Anti-Faculty-Union Proposal in Ohio Came From Public-University Association

March 08, 2011

Leaders of faculty unions in Ohio are bristling at the revelation that an association of the state's public universities was behind a controversial proposal that would strip most public-college faculty members of collective-bargaining rights by reclassifying them as management-level employees.

Bruce E. Johnson, president of the association, the Inter-University Council of Ohio, confirmed in an interview on Tuesday that he had suggested the measure to members of the state Senate. It was approved by the Senate last week, as part of a broader overhaul of Ohio's collective-bargaining laws now pending in the state House of Representatives.

"We are anticipating significant budget cuts, and so we view this as a rational step in terms of moderating our expenses on campus," Mr. Johnson said. "It is a leverage issue. It enables us to have more influence on scheduling issues and faculty-pay issues."

In testimony scheduled to be presented on Thursday in the House of Represenatives, two officials of the Youngstown State University chapter of the Ohio Education Association—Sherry Linkon, a professor of English and American studies, and John Russo, a professor who coordinates the university's labor-studies program—plan to argue that the council's promotion of such language represents a betrayal of pledges by public-university presidents to remain neutral in the legislative debate over collective bargaining.

"We find this political expediency abhorrent because it violates the core academic values of openness and debate," the two professors plan to say. Their union chapter is calling on other faculty unions around the state to cease participation in the activities of academic senates to protest the proposed legislation and the Inter-University Council's role in passing it.

Mr. Johnson, who formerly served as a Republican lieutenant governor and state senator in Ohio, said the university presidents who led his association did not specifically direct him to propose the reclassification measure. But, he said, they had expressed a desire "to have more flexibility as it relates to the management of state institutions" and, accordingly, had authorized him to advocate for an earlier version of the bill, which contained a flat-out prohibition against collective bargaining by public employees. He said he  interpreted such actions as amounting to authorization to propose the reclassification of most full-time members of public-college faculties.

"Our interest is to negotiate with labor and not to negotiate with management," Mr. Johnson said. As things currently stand, he said, faculty members at most public colleges in the state have both unions and roles in managerial decisions, so that any time college officials are negotiating with faculty unions, "there is management, frankly, on the other side of the table from you."

'Under the Bus'

The classification provision defines as "management-level employees" those faculty members who, individually or through faculty senates or similar organizations, engage in any of a long list of activities generally thought of as simply part of the jobs of tenured and tenure-track professors. Those activities include participating in institutional governance or personnel decisions, selecting or reviewing administrators, preparing budgets, determining how physical resources are used, and setting educational policies "related to admissions, curriculum, subject matter, and methods of instruction and research."

Such language echoes a distinction the U.S. Supreme Court drew in 1980 in its landmark National Labor Relations Board v. Yeshiva University decision, which dealt solely with private institutions and had the effect of making it harder for most faculty members at private colleges to unionize. If signed into law, the provision in the Ohio measure is expected to have a similar impact on public colleges in that state, effectively denying the right to engage in collective bargaining to those faculty members who want to continue to play a significant role in the governance of their institutions.

"Higher education and support staff, like all educators, deserve to have a voice in the direction of their institutions because they are the best advocates for our students and the opportunities they need to succeed," Patricia Frost-Brooks, president of the Ohio Education Association, said on Tuesday.

Sara J. Kaminski, executive director of the Ohio conference of the American Association of University Professors, said on Tuesday she was "not surprised at all" that the Inter-University Council had played a role in the reclassification proposal because Mr. Johnson previously "threw university faculty under the bus" in testifying in favor of an earlier version of the bill with a complete ban on collective bargaining by public employees.

But Rudy H. Fichtenbaum, a professor of economics at Wright State University and a member of the board of the state AAUP conference, said he had been led to believe that university presidents would not be taking such a stand. On Monday, Wright State's president, David R. Hopkins, had sent the campus an e-mail that said, "I was raised in a union family and, as president and provost, have found our union leadership to be of the highest quality. I appreciate all they have brought to us, and I believe we are a stronger institution because of their dedicated commitment to their membership."

In an interview on Tuesday, Lester Lefton, president of Kent State University, said, "I am sure there is significant divergence of opinion among the presidents."

Luis M. Proenza, president of the University of Akron, declined to take a stand on the pending legislation. "What we have said on our campus," Mr. Proenza said, "is quite simply that there are great universities with unions and great universities without them, and we intend to be a great university."