The University of Akron is facing an August 3 deadline for contract negotiations with the professor’s union. If the vote fails, the deal goes to arbitration for a final ruling. The two sides are at odds after more than 170 staff were laid off, including nearly 100 union workers. We spoke with the head of both sides: university president Gary Miller and union president Pam Schulze.
Stress adds up with faculty cuts on the table
It has been a very stressful summer for Akron faculty with all the uncertainties surrounding academic programs and staffing cuts heading into the fall.
“I can’t tell you how many really anxious, upset people I’ve talked to over the summer because we’ve all been waiting to find out if we have jobs on fall at the same time that we’re actually preparing for fall,” Schulze said.
Matters aren’t being helped by the pandemic, with everyone isolating at their homes, Schulze adds.
With the deadline for a contract with the professor’s union set for Monday, August 3, Schulze said the union wants to be able to sit down with the administration and form an agreement that everyone can live with after a vote.
“I have absolutely no idea how this vote is going to go. I wish I could forecast it for you. I just can’t,” she said.
If a vote doesn’t yield an agreement, the matter will go to arbitration.
Softening the blow
Schulze says that all day and every day has been trying when it comes to figuring out how to cut the list of faculty being let go down.
Union leadership wants to protect it’s bargaining members to preserve the institution, saying that this decision would be bad for the university.
“It was hard for me to even imagine how a university could absorb a bit over twenty percent cut-the loss in its faculty," Schulze said.
Athletics and Akron
Schulze turned her attention to the athletics department, noting buyouts for coaches, including payments to coaches no longer at the university and hiring new coaches as well.
All this comes at a time when the university claims to have financial problems.
“To continue to waste money openly while you have a hiring freeze on the academics side, while you’re proposing cuts on the academic side, at some point somebody needs to be held accountable for that because I see them diminishing a great university,” she said.
University president Gary Miller announced forming a task force in the fall that will look into athletic spending. Schulze hopes this is an olive branch from the higher-ups.
However, she wishes that the union and administration had had these discussions before making the decision to cut almost 100 members of the faculty union and pressuring others to retire, some for the sake of saving their colleagues’ jobs.
University needed to manage debt.
Meanwhile, Gary Miller said the pandemic forced the university to accelerate its timeline for getting out of debt, with other force reductions in past years that did not involve faculty.
“It’s just come to the place where we’ve also had to reduce faculty. There were 178 people involved in that reduction, and we share the union’s despair about having to let colleagues go,” Miller said.
“Nobody wants to be in that situation, and surely we would not be there had we not clearly concluded that we had to be there.”
COVID-19 expedites the issue
Miller said when he came to the university in October, UA had to resolve its financial challenges, which it had been dealing with for more than a decade.
“We had four years to resolve that. What COVID did was collapse all of that into a single year. We had to now resolve it and the reason it did that was it so depleted our revenue streams.”
Going into this fiscal year with volatility related to enrollment meant having to immediately resolving financial shortfalls, which Miller termed as “a $65 million problem,” with recent cost-cutting actions resolving about $45 million.
However, the recent moves and cuts proposed would not bridge the gap completely, as having adequate staffing levels is still needed. Miller said dwindling the defecit down closer to $20 million was more manageable.
If the contract between the union and administration is passed, Miller said this would be the first time in a while for the university to be able to “move forward.”
What happens if a contract isn’t approved?
Miller didn’t want to discuss any legal strategy, but he believes the contract will be approved.
“I think folks don’t understand that we’re talking about the future here, that this is just a really tough decision to make for a brighter future, and I have some confidence that that will happen,” Miller said.
“I have a lot of faith in this faculty. The questions I’ve heard lately have suggested deep consideration. I think folks who do look at it carefully will come to the same conclusion we came to which is this is really hard and it has to be done, and there is a bright future afterwards.”