Now that the dust is clearing from the faculty strike at Wright State University in Dayton, let’s to take a look at what happened. A tentative agreement was reached on Feb. 10.
Faculty at WSU went on strike on Jan. 22 and finally settled three weeks later. It was the longest academic strike in Ohio history and apparently the second longest in the country. The faculty union at Wright State is a chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). As the Wright State faculty continually, and correctly repeated, this strike was not about money. It was about quality of education that would be endangered by allowing a corporate-style administration to have unilateral control over such things as teaching loads and class sizes.
The Wright State administration seemed to think that they had the upper hand going into this struggle. “The actions of one-sixth of our employees will not alter our mission as an institution of higher learning,” WSU President Cheryl Schrader told the Dayton Daily News. She could not have been more wrong. Even though the administration advertised nationally for strike breakers, the fact is that they could not operate the university without the faculty. Schrader’s comment shows the problem with too many of our administrations. Engaged in so many other activities, they lose track of the reason that we have our universities – education. It isn’t building office palaces or playing games or rubbing elbows with the corporate big wigs. It is education.
What precipitated such a struggle? Primarily, it was gross mismanagement on behalf of the Wright State board of trustees and its administration. This crisis has statewide importance because of the actions of the Wright State administration and its board of trustees. Like others in charge of our public institutions of higher education in the state, the WSU leaders have spent more taxpayer money and student tuition on administrative bloat, grandiose construction projects (and in WSU’s context off-campus real estate purchases, including $26 million in Greene County alone), athletic department deficits, and, generally, non-academic initiatives. At WSU, these non-academic initiatives were supposed to produce additional revenue but instead have cost tens of millions.
The Wright State faculty drew a line in the sand and won. Hopefully, it sends a message to our other corporate-style administrations. The actual timing of the strike was triggered by the board of trustees’ decision to unilaterally impose its contract offer. The vote that came suddenly on Jan. 7 was a surprise but the union was determined. “We can’t trust these folks to be good managers. They have shown themselves incompetent,” Noeleen McIlvenna, a History professor and union contract administrator, said. “I do hope that the community understands that this is a final straw.”
Certainly, what happened at Wright State seems to have been a perfect storm of incompetence. Some of the mismanagement has even been illegal. The ongoing FBI investigation into whether WSU violated work visa laws has so far cost the school more than $2 million. Other boondoggles have included spending more than $4 million (including updates to the Nutter Center) attempting to host the first presidential debate in 2016: Wright State spent more on the debate – that it didn’t host – than Hofstra University spent to host it.
Hard as it is to believe, the former president of Wright State, David Hopkins, under whom most of these blunders were made, had a contract that was certainly irresponsible. For the last years that Hopkins was employed, he was listed among the top 10 highest paid university presidents in the country and for four of those years his taxable compensation was over $1 million. Even today, the president who has overseen the failed negotiations that led to this strike, Cheryl Schrader, is pulling in more than $680,000 in taxable compensation (more than my entire eight-person department at UC Blue Ash).
And, as reported in the Dayton Daily News, there is more:
- An Ohio Inspector General’s investigation concluded in December a report that questioning $1.8 million of the $2.3 million WSU paid to a consultant, a so-called “rainmaker” for grants.
- Wright State University spent $850,000 on a branding effort that included a new logo that was scrapped in mid-2016 amid criticisms that it looked too similar to Rumpke Waste & Recycling.
- Wright State in November paid $1.98 million to settle a complaint brought by the U.S. Department of Education over how the school was handling student aid.
Notice that none of these actions involved actually spending funds directly on the university’s primary mission – instruction and research.
So, it is clear to see how the university created its own financial crisis and that the faculty had nothing to do with this. Shockingly, faculty salaries and benefits make up only 17 percent of Wright State’s budget. Nevertheless, two years ago, when negotiations first began, faculty accepted they were going to have to take a financial hit to help correct the administration’s mistakes. But as negotiations unfolded, it became clear that the administration was not intending to let the budget crisis go to waste. Instead, they aimed to gut the faculty’s contract in what now seems a determined attempt to break the union.
Over the two years of negotiations, the administration agreed to meet only about 10 times. They were reluctant to put anything in writing, and stood by extreme demands. Faculty members had been targeted to make up for these mistakes since 92 full-time faculty positions already had been eliminated. As we often tell our students across the state: “You should ask where your money is going, because it is not going for your education.”
Salary had not been a sticking point because the union agreed early on to no pay increases in this contract given the financial hole the administration had dug. Instead, two other issues have been at the heart of the WSU dispute: workloads and health insurance. Faculty workloads typically are determined by departments based on the academic need for the students. But the WSU administration has proposed to eliminate workload agreements and impose a top-down approach that would have the accountants making decisions in engineering, biology, English, medicine and other disciplines. Wright State faculty insisted on defending quality higher education and research by having expert faculty in the disciplines involved in making these decisions.
Of great importance, the administration wanted to eliminate health insurance as a negotiation topic. The objective in any such proposal is to be able to bar the union from negotiating for compensation. If one cannot negotiate for healthcare, any pay raise one receives can be taken back with a premium increase. This is a union-busting tactic, one that was part of the infamous Senate Bill 5 attack on public employees in 2011, which Ohio voters overwhelmingly rejected and repealed, including the people of Dayton and the surrounding counties.
For those who joined the picket line with the Wright State faculty, one was immediately struck by the sense that they must have done this before. It was impressive that so many people stood up and took hands-on leadership roles to make the strike work. It appeared to be a smoothly-running well-oiled machine as picketers braved snow, rain, and bitterly-cold temperatures. And yet, this was a first for everyone involved.
Some things they did very well that helped with the victory:
- Higher education faculty from all over the state showed their solidarity in various ways. Faculty from AAUP chapters at University of Cincinnati, Kent State, Bowling Green, Akron, Cincinnati State, Miami, Ohio State, and others walked the picket line and showed their support in other ways – donating food or coffee and social media posts. Kent and Akron even did a virtual picket from their universities. AAUP national and state staff and representatives were on hand as well helping to support in any way they could. Some days there were hundreds of picketers.
- They formed over the months and years before strong ties with the broader labor movement, some of the connections going back to SB 5 days. Even with the extremely bitter weather picketers faced, one found on the picket line day after day, Ironworkers, school teachers (both OFT and OEA), electrical workers, other public employee unions, as well as other member unions of the AFL-CIO.
- They made good use of their political contacts. Many politicians offered support. Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley came to strike headquarters to speak to the faculty. Both she and Sen. Sherrod Brown sent letters to the board and administration expressing the same sentiment. Brown wrote, for example: “I urge you to reconsider your approach to these negotiations, specifically the hard line you have taken with the Wright State faculty.” Even area Republican legislators sent a letter encouraging a return to negotiations, something the faculty were eager to do and the administration refused. The Democratic caucuses in both the state House and Senate sent letters to the administration that were supportive of the faculty and calling for the administration to return to negotiations.
- The faculty had amazing support from the students. They had sit-ins outside administration offices. They picketed with faculty. They had very active social media platforms on Twitter and Facebook defending the faculty.
- With the help of the Ohio Conference, WSU faculty held a press conference that drew media, politicians, and a surprise and welcome visit by the new Chancellor of Higher Education, Randy Gardner, who spoke to the over 100 faculty, students, and allies. Gardner was on the phone a great deal in the final week or so of the strike with both sides encouraging a return to serious negotiations.
In the end, after finally agreeing to the use of a federal mediator, the administration gave up on a series of bad proposals, including unilateral control of workload and merit pay and unlimited furloughs. About insurance, the new contract will include a clause guaranteeing the faculty’s right to negotiate over healthcare although the union did agree to go into the same insurance plan as the other employees at Wright State. Because they negotiated for two years, they have essentially agreed to two contracts, one will complete the year left on this term, and then another three-year contract which provides for small raises in 2022 and 2023, the last two years of the second contract – at that point faculty will have gone five years without an overall pay increase.
There are going to be a lot of wounds to heal going forward. We agree with the sentiments of Chancellor Gardner:
‘The first people I thought about last night when I heard the news of the agreement were the students I met with Friday at the Statehouse,” Gardner said. “I’m hopeful that their plans and goals for the future – and those of thousands of others as well – are restored.”
You can be sure that the Wright State faculty will be working to restore those futures. As WSU-AAUP Chapter President Marty Kich said “I am sure all our members are glad to be going back to the classroom where we hope things will return to normal for our students as soon as possible.”
John McNay is a professor of history at the University of Cincinnati, and author of “Collective Bargaining and the Battle of Ohio: The Defeat of Senate Bill 5 and the Struggle to Defend the Middle Class”
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