Striking against crooks and corporatizers
talks to professors on the picket lines at Wright State University about the galling administration behavior that lies behind their strike for respect.
THE FACULTY strike at Wright State University in Fairborn, Ohio, will be one full week old tomorrow.
But the backdrop to the strike — reckless financial decisions by the Board of Trustees that one striker referred to as an example of “disaster capitalism” — goes back years.
Members of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP-WSU) took to the picket line on January 22, three weeks after the administration imposed a horrible contract on the faculty union. On picket line, faculty say they are fighting simply to get the administration to respect them and negotiate.
The administration’s intransigence is especially galling given the numerous scandals in which the Board of Trustees are implicated, as detailed in an online petition.
Among them, the university created a nonprofit called Double Bowler in 2014 to obscure its real estate purchases. In other words, the university has been claiming perpetual financial shortages when it comes to defying the just demands of faculty — while continuing to buy up properties for expansion.
But the mismanagement of university funds goes deeper than this obvious hypocrisy. Among the purchases made by Double Bowler is a pair of buildings previously owned by the Wright Patt Credit Union and bought for $5.7 million. This came shortly after Wright Patt CEO Douglas Fecher was appointed chair of the Board of Trustees in 2014.
Another trustee, Michael Bridges, was reprimanded by the Ohio Ethics Commission in 2016 for using his influence to secure a job for his son with the Wright State Research Institute. Despite the clear ethics violation, Bridges remains on the board for a term lasting until 2021.
The list goes on:
In 2016, the board paid $1 million to avoid prosecution for using the university’s tax-exempt status to secure H-1B visas on behalf of Web Yoga, a private Dayton-based company.
In November 2017, Wright State paid almost $2 million to the U.S. Department of Education for mismanagement of student financial aid.
Millions more were lost in a failed attempt to host a presidential debate in October 2016. This effort was so rife with incompetence that a lawsuit filed against the university charged it with “epic gross buffoonery” and a “carnival-type atmosphere.”
THERE HAS been “some turnover” in the administration in the last two years, said AAUP-WSU Treasurer and Professor of Biological Sciences Tom Rooney. But in general, says Rooney:
[t]here has been effectively no accountability for the people who are responsible. Many of the members of the Board of Trustees who have the ultimate oversight on our finances are still members of the Board of Trustees. So the board has remained largely intact. It’s the board that hired this president, and it’s the Board that’s directing this president to fight the union.
Hampered by a self-inflicted financial crisis, the board has turned around and imposed austerity on everyone else.
Testifying before the State Employment Relations Board (SERB) in 2017, interim President Curtis McCray revealed that he was given two mandates by the Board of Trustees: one, reduce expenditures by $30 million by June 30; and two, protect Division I athletics. This has meant cuts targeting everything except athletics, including staff layoffs, elimination of language classes with lower enrollment and a pay freeze for faculty.
A year later, Trustee Bruce Langos was recorded explaining the perks of hiring workers with associate’s degrees:
Companies hire people to also mold them into what they want them to be, right? So some of the best people I’ve ever hired had associate’s degrees. And we love that. Because then they come into the company young, we culturally get them in the culture of the company, and we take it the rest of the way...They become productive instantly. And that’s what we wanted.
In addition to extolling this dystopian vision of education as a factory for churning out workers, Langos’s comments were especially disturbing because the university currently has 106 bachelor’s degree programs and only 15 associate’s programs.
A STRONG faculty union like the AAUP-WSU poses a serious threat to the board’s project of corporatization of education. As Sirisha Naidu, associate professor of Economics, a member of the AAUP-WSU executive committee and strike co-captain, said:
So what is the value of education, right? And how does it fit into the broader goals of society, of progress, of human development? Is it just going to be about skill acquisition and creating a workforce, or are we talking about something more?
This rift over the direction of the university has put the union in the administration’s crosshairs. Contract negotiations were suspended in March 2017. Then, according to Rooney:
[t]hey ended up bringing in an attorney from a firm up in Columbus. Everyone at that firm refers to his division as the “union-busting division” because he does labor law for management. He came in, and on the first day, he basically stonewalled...They basically said, “I’m going to get everything I want. Anything I don’t get that I want is my concession to you. So you’re going to take this contract because it’s all you’re going to get from us.”
It was a very hostile attitude. And none of those articles were ever negotiated because they absolutely refused to even talk about anything.
As Gretchen McNamara, a senior lecturer in music, wrote in a blog post republished by SocialistWorker.org, the contract imposed on January 4 takes away bargaining power from the union and gives the university total control over health care, workload, summer teaching, merit pay and “cost-saving” (furlough) days.
Naidu added that changes in priority for summer teaching “further contribute to the adjunctification of higher education” by allowing the university to hire highly exploitable contingent faculty in place of unionized faculty. She also described the merit pay system:
Right now, we are assessed based on a formula both sides have agreed to. They want to take that away and give the right to administrators to assess us however they want and assign merit pay however they want...What the union contract has been able to do is to standardize things so that all faculty are treated fairly. And to the extent that one can attempt objectivity, that they are treated objectively as well.
This battle over merit pay has dramatic consequences for the composition of the faculty, as Kate Excoffon, a professor of Biological Sciences, explained in a video interview:
One of the reasons why we have a union is because there was difficulty for women and anybody of any other race to make it from assistant to full professor. When I first started here ten years ago, there was only one woman who had ever made it from assistant to full professor in the College of Science and Math. And that includes biology. For 50 years at an institution.
It’s of concern for all of society. Since the union’s come in, they’ve worked really hard to try and normalize this. But still, I know my number.
The strike at Wright State sharply poses the question of who public education is for. As Rooney said, “Fundamentally, it’s about why we would give power to the people that lost all that money.”
Wright State faculty are striking to prevent that from happening, as Naidu explained.
We’re going to fight. We don’t know what the outcome will be, but we’re definitely going to put up a good fight...We’re taking a stand in terms of this contract, but the implications of this particular contract go beyond it. We’re talking about higher education, and through this strike, I’m hoping that we all develop political consciousness about what our role is as workers in a public university and as educators in society.