By Victoria Gill-Gomez
On Oct. 21, 2020 the Washington College chapter of the American Association of University Professors’s petition to unionize was denied by the College’s Board of Visitors and Governors. Regardless of this rejection, AAUP-WC continues to strive towards “encouraging faculty participation in shared governance,” according to the AAUP-WC website.
During summer 2020, the WC faculty began establishing their AAUP chapter as a response to the College eliminating 14 faculty positions to ease the institution’s enduring fiscal challenges and structural deficit.
According to Associate Professor & Chair of Sociology; Director of the Justice, Law & Society Minor; Faculty Pre-Law Advisor;, and AAUP-WC Vice-President Dr. Rachel Durso, AAUP-WC remains unaware of the Board’s rationale for rejecting the petition, and they have not been able to converse with the Board about AAUP-WC’s reasons for wanting unionization.
“I am disappointed that members of the Board did not see our petition to unionize as an opportunity to open a dialogue with us about our concerns regarding working conditions, job stability, and equity issues. In conversations with my colleagues, I have found I am not alone in my frustration over lack of communication with the Board,” Dr. Durso said.
AAUP-WC believes that unionization will stabilize the pursuit of WC’s academic mission to deliver liberal arts education, help boost morale, and will allow for a more systematized and clear relationship between faculty and College administration and leadership.
The Board’s brief written response about their choice to reject the petition cited a 1980 court case known between Yeshiva University and the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) that identifies faculty as only “managerial,” not bargaining.
However, the court case does not prohibit the Board from engaging the faculty in conversations about unionization, nor from voluntarily accepting the previous petition.
“I believe that institutions and organizations are successful when decisions are made by using the best available data and examining multiple stakeholder perspectives. As WC responds to the challenges in front of us, it is imperative that the Board of Visitors and Governors and Administration partner with faculty to develop solutions to these challenges and create sustainable plans to promote liberal arts education and secure our college’s future,” Dr. Durso said.
Unions can improve many aspects of campus life, according to Dr. Steinmetz. They can provide stability, promote equity, and improve transparency and communication.
“I feel like our conversations and planning have been focused almost exclusively on trimming our expenses and running more efficiently without giving sufficient time or energy towards plans for how we can stabilize and grow the College in ways that best serve our students, mission, and the wider community,” Dr. Durso said.
As the College transitions into the search for the next permanent president, Interim President Wayne Powell and Interim Dean and Provost Dr. Michael Harvey, along with Board member Hugh Sherman, are focused on building a relationship with the faculty, according to Professor and Chair of English, Director of Writing, and Director of the Sophie Kerr Endowment Dr. Sean Meehan.
This has taken shape in weekly “fireside chats” in which senior administrators and eight faculty members discuss various topics relating to WC in order to create a greater sense of transparency.
While other members of AAUP-WC’s Executive Committee have not attended these chats yet, Dr. Durso said she is “looking forward to the opportunity to talk about potential new ideas that highlight student and faculty accomplishments and demonstrate the value of a liberal arts education to a wider population.”
Many of the College’s faculty have been at WC longer than members of the Administration and Board. Their extended careers at WC help them develop close working relationships with students and colleagues, providing insight into how the curriculum and changes to it affect these parties.
According to Dr. Durso, expertise and experiences provided by long-time faculty can help develop creative solutions or provide constructive criticism for strategic plans.
The AAUP-WC chapter voiced their concerns in fall 2020 that the decision to terminate two tenure-track faculty positions violated principles governing academic tenure.
Powell reversed these terminations in December 2020, instead saying they would close the positions through an attrition program.
This plan of action seeks to gradually reduce the faculty through members voluntarily leaving instead of being laid off. These individuals would not be replaced.
According to Associate Professor of Music and AAUP-WC President Dr. Kenneth Schweitzer, the AAUP-WC Executive Committee welcomed this administrative announcement to abandon the plan on “right-sizing” the faculty.
Dr. Schweitzer said the original suggested procedures violated both the faculty handbook and AAUP guiding principles.
However, he also said the attrition program comes with its own challenges.
Attrition does not ensure a complete sense of stability for faculty. WC professors continue to experience the consequences of slashed benefits and stagnant wages.
Over the past year, many contingent faculty colleagues and staff members whom faculty rely on were terminated. The additional cuts to tenure-track faculty that began in fall 2020 and were going to continue into spring 2021 have since been dropped.
“While I can’t speak for all tenure-track faculty, I will say that personally, my sense of stability has been shaken and the announcement of the attrition plan has not magically restored it,” Assistant Professor of Anthropology and AAUP-WC Tenure-Track Representative Dr. Emily Steinmetz said.
AAUP-WC was founded as an advocacy chapter. All AAUP chapters across the U.S. are either advocacy chapters or collective bargaining chapters.
According to the AAUP-WC website, the petition was meant to begin a “conversation with College administration to implement long-term solutions and ensure stability and equity in faculty employment.”
Had the Board accepted the petition to unionize, AAUP-WC would have become a collective bargaining unit, representative of the entire faculty.
The main role of AAUP-WC is to advocate for academic freedom, which includes supporting the established system of tenure, and to promote shared-governance, which stipulates that the responsibility of governing the College is shared among the Board of Visitors and Governors, the senior administration, and the faculty. When these core principles are upheld, faculty and students alike will flourish.
Across the U.S., many higher education institutions are laying off faculty, and suspending or eliminating tenure. While much of this has to do with the COVID-19 pandemic, such decisions are decided by funders — like the Board — and have directly affected friends and colleagues at other institutions, according to Dr. Durso.
According to Dr. Durso, AAUP-WC’s mission is to stand against these actions, strategize to promote the partnership between faculty and administration, and strengthen the faculty’s role in decision-making at WC. “Faculty are often told by administrators and Board members that we are the heart of the College. Although faculty are neither the only nor the most important people here, we do have a unique responsibility in guiding the academic programs at the center of the College. In order to fulfill that responsibility effectively, faculty need a seat at the decision-making table with administrative and Board leadership; we currently don’t have one. I think a positive transformation in the leadership and future of Washington College could be built upon that small but significant change,” Dr. Meehan said.