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WSU negotiations grab national headlines

Managers proposed taking away tenure

When, during collective bargaining negotiations in July, Wayne State University in Detroit proposed to end tenure for faculty and job security for academic staff, howls of protest came from two quarters.

Academics both within and outside of the institution were incredulous that a renowned, top-tier research university would be willing to risk its reputation and hiring leverage on such a move. A group called California Scholars for Academic Freedom started a petition that garnered 6,000 signatures. Then the managers who had made the proposal claimed that they had proposed no such thing.

Over 2,000 Wayne State faculty and academic staff are represented by the American Association of University Professors and the AFT. Under the current contract, which expired July 31, 2012, but was extended until Sept. 30, the faculty have standard tenure protections and peer review. There is a process for removal for cause or in times of financial exigency. It includes the involvement of tenure review hearing panels, selected by the provost upon the recommendation of the Policy Committee of the Academic Senate.

What the university proposed this summer is that faculty could be terminated for "adequate cause" as determined by the president and his or her designee. Adequate cause was defined to "include but not be limited to failure to meet professional responsibilities, including teaching and scholarly and research productivity" and "failure to perform academic assignments competently."

The language proposal for academic staff's seniority protection was similar.

It was, says Charlie Parrish, president of the Wayne State University Chapter of AAUP-AFT, an "astonishing and malignant" proposal. The university withdrew it Aug. 31.

After the outcry, at the suggestion of Parrish, he and the WSU president appointed a committee to look at the issue of tenure. The panel recommended that the university withdraw its proposal and "approach the issue of professional responsibilities from a perspective of support, peer counseling and mentoring."

However, the toxic table talk has continued. AAUP-AFT negotiators are fighting off punitive "professional accountability" measures, changes to health insurance provisions that could cost members thousands, and meager salary proposals of 1 or 2 percent. Meanwhile, as economically strapped Michigan sends an increase of only 0.7 percent Wayne State's way, executives last year gave themselves promotions and raises in the tens of thousands.

Another thing WSU management did last year was hire a notoriously aggressive anti-union lawyer to guide negotiations. James Greene of the firm Dykema Gossett is remembered by members of an AAUP chapter at Eastern Michigan University as so difficult to deal with that the union ended up striking to protect its contract.

"The present negotiations have been unique, bordering on the bizarre," says Parrish.

On Sept. 14, the university announced that it was entering into mediation.

Reprinted from the November 2012 issue of On Campus.