Faculty union plan protest march

Michael Williams

The new contract the NMU administration offered to the faculty union will take money out of faculty pockets, according to union president Rebecca Mead. In response, the union will hold a march on Cohodas Hall Thursday, April 23. Marchers will meet at Forest Roberts Theater at 4 p.m. then descend on Cohodas for a rally at 4:15 p.m. NMU’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) have been in contract negotiations with administration for three months and say they have been offered a net loss in their new contract. The administration has offered faculty a 7.7 percent wage increase spread over five years, but higher costs to the faculty healthcare plan would result in lower pay, according to an AAUP press release.

re-Making Signs
Faculty members will march to Cohodas Thursday, April 23 at 4 p.m. This march is following months of contract negotiations in which both parties have not come to an agreement. NMU faculty are among the lowest paid, yet highest performing, in the state of Michigan according to academic research. (Photo AAUP)

“The increased healthcare costs reduce the pay increase to the point where the average full-time faculty member will actually lose money when factoring in cost of living,” AAUP Chief Negotiator Brent Graves said in a press release.

President Fritz Erickson said this information is inaccurate.

“What we have is language on the table that outlines a 10 percent minimum increase for our faculty, a 13 percent increase for our contingent faculty, plus an opportunity, based on enrollment growth, to move that to between 15 and 17 percent increase,” Erickson said. “So our expectation with enrollment growth is that be somewhere in the 15 and 17 percent, certainly not the 7.7 percent increase in your notes. I’m really unclear about where that number came from. [That was not] a number that any of us would be aware of.” During his interview, Erickson was on speakerphone with Vice President for Finance and Administration Gavin Leach and Interim Provost Lesley Larkin.

NMU faculty members are the lowest paid across all Michigan universities, according to Academe, AAUP’s national journal. But according to Higher Education Institution Data Inventory, NMU faculty are some of the highest performing faculty in the state. The Data Inventory bases its numbers on professor to student ratios and how many students each professor takes on.

In March, Academe published “Busting the Myths,” a report that addressed the national trend of decreases in university faculty salaries and its associated “myths.”

Among the illusions cited in the report was the idea that tuition increases are a product of faculty salary increases. Academe reported that “if faculty salaries were largely responsible to increases in [tuition], then we would expect to see spikes in faculty salaries” proportional to tuition increases.

When discussing NMU finances, Erickson has recently focused on enrollment.

“My issue is not that we have too many faculty, the issue is we don’t have enough students,” Erickson said. “My goal is not to reduce the number of faculty, but to increase the number of students at least back to 2010 numbers. If we get back to 2010 numbers it will translate to a significant additional salary increase [for] faculty and won’t cause us to lose any faculty.”

Brandon Canfield, an AAUP College of Arts and Sciences representative, said 25 cents of every tuition dollar goes to faculty.

“As a student, I always assumed that a lot more tuition went to instruction,” he said. “Any claim that tuition and faculty salaries [correlate] is simply not based in any reality.”

Communications instructor Sara Potter said she would have to leave NMU under the new contract. She said this is her third contract negotiation at the university and the trend continues to leave faculty disadvantaged. She is married with two children and is her family’s primary income earner.

“I’ve been at Northern nine years and my parents still pay my phone bill,” Potter said. “Twice here I’ve been on WIC,” she said referring to Women, Infants and Children, a government assistance program.

Potter expects a $4,000 pay cut, or $300 per month less than what she makes now. As a mother, she’s especially concerned with the proposed healthcare plan.

“The higher my premiums and deductibles get, the harder it is to get bills paid,” she said. “I don’t know a single person who would say, ‘I just took a $4,000 cut, I’m okay with that.’ I know I can go downstate at another institution and make $15,000 more.”

Erickson thinks the health care concerns are misunderstood. NMU is moving to an 80-20 plan mandated by state law and the Affordable Care Act (ACA), meaning the university pays 80 percent of faculty health care and faculty pay the rest. He said this will mostly lead to cost reductions for faculty, with the exception of family plans.

“For next year, for example, we will see faculty on a single plan, their costs will actually be reduced by about $1500,” Erickson said. “Two person [plans] are gonna pay about $108 less…” He added that family plans will increase by about $588.

The average faculty member would take a $6,000 net cut under the new plan, as well as cuts to retirement plans, according to an AAUP handout, but Erickson said there will be no changes to retirement packages.

“There was some effort that we knew on the part of some faculty to have greater flexibility in their retirement accounts and we were willing to entertain that flexibility,” he said, “but never to decrease the amount that faculty will receive.”

Potter said AAUP negotiators have been trying to negotiate with people who don’t want to negotiate. She said she sees a direct correlation between recruitment, enrollment and faculty.

“The problem they’re going to have is that they’re going to drive people away,” she said.

Canfield said the negotiation process has shifted his view of each party’s intentions.

“I entered the negotiation process with a strong sense that we shared a common interest here, that faculty and administration shared a common interest, which was ultimately to provide a quality education to our students,” Canfield said. “As this process goes on, I’m left with the impression that things like our bond rating are driving factors in the decision making of the administration.”

Mead criticizes the argument that NMU is in a constant financial crisis.

“There was no crisis when the Board of Trustees agreed to pay our former interim president three years’ presidential salary for serving two years as president,” she said in the AAUP press release. “There seemed to be no concern about a budget crisis when four new vice president positions were created in the last 18 months. Now that it’s time to negotiate with faculty, they are playing the crisis card again.”