An Angry Professor Mounts His Own Labor Protest in Alabama

Glenn Feldman, a labor historian, accuses the U. of Alabama at Birmingham of trying to drive him out because of a pro-business bias.
July 12, 2010

Note to college administrators: Think twice about getting into fights with experts on labor activism.

The risk is ending up locked in battle with the likes of Glenn Feldman, a tenured labor historian at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Administrators there abandoned a training center that he ran. Convinced that they withdrew support—and now are trying to drive him out—because they have a pro-business bias, the professor has come at his bosses with two lawsuits, a faculty grievance, and a U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint. He also mobilized members of the United Steelworkers to swamp the facsimile machines in the administration's central office, and has sent the entire State Legislature an e-mail message accusing the University of Alabama system's administration of misusing state funds and victimizing him because he is Hispanic.

Along the way, Mr. Feldman helped establish a chapter of the American Association of University Professors on his campus—getting himself elected as its president—and persuaded the state conference of the AAUP to take up his cause.

He probably is not done yet.

"I am being treated in a way that is beyond description," Mr. Feldman said in an interview. He characterized himself as someone "who has wanted to do nothing but write and teach," but now finds himself defending his livelihood from people who object to his views.

University administrators have denied his accusations. Although they eliminated Mr. Feldman's previous position as part of a reorganization of the business school, they have offered to keep him on in the economics department if he earns graduate credits in that discipline. He has refused, alleging that the administration eventually plans to close the economics department, so its offer to let him work there is a set-up, an invitation to board a ship just before it is scuttled. (The training center, meanwhile, has found a new home at a community college.)

Mr. Feldman is unusual in his zeal, but he is hardly alone in suspecting college administrators' motives and their willingness to respect tenure. William F. Trimble, a professor of history at Auburn University and president of the AAUP's Alabama state conference, argues that tenured faculty members feel especially backed into a corner in Gulf Coast states, where they watched several colleges cite the financial hardship brought on by Hurricane Katrina's devastation in 2005 as justification for jettisoning academic programs and faculty positions.

"We now have a situation where there is a budget crisis all over the country," especially at public colleges, Mr. Trimble says. "Tenured faculty members have found themselves in a vulnerable position."

Taking Care of Business

As Mr. Feldman sees it, his problems began after the university's business school got a new dean, David R. Klock, in March 2008.

At the time, Mr. Feldman was serving as director of the business school's Center for Labor Education and Research, which provided clinics and seminars on labor and employment law throughout the southeastern United States. Mr. Feldman had joined the center as an assistant professor in 1996, earned tenure through the university's business school in 2002, and taken over as the center's director in 2006.

Mr. Feldman's complaints against the university argue that it very quickly became apparent to him that the center's work was not valued by Dean Klock, a former chief executive of CompBenefits Corporation—a major health-benefits provider—who had spent the previous two-and-a-half years as dean of the college of business administration at California State Polytechnic University at Pomona.

The idea that Mr. Klock was no fan of the center's work is seconded by Marc T. Cryer, who worked under Mr. Feldman as an assistant professor and now directs the center at its new location, at Jefferson State Community College, in Birmingham. In an interview, Mr. Cryer called Mr. Klock "very business-oriented" and "certainly not a friend of labor."

"He was pretty clear that he did not feel that the labor movement had any business in academe or that academe had any business spending time on the labor movement," Mr. Cryer said.

What is clear from the record is that in May of 2008 the university asked the Alabama Legislature to withdraw a $650,000 line-item appropriation for the center from the university's budget.

Dean Klock and other administrators there who have been named in Mr. Feldman's complaints declined to comment for this story, citing a lawsuit he has brought against the university system's Board of Trustees in U.S. District Court.

But Dale G. Turnbough, a spokeswoman for the University of Alabama at Birmingham, issued a statement broadly saying "we dispute what Dr. Feldman alleges." And Claire Peel, the university's associate vice provost for faculty development and faculty affairs, wrote to Mr. Trimble of the state AAUP last month to say that "many of the facts and assumptions" Mr. Feldman stated to Mr. Trimble in seeking the state AAUP conference's help "are incorrect."

An extensive chain of written and e-mailed correspondences that Mr. Feldman provided The Chronicle show a pattern in his interactions with administrators there. In one exchange after the other, the administrators use a measured, formal tone in refusing his demands. In many cases, they also accuse him of various forms of inappropriate behavior—such as threats to use litigation and the news media to tarnish their reputations if they do not give him what he is asking. Mr. Feldman responds—often with harsh language—by accusing the administrators of ineptitude and ill motives, and alleging that their demands that he apologize for behaving inappropriately represent an attempt to get him to incriminate himself for termination proceedings down the road.

Fighting Words

Mr. Feldman's federal lawsuit accuses Mr. Klock of unsuccessfully seeking to derail Mr. Feldman's bid for promotion to full professor in the spring of 2008, and telling one faculty member there "we are going to fire this guy anyway and it wouldn't look good if we just promoted him."

Late that spring, after labor-union officials went to state legislators to fight the attempt to close the center, the lawsuit says, a deal was brokered in which the university agreed to let the center stay until the end of September 2009, when it would be moved elsewhere. The pact did not bring any lasting peace between Mr. Feldman and Dean Klock. The lawsuit claims Mr. Klock agreed to let Mr. Feldman stay on at the university after the center left, only to subsequently demand that Mr. Feldman cease engaging in labor advocacy and threaten to fire him after the center leaves.

In the end, Mr. Feldman joined the faculty of the business school's Department of Marketing, Industrial Distribution and Economics. But, he says, administrators there altered the terms of employment without his consent, moving him from a contract that annually paid him $110,000 for 12 months of work to one that paid him $83,000 for nine months. Administrators said such changes were standard in cases in which someone is moved from an administrative post to a faculty position.

Mr. Feldman was subsequently told that his academic background in history would be a problem for accreditors examining the marketing and economics department, and he needed to obtain 18 graduate semester hours in economics to be deemed academically qualified to teach in his new position. He was given until the beginning of this month to submit a plan for earning the additional academic credits, but he has refused to do so, and the university has yet to say how it will proceed.

Last month, Mr. Trimble of the state AAUP sent university officials a letter disputing the idea that accreditors would deem Mr. Feldman academically unqualified to teach economics. He called the university's request that the professor obtain graduate credits in that field "at best curious," asserting that Mr. Feldman had already long taught economics courses and has "an impressive publication record."

In an interview this month, Mr. Feldman argued that "the bottom line is I am being retaliated against for the sole crime of not leaving when I was told to." He said he has refused to earn credits in economics because doing so would "cement" him into a department that might be shut down completely, denying him the ability in the future to argue in court that he had been singled out for dismissal.

"It does not take a genius," he said, "to figure out you are being set up again."

Editors' note: An earlier version of this story has been changed to correct two points: The language Mr. Feldman used in his responses directly to administrators is best characterized as harsh, rather than coarse. And although Mr. Feldman was working at the Center for Labor Education and Research when he earned tenure, that tenure was not awarded through the center but through the university's business school.