University of Akron faculty in fight to defend quality higher education: AAUP calls for resignations

For high quality, affordable, and accessible higher education, there is something dangerous going on at the University of Akron (UA). Because of reckless actions of the Board of Trustees and the attempt to undermine one of Ohio’s fine universities, the AAUP is calling for the resignations of the Board of Trustees and the university president.

After nearly a decade of actively incompetent administration, the trustees are trying to force a new contract — a “last best offer” — on the unionized faculty at UA. Among other items, the process includes a ”hitlist” of 97 faculty positions to be eliminated. Seventy (70) of them are tenured professors. Believe it or not, that is about 20 percent of the full-time faculty. The new contract also contains language that would make every faculty job even more precarious.

No other university has ever taken such a foolish and vicious ax to its own ability to do the only job for which it exists — to provide an education to those who want it.

This unwarranted action has dangerous repercussions. If these firings stand, it will become evident that tenure no longer exists at UA. That all employees, non-tenure track and tenured alike, are just “at will” workers. UA’s ability to keep and attract great faculty will be damaged badly. Academic freedom will be at the will of trustees who do not value educators or higher education.

If you would like to join us in the call for the resignation of the board and president, please use our Action Network link to do so. Please help the Akron faculty: https://actionnetwork.org/letters/tell-the-university-of-akron-trustees-and-president-rescind-or-resign

How did this disaster happen? When the pandemic hit, the Akron trustees and administration decided not to let a crisis go to waste. They opportunistically invoked a never-used portion of the contract called force majeure. According to the contract: “The parties recognize that catastrophic circumstances, such as force majeure, could develop which are beyond the control of the University and would render impossible or unfeasible the implementation of procedures set forth in this Article.”

The “Article” referred to is the retrenchment article that provides for an orderly process of cutting both faculty and programs. That process fully involves the faculty at every step to create proposals for the board. Importantly, this strong retrenchment article requires the university to be honest about its financial condition, something it has never done. Instead, the UA faculty and public have been fed the bleakest of budget projections to justify making these draconian cuts.

The university is definitely NOT in a situation “beyond the control of the University” that “would render impossible or unfeasible” their ability to stick to the contract. In fact, the AAUP national budget experts have examined the university’s finances and see no such “catastrophic” situation in the budget.

Certainly, UA’s finances are complicated by enrollment problems (although this year’s enrollment is better-than-anticipated), an irresponsible and self-imposed debt level, and a reduction in state support. But every other university in Ohio, some of them facing similar financial problems, are dealing with the situation far more responsibly. For example, the recent news that state support won’t be cut as much as initially feared has led every other university to reevaluate their plans and even rescind furloughs. Not so at UA, where the administration has stubbornly stayed the course to bulldoze the academic mission in an attempt to bust the faculty union and render tenure meaningless.

This upside-down approach in priorities is obvious. None of nearly a dozen vice president level positions have been eliminated. Top administrators have taken only small, temporary pay cuts. Athletics has cut a few million dollars from their deficit but still promises to be well over $20 million in the hole this coming year. But, sure, the administration says, we can eliminate nearly 100 faculty jobs and still provide the same level of academic quality. That is clearly nonsense.

Akron’s enrollment problems can be traced directly to the board and the administration. Again and again over the last 10 years, they have plunged the university into turmoil with wacky half-baked ideas just as they are doing now.

The UA faculty now have to vote on this “last, best offer” from the administration. Some faculty may vote in favor of the contract, effectively firing their own colleagues, because they weren’t on the hitlist and are hoping to keep their jobs. This, in part, is due to a video message from UA president Gary Miller, in which he essentially threatened to fire more faculty if the contract is not ratified. It should be noted that President Miller’s attempt to speak directly to the faculty to influence their vote is illegal — an unfair labor practice under Ohio law. From the beginning, this has been an administration that hasn’t played by the rules and is attempting to “divide and conquer” the faculty with threats and misinformation.

If the faculty vote down the contract, it will go to a neutral, third party arbitrator to decide the fate of the contract, including whether the invocation of force majeure was warranted. The arbitrator’s decision will be binding. Going this route is the only way for the faculty union to have any teeth moving forward. This is why the administration wants to avoid arbitration so badly. In President Miller’s video message, he promised to exhaust the university’s reserves to fight the faculty in legal battles if they vote no on the contract. This is the same reserve fund that Miller and the trustees refuse to use to maintain faculty positions and quality education for Akron’s students.

The way for real reform to begin at UA is for the trustees and the president to rescind these faculty layoffs and return to the bargaining table with Akron-AAUP to chart a better, more sustainable path forward. Firing the very faculty that generate the revenue for the institution to solve a short-term budget problem is foolhardy, and will only exacerbate enrollment issues and the university’s financial hardships long-term. If the trustees and president refuse to reverse their decision, they should resign and allow for leadership that will serve the academic mission of UA.

(The author is president of the Ohio Conference, AAUP, and a history professor at the University of Cincinnati)

History professor at the University of Cincinnati, active in the American Association of University Professors, union advocate, Cold War historian.

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