I have been at Oakland University for 20 years and it has been 20 years of working to build a healthy and happy relationship with the administration so that we can realize our shared vision of creating an environment where students can thrive. Relationships become what each side puts into them and can grow with healthy and mutually respected boundaries, with shared visions and goals.
I invested a lot in this relationship — contributing to what I thought was a shared goal of creating a university that offers students a stellar education and myriad opportunities to create a foundation from which they can navigate the world and forge the skills for a strong and successful future:
Engaging and mentoring students, getting the Judaic Studies program off the ground, creating research ethics workshops so faculty could get grants they would not otherwise qualify for, which give students research opportunities, keeping in touch with alumni, serving on the career services committee so that I could help students build their resumes and assure their marketability after graduation, creating a philosophy film club, starting a National High School Ethics Bowl team.
These are some of the many things I put into this relationship. Things that helped realize our shared goals. Things that were above and beyond what I am contracted to do. All of this was possible because ours was a relationship rooted in mutual respect and appreciation of what each side brought to it.
I had administrators who tried to give me what I needed to make my creative ideas come alive. While no relationship is perfect — they all hit snags and bumps, sometimes even in the form of contract negotiations — the relationship, overall, stood the test of time. It felt solid. It felt full of the appreciation and respect needed to motivate all I put into it. It felt right. And our students and the university were thriving.
Today, this relationship is lost. Today I grieve. Contract negotiations throughout my 20 years have sometimes been tense, but this time was different. This time the administration was forcefully moving the boundaries of our relationship without consent or input. This time they stopped putting anything into the relationship. This time they made their past expressions of appreciation for our work and over-and-above contributions meaningless. This time they lied and manipulated and cherry picked and twisted. The relationship, as I knew it, is dead.
Grief is ubiquitous. It is so because we live it every time we experience a loss. The loss of a loved one, the loss of independence, the loss of identity, the loss of relationships. I feel lucky that the teachers I have had throughout the years — through their courses, their mentoring and engagement in student life — have strengthened and shaped the critical thinking skills, resilience and confidence needed to face the grief that comes with living life. The success of student-teacher relationships, like the ones I cherished, comes only through a healthy and happy relationship between faculty and its administration. A healthy workplace for faculty is indispensable to student success.
Negotiations for our new contract began in May. The administration did not present their economic package until late July. And when they did, it was like they suddenly got up, slapped me across the face, and yelled, It’s over. I don’t like you anymore. What you put into this relationship is meaningless.
It was a deliberate attack on the relationship itself on the environment we had worked so hard to create. It was an assault on their own students.
After receiving federal COVID funding, tapping money from endowments and raising tuition, Oakland restored administration salaries to pre-pandemic levels, hired more administrators and authorized all of the construction on campus to continue.
Then, to the people who bring in 80% of their revenue — to the people without whom students wouldn’t come, the people who invested so much into this relationship, the people who are at the heart of creating the environment to realize the goals of the university — they offered this:
- no raise to base pay, not even for cost of living
(keeping in line with the past 6 years)
- significantly reduced employer contributions towards health insurance
- reduced contribution toward retirement
- a decrease in summer pay for most of us.
Oakland also sought to significantly decrease the faculty tuition waiver, which costs the university nothing, pulling the rug out from under professors who had counted on that benefit while budgeting for their future.
As if that’s not enough, the university administration fought to undermine our tradition of shared governance — demanding that they take away departments’ rights to determine workload, that they take away professors’ rights to determine the modality of their classes (online, on campus or hybrid), and that the ability to lay off professors at their own discretion; no warning, no explanation, no due process. This effectively means that the university could decide to shut down complete departments, restructure the schools, merge or get rid of programs — change the whole nature of the university — without faculty input.
And the grief commenced. I couldn’t believe it (denial). I thought this can’t be real, they’re deliberately lowballing but we can bargain. And when it comes down to it, they will be rational, forthright, honest and respectful. I mean, we have a relationship. But as I read the union’s bargaining diary and saw their emails to students and comments to the media, reality set in.
They abandoned our shared goals, eroded the boundaries; they have taken but refuse to give. They have lied, manipulated, cherry picked facts — all in an effort to vilify their own faculty and undermine our relationships with students. As one of my colleagues said, in one move, they have changed the entire feeling on campus. They killed our relationship. They killed the incredible environment where students can thrive. Our president, Ora Pescovitz, who was a good leader throughout the pandemic and has been so generous to the university, has marred her legacy.
As I write this, an agreement has been reached. But still, I grieve.
The damage has been done. I am angry. I am depressed. But I was lucky enough to go to universities where, through shared governance and respect between faculty and administrators, the true goals and values of university life were met and where I developed the tools I need to get through this.
I learned, as Aristotle tells us, happiness does not come from trying to fix the aspects of our circumstances that don’t measure up because with one fix comes another obstacle. With this approach, happiness will always elude us. We have little control over what life sends our way. Stock markets crash. Car accidents happen. Administrators ruin relationships and undermine healthy, successful environments.
Rather, true happiness comes from facing what life throws at you with nobility and grace. I am proud of my union and my colleagues for doing just that — for their honesty, their resilience, their compassion, for their steadfast commitment to their students, despite it all.
I am thankful for all the students who actively supported us. It’s a shame that the right and privilege of students at Oakland University to have the kind of foundation for true success was under assault. But rest assured, the faculty at OU will always fight for students and will work hard to rebuild our relationship with the administration to assure we both get what we deserve.