I always thought of the University of Oregon (UO) as one of great gems of our public university system. It’s got a terrific political science department (with Hobbes scholar Deborah Baumgold in theory and wonderful APD folks like Joe Lowndes and Gerald Berk in American Politics). It’s in Eugene, a lovely little city of hot tubs and hippies. And since last year, it’s had a faculty union. Who wouldn’t love it?
Apparently, the UO administration, that’s who.
The administration is currently locked into a battle with the faculty, who are trying to negotiate their first contract. Rather than seize the moment to establish good relations with the union and improve the university, the administration is intent on doing the reverse. Not simply with the usual patter of bottom-line administrators—no big raises, say (though even here the administration has gone the extra mile by refusing to guarantee the fulltime faculty a living wage)—but with proposals that would astonish even the most jaded observer of administrative ways and means.
I first caught wind of the UO’s aspirations this past week, when Inside Higher Ed reported that the administration was trying to undermine the speech rights of the faculty by inserting a so-called “civility” clause in the contract.
The university statement mentions civility twice in a section on faculty responsibilities, including that faculty are responsible for treating “students, staff, colleagues and the public fairly and civilly in discharging his or her duties and in accordance with this agreement.” Civility clauses have long been of concern to advocates for professors. While it’s hard to find people who are anti-civility, many academics note that requiring civility can become a tool for punishing those professors who speak out against their bosses or who push unpopular positions.
Bill Harbaugh, professor of economics and moderator of the “UO Matters” blog, which is frequently critical of university policy, said decoupling academic freedom from free speech left room for administrators to punish those faculty – like him – who say things administrators don’t like. He also objected to the idea that administrators would be the ones deciding what qualifies as “civil.”
Asked about the civility clause, [executive assistant to the UO president] said Oregon has a long history of promoting respectful discourse – one that’s covered by the university’s existing policy on academic freedom and free speech: “It is the responsibility of speakers, listeners and all members of our community to respect others and to promote a culture of mutual inquiry throughout the university community.”
Any determination of what’s civil would likely include faculty input, he said.
The minute I read that, I thought of my blogging. I’ve accused CUNY leaders of lying and cover-ups, of being Stalinists, of peddling nonsense and of being “as crude as the day is long.” I’ve no doubt they consider my posts uncivil and unfair. The notion that these same administrators would be in a position not only to define civility but also to enforce it as a contractual obligation, with all the attending disciplinary powers such obligations entail, well, you can see where this is all going.
Thankfully, so did the UO. They pulled the proposal.
When it comes to the freedom of the faculty, however, never underestimate the ambitions of an administrator scorned. The UO is back at the table, mooting even more draconian assaults on faculty autonomy and privacy.
Take their latest proposal (see section 7) on faculty email:
Bargaining unit faculty members have no expectation of privacy in emails, files, documents, or other information created or stored on university information assets. The university may monitor the use of, and review documents and other information stored on university information assets. Emails sent on a bargaining unit faculty member’s non-university email account and information created or stored on non-university computer systems belong to the bargaining unit member except to the extent that they address work-related subjects.
Read that last sentence carefully. Not only is the administration demanding the right to monitor and review the faculty’s UO email accounts, but it also arrogates to itself the right to monitor any emails on the faculty’s non-UO accounts (and computers) so long as those emails or documents “address work-related subjects.” So if I email my wife on my Gmail account, complaining about the action of a university administrator, or if I keep a diary on my home computer in which I talk about what that administrator did, that very same administrator can demand to read and review that email or document.
I’ve written quite a bit about the lengths to which employers will go to command and control the actions of their employees, and I’m certainly no naïf about the differences between universities and other employers. But this overreach from a university administrator seems like a first.
The administration has apparently tried to reassure the union that they would only monitor the faculty’s non-UO accounts in pursuit of what the university calls a “legitimate” “business need.” When the union asked for some examples of a “legitimate business need,” the UO’s hapless chief negotiator said the administration might want to check up on an individual professor’s work habits: Is she putting in her required 40 hours per week or is she shopping on-line during that time? (Apparently the negotiator really said this.) Or perhaps the administration, the negotiator added, would want to check up on a professor who was publicly critical of her chair. When the union countered with an offer that would guarantee the faculty a “reasonable expectation of privacy,” the administration said no.
Little side note: you’ve got to love this chief negotiator. When she isn’t telling the faculty at the table “you all need to get focused on your students,” she apparently moonlights as a defense attorney for Phillip Morris. Charming. Wonder how she squares that with her proposal to radically restrict the faculty’s freedom to consult with outside organizations. Which brings me to…
Like the faculty at CUNY, faculty at the UO are allowed to work one day a week as consultants for outside groups and organizations. At CUNY, professors consult for human rights groups, civic education groups, and other NGOs and non-profits. In Oregon, this activity is protected by state law. But the administration at the UO wants to eliminate that protection. (Yes, you heard that right: university administrators want to be even more intrusive and restrictive than the state.)
From now on, says the administration (see section 3), faculty wanting to do consulting work for outside groups or organizations “must get the prior written approval of the Provost or designee.” Among the criteria administration intends to apply when considering such proposals is whether the activity lies “within the scope of the bargaining unit member’s professional competence.”
How is that judgment to be determined? And how is a provost trained in, say, microbiology, in a position to judge whether a political scientist’s consulting work lies within her area of competence? And what if it doesn’t? Why is that any of the university’s business?
Oddly, in section 2 of the same proposal, the administration says that “activities unrelated to a bargaining unit faculty member’s…areas of professional competence do not require prior approval.” Given that section 3 requires the provost to determine what is or isn’t within the faculty member’s professional competence, it seems that anything and everything must come before the provost for approval.
Having to get permission from the provost, and under these terms, is creepy enough. You might wonder, though, why the administration would even want to involve itself in such byzantine determinations. After all, even the UO chief negotiator—there she goes again!—could not cite a single instance of the faculty abusing this right in the past.
The penultimate criterion in the administration’s proposal gives you a sense of why they might be interested in the faculty’s consulting work. The consulting, says the proposal, must not be “contrary to the University’s best interests.” The University’s best interests as determined by…the administration.
Now whose interests might the administration be most mindful of? Perhaps its Board of Trustees, which includes CEOs from the state’s timber and construction industries, the wife of the CEO of Microsoft, and a retired executive from Nike? Or big UO donors like Nike’s Phil Knight? It’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which a professor is forbidden by the provost from consulting with an organization critical of Nike’s labor polices or Microsoft’s market practices. “Contrary to the University’s best interests” and all that.
There’s a lot more to be said about these negotiations; check out this blog for more info and updates (especially on the administration’s plans regarding intellectual property: they’re a doozy!)