07/23/2012 04:40 pm ET Updated Jul 23, 2012

Wayne State University Tenure Rights Up For Debate In New Faculty Contract, Says Union

As negotiators work to meet a rapidly approaching deadline for Wayne State University faculty contracts, union representatives claim that a proposal offered last week by the administration would do away with the traditional tenure system at Detroit's research university.

According to Inside Higher Ed, reps for the local chapter affiliated with the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) condemn the proposal for allowing WSU more leeway to dismiss tenured faculty members.

"This is an astonishing power grab by the administration," Professor Charles Parrish, union president, told The Huffington Post.

In a statement shared on the forum, chief faculty negotiator Professor Anca Vlasopolos said this change would make WSU the first research university in the country to eliminate tenure, though a report by AAUP points to weakened tenure rights in the Louisiana university system. Vlasopolos continued:

Administration has proposed an unnamed, unnumbered Article, written in great haste whose main thrust is to abolish tenure and ESS at Wayne State University. When asked if the Administration’s proposed article would end tenure at the University, Chief Negotiator James Greene stated, “It would have that effect, yes.”

In the course of the discussion as to what this article addresses, Margaret Winters maintained that there are faculty who do nothing and that, “We feel somewhat frustrated by an inability to act.” Doug Whitman, of the Administration’s team, conceded that the instances of faculty misbehavior were rare. Our response was simple: if this is the case, and we need to be shown that it is true, it is managerial incompetence and/or laziness that have led to such a situation. We have perfectly good Statutes for de-tenuring unproductive bargaining-unit members. The Union does not shield people who don’t work for their salaries.

The Union, however, protects due process, so that a vindictive administrator cannot falsely accuse someone. A candidate for de-tenuring has the right now to go before a panel of peers to defend him or herself against such accusations.

Associate Provost and Associate Vice President for Academic Personnel Margaret Winters, negotiator for the university and tenured herself, told The Huffington Post that they were in no way looking to eliminate tenure. Instead, she said, they want to expand the faculty evaluation process.

"This is a relatively rare case to have any problems at all," she said. "We have good people, we tenure carefully."

In an email to staff, WSU President Allan Gilmour said the changes are designed to allow for more efficient evaluation of faculty.

"Faculty tenure is an important aspect of academic freedom, and we support it," he said. "But it cannot be a place to hide for those whose performance or behavior is poor."

"The problem is they have spelled out a procedure for taking tenure that is entirely administrative," said Parrish. "The union can grieve it [only] after the person is fired."

The traditional tenure system, which is meant to allow professors academic freedom and job security, has long been debated, but it has come into focus as universities struggling with less funding and smaller budgets look everywhere for cost-saving measures. Universities throughout Michigan have had to make adjustments in the wake of education funding cuts and a state-imposed limit on tuition hikes.

In light of limited resources, Winters said the university wants more flexibility to move resources and change or eliminate programs, calling the current process "cumbersome."

"It's certainly the case that [funding cuts] have focused our attention on the need to be able to move relatively quickly," she said.

The current bargaining negotiations have been ongoing for several weeks and have a deadline of July 31. The union plans to ask for an extension of the contract if an agreement isn't reached by the end of the month.

Winters said meetings have been "business-like" and the two parties have agreed on about a third of the articles from the previous contract, though many of those were uncontroversial.

"The university is looking, in broad terms, for accountability and flexibility," she said. "All of it is in order to make this as good a place as it can be for students."

Hat tip: Inside Higher Ed.