WMU-AAUP Remarks to the Board of Trustees

Remarks by WMU-AAUP President Lisa Minnick
Meeting of the Board of Trustees

April 9, 2014

In my remarks to the board last June, I referenced a report by the national AAUP Committee on College and University Governance that identifies a significant decrease nationwide in communication between university faculties and their governing boards. As I noted at that time, the report suggests that the move toward less frequent and more strictly mediated communication coincides both with an increasing corporatization of higher education and a decrease in shared governance, including when it comes to the critical decisions that have the potential to radically shift the priorities or even change the academic identity of the university. As examples in that June address, I talked about faculty concerns about the process by which gender inequity was (ostensibly) being addressed and their many questions about the academic program review.

I maintained at that time – and I still believe – that we can all agree that it is in the best interests of WMU and all of its stakeholders for us – the Board and the faculty – to communicate directly and to work collaboratively.

And so in that spirit of open communication, collaboration and mutual respect, today I bring to your attention the topic of a proposed new “wellness program” for WMU faculty and staff.

The packets I’ve brought for you contain a memo from the Human Resources office dated March 10, 2014, titled “Implementation of WMU Wellness Program,” which projected an April 2014 announcement of the program – presumably that means it was be announced to faculty and staff this month, although that does not seem to have happened yet – and a May 2014 implementation of the program. Bullet points on the memo refer to a financial “incentive” of $20 per month toward health insurance “co-shares” (not a term that is used in our current health plan, so we don’t know what it means. Premiums, copays, other costs?). Anyway, these incentives would be earned by individual faculty and staff colleagues in exchange for completing a “health-risk assessment” and a “complete health screening,” along with a few other requirements.

Upon receipt of that March 10 memo, I noted to HR that their proposed May 1 implementation date is problematic because our contract runs until September, and nothing resembling this proposed program is in it. And on March 17, the WMU-AAUP submitted a request to bargain regarding the proposed wellness program and a request for more information about the program.

On March 28, our request was denied by the administration, which has taken the position that the proposed program is not subject to bargaining. However, according to the National Labor Relations Act, health and welfare plans are considered a mandatory subject of bargaining. But I am going to leave aside for now the legal aspects of this question.

The more immediate issue I want to share with the Board has to do with the unnecessary and easily avoidable fostering of feelings of suspicion and ill-will among faculty and staff that results from a lack of honest, direct communication from the administration. We have, unfortunately, seen this kind of thing before, and on behalf of the faculty, I have to continue to question the wisdom of doing things this way. We believe that a culture of open discussion and collaboration are much healthier for the institution — those are foundational academic values — but, sadly, secrecy, non-transparency, and questionable claims that communication has been clear all along seem to keep winning the day. And especially if this wellness plan is going to be such a wonderful benefit to the university community, why can’t we know the specifics?

In their March 28 letter, the administration claims that they have “attempted to keep the WMU-AAUP well informed about changes/enhancements to the wellness program,” but that if we feel that they have “failed in this regard,” then they would be happy to meet with us to discuss it (but apparently not at the bargaining table).

You might think that the fact that we had to request specific information in the first place about the proposed new wellness program – a request they have denied – would have made it clear that in our view they have indeed “failed in this regard.” It would be interesting to see what a poll of the faculty and staff would reveal if they were asked today how much they know about the program and where they got their information (if any). It seems ironic that the administration would now simultaneously claim that they have been completely forthcoming while also insisting that we have no right to the information.

I will add here that our WMU-AAUP appointees were somehow dropped from the email list for the university-wide wellness committee in 2013 – and therefore we were not alerted to meetings of the committee nor apprised of its developments – and that as a result we were excluded from participation in this project for many months, in violation of Article 4. The situation was not corrected until we found out last fall that the wellness committee had continued to meet all last summer without informing us and insisted that the situation be rectified. Perhaps needless to add, many decisions had been made during the period of our exclusion, and upon their return to the committee, our appointees and their contributions were met with considerable resistance.

Sadly, the lack of information about the wellness program and the resistance with which our requests for information have been met seems to be only the most recent example of a disturbing and increasing trend on this campus, in which administrators communicate poorly (or not at all) with faculty and staff about important issues, and then when things don’t go as they’d hoped, they insist the faculty was part of the process all along. I point to the gender equity debacle last year and the academic program review now underway as exhibits A and B.

Contrary to the claims in the administration’s March 28 letter, the proposed new wellness program is not merely a set of “changes/enhancements” to an existing program. There’s a big difference between things like lunchtime yoga classes for faculty and staff and what is being proposed now: “health risk screenings” and “health assessments” that include biometric testing – the collection of bodily fluids – and intrusive questions into the most personal and private details of our lives.

Some of you may be familiar with what happened at Penn State when they tried to impose a program with some of the same features as what is now being considered here. Faculty and staff were horrified and outraged at what they saw as an egregious invasion of privacy by their employer and the financial costs they were to be assessed if they refused to participate. They were asked about whether they had financial problems, substance abuse issues, and whether they planned to become pregnant in the near future. Leaving aside for the moment whether wellness programs actually deliver the return on investment that their vendors promise in terms of health care costs or the improvements in employee health outcomes – and some important recent studies suggest that both can be practically negligible – the intrusive nature of existing programs at other institutions about which we have been gathering information does not suggest that this project is going to go over well at WMU.

As we look to begin our contract negotiations one week from tomorrow, we hope we can expect a good-faith collaboration that cooperates with the best interests of the university and all its constituencies in mind. The denial of a request to bargain on a highly charged topic that I can guarantee you will galvanize every employee group on this campus – once they actually find out about it, that is – is not an encouraging sign. Neither is the withholding of information in response to reasonable and legitimate requests. And so I look to all of you, members of the Board, in the hope that you will help to direct the leadership to work with the faculty toward a more open, collaborative conversation on the wellness program issue and all other matters of importance to our university.