial disaster, and while it didn’t fall off a cliff, it still needs to find solid footing. The union says the strike isn’t about pay raises. It’s about power over their classrooms and workloads.

Both sides say that mistrust, born out of past financial mistakes, persists between the top brass and the faculty.

‘Left Holding the Bag’

Years of overspending, combined with declining donations and enrollment, caused Wright State’s financial problems to snowball. From 2012 to 2017 the university burned through about $131 million of its reserves, depleting its total reserves from $162 million to about $31 million. Across the campus, people were overspending their budgets, said the president, Cheryl B. Schrader, who took office in July 2017. Tenure-track faculty members were hired with one-time funds, and despite falling enrollment, spending was not adjusted, she said. The former administration had ideas on how to expand the university, she said, but it “got out there a little too far.”

Wright State also made some obvious financial mistakes. In November the university paid the U.S. Department of Justice a $1-million fine to settle a visa-fraud investigation that found the university had “grossly misused the H1-B visa-cap exemption,” the department said in a news release.

In February the university said it had gone over budget on health benefits by $6 million, the Dayton Daily News reported. In 2017 the university paid back nearly $2 million to the U.S. Department of Education because of a federal student-aid snafu, the News reported.

And in 2016 the university spent a little more than $1.7 million to prepare for a presidential debate that it didn’t end up hosting, the News reported.

According to the union, the trustees have been “fiscally reckless” and have prioritized an “expensive basketball program” and “real-estate boondoggles,” while slashing support for the university’s mission. So it’s unfair, the union argues, for the faculty to pay the price.“Every single scheme lost [money], and we were sort of left holding the bag,” said Noeleen McIlvenna, a history professor and a union officer. Unlike some other strikes, McIlvenna said, this one isn’t about pay raises, which the contract backed by the trustees doesn’t allocate. The main issues, she said, are health-care benefits, furlough days, and changes in the workload policy.

The trustee-approved offer would put faculty members on a different university health plan — the same one used by Wright State’s nonfaculty employees. The union says it will raise members’ premiums and shift “the burden to the sick and to the lowest-paid.”

Wright State could use up to 10 furlough days per calendar year if its fiscal health falls below a certain state-mandated level, though the trustees have recommended at most two furlough days per semester. The contract also would eliminate an existing workload agreement for faculty members, and propose that the provost and the faculty senate write the policy together. (Ohio law does not allow workload agreements to be a negotiated part of union contracts, a university spokesman said.)

The new workload agreement would not be used to spread the faculty thinner, Larry Y. Chan, the university’s general counsel, said in a statement. But the union doesn’t trust that promise. Administrators “keep saying, ‘Oh, we won’t change anything,’” McIlvenna said. “Well then, why did we take that away, then?”

She also doesn’t buy the argument that the furlough policy won’t be abused. Faculty members are “evidence-based people,” McIlvenna said. “We know that language doesn’t go into something if it’s not going to be used.”

‘Dystopian U’

Schrader, the president, said she understands where some of the disillusionment comes from. Some trust had been lost with the previous administration, she said.

When Schrader took office, she said, she inherited a $30-million structural budget deficit, on top of the loss of most of its reserves. So the university slashed its spending by about $53 million for the 2018 fiscal year. It managed to avoid a state-mandated fiscal watch and ended the year with a $10-million surplus.

Union leaders often cite that metric. If Wright State avoided financial doom under the terms of the old contract, they ask, why is there a need for a more austere one?

Most of the surplus went into the reserves, Schrader said. Wright State steered out of the skid, but “it’s not as if there’s a lot of money just hanging out there,” she said, “and we don’t know what to do with it.”

“We need to be businesslike,” she said. “We’re not a business, but we can’t run deficits for seven years.”

Schrader, a onetime engineering professor who was previously chancellor of the Missouri University of Science and Technology, also said that she doesn’t think union leaders have “been forthright” with their members, and have “played on that distrust that was still lingering from the former administration.” That way, she said, misinformation about what the contract actually says is perpetuated.

With mounting tension, a path to a resolution isn’t clear. Union members seem resolute. “Our only option is strike, or accept,” McIlvenna said. “Talking is over.”