2-Year College Is Accused of Exploiting State Labor Law to Trample Faculty Rights

November 17, 2015

The American Association of University Professors has accused Union County College, in New Jersey, of using state limits on its faculty union’s bargaining powers as an excuse to mount a much broader attack on shared governance and academic freedom.

In a report issued on Tuesday, the association says the public community college’s administration has overzealously applied a state law that limits the scope of contract talks. The AAUP said the college had exploited the law to disregard professors’ rights that were not explicitly covered in a collective-bargaining agreement with its faculty union.

In recent years, the report says, the college has abolished key faculty committees, restricted the faculty’s role in selecting other panels, and replaced academic departments that had been headed by faculty-elected chairs with academic divisions led by administratively appointed deans. It has also curtailed faculty members’ involvement in hiring, promotion, and tenure decisions, refused to discuss governance matters with faculty members, and left many instructors afraid of retaliation if they spoke out.

Margaret M. McMenamin, Union County College’s president, has “sharply diminished the role and influence of the faculty in the college’s governance system,” the AAUP said in a separate statement issued on Tuesday. The association’s investigatory report sets the stage for a likely vote by its members to censure the college at the AAUP’s annual conference next year.

In a statement by the college in response to the report’s findings, Ms. McMenamin cited a 2014 state labor-board ruling that affirmed her administration’s refusal to bargain on matters that, she said, "infringed on the college’s managerial prerogatives." She argued that the changes she has enacted since taking office there, in 2010, have brought a near tripling of the college’s graduation rate.

"The change has been difficult for some to accept, but our students deserve it, our taxpayers demand it, and our nation needs it," Ms. McMenamin said.

Tension at the Table

In a letter sent to the AAUP last month on behalf of the college’s administration, Matthew J. Giacobbe, a labor lawyer, denied the association’s assertions that the college refuses to engage its faculty in discussing governance issues. He added, however, that it does so "in full conformance with binding New Jersey legal precedent," not with AAUP-recommended principles and standards.

The dispute between the college and its faculty union began in the summer of 2012, as the administration went into talks over a new faculty contract with the position that dozens of provisions of previous agreements were no longer negotiable. It cited a state law that had been interpreted by the state’s Public Employment Relations Commission, and state courts, as forbidding public-sector bargaining over issues not statutorily classified as mandatory subjects of collective bargaining. Those subjects included the structure of academic departments and the criteria for faculty appointment, reappointment, and promotion.

The college's president has 'diminished the role and influence of the faculty in the college's governance system,' the AAUP said.
The local AAUP affiliate challenged several of the administration’s demands to take matters off the bargaining table. The state labor-relations commission last year largely sided with Union County College’s administration, accepting its argument that many of the subjects it wanted excluded from negotiations were in fact management prerogatives.

Since the commission’s ruling, the college’s administration has carried out a governance overhaul, restructuring academic departments over their members’ opposition and giving itself much more say over personnel decisions. It has refused to recognize a decades-old faculty committee that had long had substantial input in the college’s affairs, replacing that panel with a new assembly of faculty, staff, and students.

The AAUP’s report says other public colleges in New Jersey have been willing to give instructors a say in matters that are excluded from formal contract talks. The association argues that nothing in state law precludes the college from keeping the faculty posted on changes, listening to its positions on them, or "voluntarily agreeing to maintain meaningful governance practices."

Peter Schmidt writes about affirmative action, academic labor, and issues related to academic freedom. Contact him at peter.schmidt@chronicle.com.