October 17 Meeting with President Birx

On October 17, 2017, Jeremiah Duncan (PSU-AAUP President), Scott Coykendall (PSU-AAUP Lead Negotiator), and Cathie LeBlanc (PSU-AAUP Communication Chair) met with President Birx at his request. The President had originally requested a meeting with Jeremiah and later invited Scott. In discussing this, the PSU-AAUP Executive Committee decided that Cathie should also attend as Communication Chair. The only thing we knew about the motivation for the meeting was that the President wanted to discuss “union negotiations.” In retrospect, it seems likely the meeting was prompted by either or both the negotiating team’s opening statement at the October 5 negotiating session and the flyers about the leadership roles that PSU-AAUP members have taken in the cluster initiative, which we distributed at the October faculty meeting and sent to the Board of Trustees.

The President opened the meeting with a long statement that ranged from “union outsiders” stirring people up about the administration placing post-tenure review on the table during negotiations to the status of the various institutions within the USNH system. His main thrust seemed to be wanting us to understand that he agrees in principle with the sentiments expressed in the negotiating team’s opening statement at the October 5 negotiating session, and especially with the idea of shared governance.  

Much of the discussion from that point focused on shared governance, about which President Birx made two particularly noteworthy statements. First, he stated that our current governance structure seems to focus on review and enforcement of policy rather than being “innovative and forward-thinking.” Second, that at the 4 or 5 institutions where he has been, he has never seen “true shared governance.”

The PSU-AAUP team pushed back on that characterization of governance as not innovative, pointing out the efforts of Curriculum Committee and others to invent creative new ways to advance the cluster initiative. We also noted that our governance system can be creative when it is asked to do so, such as through task forces. President Birx seemed to agree that he could do a better job of working with our governance system to request faculty to develop creative, innovative solutions to our university’s problems.

We took the opportunity of this discussion to express our concerns about his comments at faculty meetings and on Yammer that faculty (through their insistence on using faculty governance channels for new initiatives) act as an impediment to forward progress on the cluster initiative. We stated that faculty are the long-term stewards of the University and that the cluster initiative will succeed only because PSU-AAUP members are taking on these leadership roles.  Further, the only way we can be effective in these efforts is if we are aware of what is happening and are involved throughout the entire process.

We used the Summer Pathways program as an example, pointing out that we have a long history at PSU of developing outstanding programs for small groups of students that do not get integrated into the fabric of what we do as an institution. When the person or small groups of people in charge of such initiatives move on to other projects, these programs die. The faculty in general still have no idea of the curriculum used in the Pathways program. First Year Seminar Fellows have no idea whether any of the students in their classes were part of the program. It seems like a wasted opportunity to have not had these conversations. This, we said, is why we were insistent that it was a problem that faculty governance was by-passed during the development of the program. We cannot collaborate on initiatives that we do not even know about.

The President seemed to understand this concern and agree that communication about such initiatives is critical to their long-term, broad-based success.

We also took the opportunity to bring up the Shared Governance article proposed by our negotiating team, which the administration has subsequently refused to discuss. We noted that the ball is in their court, and it would be a very symbolic and meaningful gesture for the administration to reopen the discussion with a counter proposal. He seemed to take this into consideration, but did not indicate whether he would ask the administrative negotiating team to do so.

At this point, with particular regard to his second comment on “true shared governance,” we asked the president to articulate, perhaps though a blog post, his vision of what a strong, forward-thinking, true shared governance structure would look like, and to challenge the faculty to modify our governance structure to implement his vision. We believe he has agreed to take on this challenge.

The meeting was collegial yet frank. We are cautiously optimistic that he has understood our concerns about his rhetoric on the role of faculty in moving the cluster initiative forward. We are also cautiously optimistic that he has a new understanding of why Shared Governance is of such importance to us in negotiations.

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