MARQUETTE - For what may be the first time in Northern Michigan University's history, professors voted down a tentative contract with the university administration Wednesday night.
The pact was defeated by a small margin: 132 faculty voted against the contract, while 107 voted for it. There are 296 professors.
"I knew there were a lot of concerns the faculty had," said Ron Sundell, president of the NMU American Association for University Professors. "To be honest we didn't know which way the faculty would vote."
Shown is the ballot box of the American Association of University Professors at Northern Michigan University. Professors voted down a contract with NMU Wednesday evening. (Journal photo by Miriam Moeller)
According to several professors, there were four main issues with the tentative three-year contract, concerning departmental bylaws, tenure and promotion, salary and a new health care clause for domestic partners.
Mikhail Balaev, NMU professor of social work, said the contract's 2 percent salary increase in the first year and 0 percent in the following two years does not cover cost of living increases based on the current rate of inflation. Balaev voted against the contract.
"We don't think the salary adjustments include cost of living adjustments," he said.
Cindy Paavola, spokeswoman for NMU, said administration was "extremely disappointed," to see the contract voted down. On the salary issue, she said: "It's a tough economy and there are a lot of issues in the state, and higher education funding is still a big question mark. The university has to do what it can to give employees an increase, but it is a tough economy."
Balaev said faculty members were also concerned over a change in departmental bylaws and in the areas of scholarship and professional development. He said the university is trying to shift NMU more toward being a research university versus a teaching university. While that is not a bad thing, he said, professors do need more resources to conduct more research - something the contract does not offer, he said.
The contract divides professors' duties into four areas, including teaching, service, scholarship and professional development.
"The current language seemed to take away departmental autonomy to control the nature of our professional life through our bylaws," said David Cooper, NMU professor of philosophy. "They keep asking us to do more research and more self-studies of our mission, but without released time to do this. There is only so much time in a 24-hour day, so all these demands take away from the time we need to educate our students."
Cooper added that he feels the administration is trying to exercise more control over what professors are supposed to accomplish by trying to standardize bylaws for all departments.
"We do not need to be managed, we need administrators who will assist us in doing our jobs," he said, adding that departments know best what is important to teach students.
"We are experts in our areas of concentration, and peer review is very
important to us, so we do not need someone from outside our departmental
disciplines looking over our shoulder and telling us how to be a professional," he said. "We know what our students need. The administration's attitude
is very disconcerting, and to some faculty it feels insulting."
Cooper said he actually voted for the contract because his main concern with the contract was altered at the last minute. The contract included a new health care clause for domestic partners. NMU has been providing health care benefits to same-sex partners. Due to a new state law, this benefit must now be extended to partners, whether of the same or opposite gender.
According to Brent Graves, spokesman for the AAUP, the university added a clause that said the program could be canceled any time. Many professors were not happy about that, he said, and as a result administration agreed to drop that clause.
However, this happened after some AAUP members had already voted.
"It probably affected the vote," Graves said.
However, Balaev pointed out a clause still remains in the contract that describes the program as a pilot that is subject to annual review. In his interpretation that still means the program could be eliminated.
Paavola said the program is new, yet "I don't think the university has any intention of doing away with it if it's successful."
Graves said the general language of the contract was too vague.
"They seem to want us taking on a lot more responsibilities and that is not even clear," he said. "We're already doing more than anybody else in the state."
Russ Magnaghi, head of NMU's history department, said to his recollection this is the first time in NMU's history a contract was voted down by the union.
As for the next step, Paavola said it's back to negotiations.
"We'll go back to the table and continue work until an agreement can be achieved," she said.