Dr. Mary A. Cain (1924-2016)

WMU-AAUP Statement on the Passing of Dr. Mary A. Cain (1924-2016)
Professor Emerita of Education and Professional Development

mary_cainDr. Mary Cain joined the faculty at Western Michigan University in 1961 after earning degrees in education, educational psychology, and child development from the University of Michigan, Western Michigan University, and Michigan State University. During her 31-year career at WMU, her many accomplishments and achievements as a teacher and scholar were recognized not only by the thousands of students she taught and by her colleagues but also by a statewide Distinguished Teaching Award (1991) from the Michigan State Legislature, numerous campus awards, including the Distinguished Service Award (1991), and the Michigan Association of Governing Boards Distinguished Faculty Award (1985). Dr. Cain was also the first woman president of the WMU-AAUP, serving two terms (1983-86) as well as multiple terms on the WMU-AAUP Executive Committee.

As WMU-AAUP president, Mary led the chapter during turbulent times. Among many memorable campaigns, in early 1984 she led a series of actions against the administration’s attempts to roll back contractually negotiated salary increases. In a January 1984 letter to the faculty, Mary wrote that the attempted salary rollback was “predicated on a three-million dollar deficit which never appeared” and “under threat of massive layoffs.” She and other faculty colleagues challenged the layoffs, negotiated hard to preserve faculty jobs, and filed workload grievances when their good-faith agreements were abused. Some of these grievances went all the way to arbitration, where the WMU-AAUP prevailed. While many faculty members collaborated on these actions – then as now, the union works best when it works collaboratively – Mary’s courageous leadership and unwavering willingness to stand against injustice were instrumental to the faculty’s prevailing in these cases.

In her work as chapter president, Mary is perhaps best remembered on campus for leading the legendary 1984 strike in September of that year, after contract negotiations broke down in late summer and mediation failed. The strike was settled quickly, but bad feelings persisted on campus into the fall semester as negotiations resumed and a tentative agreement that many faculty members found unsatisfactory was subsequently reached.

In a speech to the WMU Board of Trustees on September 21, 1984, three weeks before the faculty would vote on whether to ratify the tentative agreement, Mary challenged the Board to do the right thing by allowing faculty to make up work missed during the strike, pointing out that the administration had behaved dishonorably but would face no consequences for their actions. Speaking from the wise perspective of a professor of education, and from her experience as a labor leader, she boldly set out the faculty’s position and argued that preventing faculty from making up the work, as the administration had chosen to do under then-President John Bernhard, would hurt WMU students as much as faculty:

There exists on Western’s campus today an anger deeper, a bitterness sharper, a resentment stronger than any other I’ve known in my years here. When 500 members of this moderate and temperate faculty withheld their services after weeks of restraint, they did so on principle. Despite its earlier conciliatory language, Western then chose to impose penalties on those who withheld services – penalties which are distributed inequitably. We hear that you unanimously voted to support these penalties. I ask you, for Western’s sake, to abandon or to modify them, and to continue to pay the faculty who will make up the work they missed. Let us not lower the quality of Western’s education through incomplete classes. Let us not cheat students out of full value for their tuition.

If penalty is a punishment, abandon it. Punishment rarely produces desired behavior. If the penalty is intended as a deterrent, abandon it, because the deterrent has already failed.

The essence of the anger on our campus springs not from any single term or condition or event, but from an attitude which pervasively reflects a lack of respect for the faculty.

The faculty’s feelings arise in response to an attitude that tells rather than asks, that assails our civil liberties, that treats us as identical and interchangeable parts, like cogs in a bureaucratic machine – an attitude which fails to appreciate our diverse, continual, loyal, excellent unpaid service to Western, or to recognize that the faculty, together with the students, is the essence of any university.

And we encourage you to exercise that largeness of spirit necessary to abandon or to modify the penalties. A noble gesture would be the first step toward the healing of our campus. It would require good faith and effort on your part. We believe Western is still worth the effort.

WMU-AAUP President Mary Cain, remarks to the WMU Board of Trustees, September 21, 1984

The tentative agreement was overwhelmingly rejected by the faculty on October 3, with 75 percent voting against ratification.

Finally, on November 21, the two sides reached a new tentative agreement that was far more favorable to the faculty than the previous one. It was ratified by the faculty on December 3, 1984, with 83 percent voting to approve. In a statement to the Kalamazoo Gazette after the successful ratification vote, Mary said, “I look forward to the next three years as a time for new growth, and for constructive assertion of the faculty’s role at Western, both in negotiations and in the larger enterprise of the university.”

Mary also chaired the (now-defunct) WMU Commission on the Status of Women and was twice named “Woman of the Year” (1978 and 1986) by that organization. The Michigan State Conference of the AAUP also recognized her with the President’s Award in 1988. In her obituary, Mary’s family writes that she “spent her adult life working for justice and equal rights for all people” and was “a champion of equal rights for women.”

WMU alumna Dr. Patti Bills, who as an undergraduate studied with Mary and is now a teacher-educator at Northern Kentucky University, writes:

She was the first person ever to articulate to me what it means to be an educator-advocate. She used the term ‘advocate’ very specifically with us when talking about early childhood education, at a time when deregulation was happening in Michigan, and I have never forgotten what that meant. She was simply amazing.

Maria A. Perez-Stable, Professor of University Libraries, recalls her arrival to WMU in 1979, at age 24, “a newly-minted Instructor, never having worked in higher education before.” Maria writes,

I was proud to have joined the WMU-AAUP, and one of the first people I encountered was Mary Cain. She was a petite person, but what a powerhouse, with her commanding voice, unmistakable intellect, and the intensity shining out of her eyes. Although she never knew it, Mary was one of my heroes and role models in academe – an example of how women in the academy could lead effectively and make a real difference. I recall Mary fighting tirelessly for gender and racial equality on our campus, and of course, for early childhood education in her own department. And always, with that infectious and irrepressible smile of hers. It was my privilege to call her colleague.

After her retirement in 1992, Mary went on to co-found Western’s Association of Retired Faculty (WARF). Dr. Tom Bailey, Professor Emeritus of English, writes that “Those of us basking in the glow of retirement have that to thank her for.”

Tom adds,

Mary led the WMU-AAUP through a very turbulent period when relations between professors and the administration were at the lowest point they ever reached. She was a steady hand at the helm, and utterly fearless in guiding us toward a satisfactory settlement. Still, after that deeply dangerous and unpleasant strike, there has never been another. A few years after it had been settled and President Haenicke had been hired, he could see the lasting distress and bitterness faculty-administration antagonisms had caused, and he, and all subsequent presidents, have avoided another. In that way, Mary’s leadership still serves the WMU-AAUP.

In the two decades after her retirement, Mary continued to participate actively in campus life and to support the work of the WMU-AAUP. As recently as 2014, then 89-year-old Mary still regularly attended WMU-AAUP Executive Committee meetings, representing WARF, and she was as sharp, funny, and fearless as ever. She also participated in the chapter’s 2014 contract campaign, including as a guest speaker at the WMU-AAUP Union Pioneers Panel in February 2014 and as a frequent advisor to the chapter leadership.

The officers, Executive Committee, Association Council, and staff of the WMU-AAUP, on behalf of the Board-appointed faculty of Western Michigan University, offer our deepest condolences to Mary’s family and friends on this profound loss.

All WMU faculty owe a debt of gratitude to Mary for her courage, foresight, strength, and humor. We are humbled by our responsibility to honor her legacy, but we know she is counting on us to stand together for the future of the faculty and the university to which we, like Mary, have committed our professional lives, and we are determined not to let her down. She understood the central role of faculty to the success of the university and the critical importance of faculty rights as autonomous professionals, entitled to meaningful participation in leading the development of the university’s priorities. Mary fought on the faculty’s behalf for fair compensation and affordable healthcare. She defended academic freedom and insisted on shared governance and due process. And she refused to allow administrative fiat to be the “Western way.” Dr. Mary Cain lived her convictions. We owe it to her, to ourselves, and to our students not to allow her work to be undone. As we mourn her passing, we can take strength from the example she set for us and honor her by following that example.