Cross-posted at DailyKos.
On occasion on these pages, I have written about higher education and about labor rights, mostly in the context of the abysmal state of affairs when it comes to the political climate here in Michigan. I write from the perspective of university professor, president of our faculty union, and engaged citizen. And usually I write about things that happen to other people. But today, I have a story to tell about something that happened at my university, something that helped to clarify some things for me in a new way, about cultural problems on my campus and in our society more widely.
This story is about how the administration of my university called the campus police on a bunch of professors as if they believed we might riot and how the campus police behaved when they responded to that call.
Since April, our faculty union, a collective-bargaining chapter of the American Association of University Professors, has been negotiating a new contract to replace the three-year contract that would (and did) expire at 12:01 a.m. on September 6. As anyone who has ever served on a negotiation team well knows, collective bargaining is an interesting exercise in asymmetry. In all workplaces, including universities, the management side has all the resources and all the money and therefore most of the power. Yet if there is a union in the workplace, the side with all the resources and all the money and most of the power has no choice but to sit down with the people on the other side. They can’t just dictate. They have to try to get us to agree to what they want. And they have to hear us out. But still, the management side has a considerable advantage. They have access to resources and money and a claim to authority. That’s a lot of leverage, even with a union in the workplace. (Without a union, of course, management can do pretty much whatever it wants, whenever it wants.)
On the other hand, our chapter of the AAUP has over 800 members, many of whom followed the negotiation process closely. As chapter president, part of my job has been to remind my colleagues that our strength is in our numbers. Since we kicked off our contract campaign last fall, I have worked with the other chapter leaders, including our officers, our 12 executive committee members, and our 57 departmental reps, to make the case to our colleagues that the success of our team at the table would depend in large part on the active, vocal, and visible support of the faculty. To that end, we sponsored a series of events beginning in the fall of 2013 through the summer of 2014. We had decent turnout for all these events, although our local media outlets seem to make a point of ignoring most of what we say or do, and it was clear that momentum had been building steadily since last fall as more and more of our faculty colleagues came forward to stand with our bargaining team.
At the end of August, as the contract expiration loomed, the situation became more urgent, as it will when the contract expiration date is nigh. The administration increased its pressure on our team, and things occasionally got fairly tense at the table. But our team refused to knuckle under and remained firm in their resolve. There was talk around campus of a possible impasse and speculation about whether the contract would expire before we reached a tentative agreement.
On August 28, the week before classes started, a time when many of our colleagues were not yet back on campus for the new academic year (a lot of people don’t realize that most professors don’t actually get paid in the summer), 150 faculty members rallied in front of the administration building, along with students, alumni, and retired colleagues. Our signs and chants expressed our concerns about the priorities of the university’s senior administrators, whose financing decisions in recent years suggest a declining interest in providing robust support for the instruction and research that are our raison d’être and a growing interest in investment in athletics, swanky (and expensive) new residence halls, and administrative hiring, bonuses, and perks.
The rally on August 28 was not covered by any of our local media. And at the bargaining table later that day, the administration’s team members pretended not to know anything about it, although this was clearly disingenuous on their part. And just as clearly, they were not happy about it.
The administration may be eager to take advantage of its access to university resources and to use them to try to frame the issues according to their own interests, simply because that possibility is available to them. However, because Western Michigan University is an institution of higher learning, we are all held to a higher standard. All of us who are engaged in this enterprise are obliged to promote and model the practices and values that are fundamental to our common mission. These include collaboration, the promotion of free inquiry, and the advancement of human knowledge and understanding. As tempting as access to official university mouthpieces and publications might be for the administration, using those media to present a one-sided view of the negotiation process, and especially without identifying it as such, conflicts with the values and principles we are all obliged to uphold. By deliberately representing as fact that which is very much a subjective point of view, as well as by excluding alternative viewpoints, the core academic values we all share in common are subverted.
After I sent this message, I posted it on the chapter blog, linked it to our Facebook page and Twitter account, and headed over to Montague House, our union headquarters, for our Labor Day rally. Over 130 colleagues also showed up, and after walking our team across the street to the building where their sessions were held, the rest of us stayed outside for another 20 or 25 minutes or so, chanting and displaying our signs to the administrators inside the bargaining room, which is conveniently located on the ground floor and features nice big windows.
Later that day, I guess during a break in the bargaining action, a member of the administration’s team sent a response to the email I had sent that morning. She didn’t mean for me to see the reply, I don’t think, because she took me off the list of recipients before she sent it. However, she apparently did not realize that I had copied the WMU-AAUP office staff when I sent it, because they were copied on the reply, which reads thusly:
Do you think this bears responding to? Were you planning to respond? Is there anything I could do? We’re at the table this morning; a small contingent (40 max?) of mostly [College of Arts and Sciences] faculty chanted and yelled for the first 15 minutes, but they’ve since gone home. Best regards
That is my emphasis added. (For now I will ignore the part about why it might matter to her if there were a lot of faculty in attendance from what is by far the largest college on campus.) Of course, from where she was sitting inside the conference room, she could not possibly have seen everyone, which could explain why her count was off by almost 100 people. And I realize that of course she was attempting to put a brave face on an event that by all accounts made the administrative team uncomfortable.
Still, her email suggested to me that our message was still not getting across. The administration did not seem to hear us when we showed up first on August 28 or when we came out again on September 1, on Labor Day, to say that the faculty is behind its team, that a university that brags about its “top 100 national university” designation is hypocritical when its faculty salaries rank “far below median,” according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, and that we were not going to tolerate moving any further behind in our next contract, especially while our university president is pulling down a cool $776,000 in salary and bonuses. He is now the 18th-highest paid public university president in the country, while his faculty languish in 342nd place, and he doesn’t seem to have the good grace even to pretend to be embarrassed about that appalling discrepancy.
Meanwhile, faculty concerns about the dearth of tenure-track hires are routinely brushed off and contradicted, but the numbers don’t lie. Part-time faculty are increasingly used to cover faculty vacancies, at working-poor salaries any college president making three quarters of a mil ought to be ashamed of. Senior colleagues delay retirement because they know they won’t be replaced and worry that academic programs they have spent decades building will simply disappear when they are gone. Massive, multi-year administrative pet projects bury all of us in extra work on endless committees, task forces, “project management teams,” and “tactical action communities,” all of these in addition to our already full workloads. Legitimate faculty grievances are routinely denied, often with little more than “Because we say so” as an explanation. Every faculty mistake, large or small, real or imagined, is treated like a capital crime, yet no administrator is held accountable even for the most egregious violations of the contract or unprofessional behavior. Faculty members are treated with barely disguised (or undisguised) contempt by some of our senior administrators. A colleague with 40 years of service to the university recently told me he can’t remember ever feeling so disrespected by the administration. All the while, we fall farther and farther behind not only our peer institutions but even those institutions for whom our university is aspirational.
Anyway, with our contract scheduled to expire at a minute after midnight on Friday, September 5, we scheduled a chapter meeting for Friday afternoon so that the faculty could come together to talk about where we were, what they wanted us to do, and what they were willing to do to support our team. “Depending on what happens in the next few days,” I wrote to my faculty colleagues in an email inviting them to the chapter meeting, “we may need also to make our feelings known in a more public way immediately following the chapter meeting, so please be prepared for that possibility on Friday afternoon.
We had a wonderful chapter meeting on September 5, with a huge turnout that filled to capacity (and probably beyond capacity) our large meeting room in the student center. Building staffers wheeled in stack after stack of additional chairs. Every new seat was immediately filled. And probably a hundred or more faculty colleagues remained standing throughout the meeting simply because there was nowhere left to sit. There may have been a violation of a fire code or two. The discussion was lively, spirited, intense, and upbeat. True to our usual character as a university faculty, we were not all in agreement on everything. But the consensus on the big-picture issues and challenges facing us quickly emerged: We could not go backwards in the new contract – we would not. Colleagues from departments and colleges all over campus spoke up. Their words were wise, thoughtful, and passionate. We applauded and cheered and felt empowered by the words that were spoken, by the friends and colleagues who had spoken them, and by the resulting positive energy and power in the room.
The event they call Bronco Bash is a huge welcome-back party for the campus community that is said to attract about 20,000 people each year, mostly WMU students. It includes live music, activities, and booths where student organizations do their things and local businesses do theirs, and it’s just a big, loud, fun party to celebrate the new school year. It happens every year on the campus of Western Michigan University, on the Friday at the end of the first week of classes. This year, that happened to be September 5.
Things were just getting into full swing at Bronco Bash when our long, long parade of WMU professors, several hundred strong, marched out of our chapter meeting in the student center and into the plaza, which was already jammed with students and booths and activities. The WMU marching band was performing down at the far end of the plaza, so we decided not to head too far down in that direction, quickly passing the word among our parading colleagues that we would not disrupt any student performances or activities (which of course none of us would ever dream of doing). We carried signs, moved through the crowds, and chanted our simple call and response: “What do want?” “A fair contract!” “When do we want it?” “Now!”
One thing I did not think to anticipate was how many students would immediately pull out their phones and start taking photos and videos of a few hundred of their dorky old professors dusting the chalk off our moth-eaten cardigans and raising a little hell on a blazingly sunny and gorgeous (and hot!) afternoon at an event where our presence probably immediately upped the median age by at least a decade or two. I wish I could see their footage, but because these are university students, they are all way too cool to be hanging out on the social media where their profs hang out, so I haven’t seen much of it so far. (Their parents probably have, though.)
It is hard to describe the feeling as we walked through the plaza and saw and heard our students cheering us on and raising their hands in the air as we went by. Some of them joined us to march for a while, others cheered as we passed by, and occasionally a student would call out to an individual faculty member (“Go, Dr. Al!”). All in all, the students we encountered were tremendously supportive and absolutely wonderful. But then, that is who they are all the time and why professors do what we do.
After we made our loop through Bronco Bash, we circled around toward the administration building. We queued up on the wide walkway out front as the rest of our party caught up. It was a long, long, line of professors out there, and it took a few minutes for us all to reconvene. At that point, we decided to follow through with our original plan and go inside.
The faculty continued to chant loudly as they approached the doors to the building, but polite professors that they are, everyone kind of just automatically took it down a couple of notches as we entered the building. The student receptionist at the front desk looked up, a bit startled, as the first among us walked in, but then she immediately smiled and said hello. We returned the greeting and moved into the stairwell to go up to the next floor to the senior administrative office suite.
Another student greeted us when we got there and began to enter through the glass doors leading to the suite. But immediately after that, a senior administrator came storming down the corridor toward us, looking furious and not speaking to or making eye contact with any of us, even though many of us were of course known to him (including me, and I was at the front of the crowd and would have been hard to miss).
He began gesturing to the student workers and members of the office staff who were present, although it appeared to be something of a skeleton crew, which was not surprising given that it was Friday afternoon and there was a big, loud party with 20,000 attendees going on right outside. One young staff member was holding out his iPhone toward us, although it wasn’t clear whether he was attempting to photograph us with it or whether someone was on the phone wanting to know what in tarnation was going on. There was a bit of scurrying about and then some slamming of doors, as most of the staff on the scene disappeared into a conference room.
Faculty continued to file in, probably over 200 of us, and we filled the outer office area of the administrative suite. We did not enter any private offices or cubicles. We did not touch anything, break anything, or stand or sit on anything. We stayed in the public area and continued to chant for another maybe 10 minutes. The president did not seem to be around, nor did any other administrator, apart from the angry one who had met us upon arrival but who had since disappeared, probably into the conference room he seemed to be ordering everyone into. The president’s receptionist and executive assistant were in their offices, however, and they will both always hold a special place in my heart because neither of these two lovely women closed their doors to us for as long as we were there. I won’t claim they were thrilled to see us (or to hear us), because they probably could have done quite nicely without our visit, but at no point did they treat us as though we didn’t belong there or behave as though they believed they were in danger, and we appreciate that.
I want to stress that the behavior of most of the police officers was professional and respectful as they carried out the task of removing us from this building on our university campus at what was already pretty much the end of our demonstration.
Unfortunately, several other officers behaved aggressively and disrespectfully, storming into the administrative suite and ordering us to leave immediately. They appeared angry and emotionally charged from the moment they arrived on the scene, treating us with considerable hostility and threatening us with arrest if we did not get out. With raised voices, they ordered us to leave immediately and yelled at us that we were disrupting the business of the university. When a faculty member asked one of them what law we were breaking, he was informed that he would be taken to jail if he didn’t get out immediately.
Even more unfortunately, the worst behavior was that of the chief of campus police. He was not in uniform and did not identify himself to us when he arrived on the scene. He simply yelled and threatened and acted like a bully. That was the example he set for his officers. And because he was not in uniform, we had no idea who he was or what right he thought he had to order faculty members out of a building on our university campus.
Several other officers unfortunately followed his example and raised their voices to us and otherwise acted like bullies as they circulated among us ordered us out.
When they told us to leave, we complied. No one resisted. Everyone moved in an orderly fashion toward the exit. I mean, we’re professors. We’re pretty non-threatening. But there were probably still over 200 of us, so it took a few minutes for everyone to get out the door and down the stairwell. But everyone complied.
Because I was the first one in when we arrived, I was at the far end of the suite for most of the time we were there and therefore among the last to leave. As I was walking out through the glass doors toward the stairwell, I heard a woman’s voice just to my right say, “Get your hands off me!”
I stopped then and turned toward the colleague who had spoken. She was barely five feet tall (and, I found out later, 67 years old) and she was glaring at the big, angry guy who had been behind her, who was not in uniform.
He responded by ordering her to get out. His tone and posture were hostile and aggressive. He was at least a foot taller than she was and probably had nearly a hundred pounds on her. She told him to keep his hands off her and demanded his name. I wish I could remember the exact words of his response, because he did not deny having put his hands on her and essentially said that he would do it again and arrest her if she didn’t get out. She continued to insist that he tell her his name and informed him that she would be filing charges against him. He said he was the chief of police. She replied, “I didn’t ask your job title. I asked you for your name.” He finally told her his name and then threatened her again with arrest if we didn’t get out.
She and I turned to go, and I ended up walking next to one of the other officers on the steps going down. “What exactly were we doing that is illegal?” I asked the officer, whom I had seen around campus many times before and who is not at all a jerk and did not behave like one that day. “It was disruptive,” she replied. “What we were doing is constitutionally protected,” I said. “We were exercising our rights to free speech and peaceable assembly.” She gave me a look like she got that, but all she said was, “It was disruptive.” I thanked her for maintaining a calm and professional demeanor and went outside.
Once we were all outside, the word came around that the president of the university would be arriving at 4 p.m. for a scheduled meet-and-greet and photo op with students as part of the Bronco Bash activities. It was about 3:20. I decided that even if no one else wanted to hang around for that long in the blazing heat, I needed to stay to tell him what had just happened: that a loud but clearly peaceful protest by a bunch of professors with a median age of about 57 and a combined length of service to this university of about 3,000 years had been met with a ridiculous overreaction on the part of the ranking administrator on the scene (who seemed to be drawing on training for what to do in an active-shooter situation) and an even more ridiculous overreaction on the part of the campus police, including an incident in which a big, angry chief of police shoved a petite 67-year-old professor from the College of Education.
Meanwhile, the negotiation teams had gone back to the table at 3:30. The rest of us talked about gathering outside the bargaining room at 6 p.m. and making an evening of it, hanging out, ordering pizza, and supporting our team. But the weather did not cooperate with that plan, and severe storms began blowing through town at about 5:45. A bunch of us decided to hang out at the union HQ, where we ordered pizza, planned our long game, and exchanged texts with members of our team during their caucuses. Unbeknownst to all of us, trees and powerlines were down all over town from the storms and power was out for thousands of local residents. I sent everyone home at 11:15. What happened between 11:15 and midnight was dramatic and tense and exciting and and infuriating and awesome and all kinds of other things, but I am already committed to one long story here, so in order to avoid getting into another, I will just say that the teams reached a tentative agreement by midnight, when our old contract expired, and that it was a much better contract than I believe we would have gotten had the faculty not made its feelings known so clearly and unequivocally earlier in the day.
This has been a very long story, I realize, and maybe some of you are hoping that there will be teargas or at least pepper spray at the end of it. There isn’t. There wasn’t. (Not for us, anyway.) Rather, this is just a story about over-the-top hostility toward the faculty of my university by its administration and by the police force they deployed on their behalf.
Understand that in no way do I delude myself by thinking that this incident compares in any way to the devastating violence and dehumanizing treatment that police behaving inappropriately have unfortunately visited on far too many of our citizens in this country. It does not.
But still, it suggests some disturbing things.
1. If the highest-ranking member of the campus police at my university, along with his subordinates, go directly into jackbooted-bully mode to respond to a peaceful (if loud) faculty demonstration, where the participants are mostly white, mostly middle aged, and all professors who are well known on campus and in this community, it troubles me deeply to imagine how our students are treated in incidents that involve interactions with these same police. For what I think must be obvious reasons, I am especially fearful for our young male students of color.
2. In my privileged experience as an educated white woman, for most of my life I have had no firsthand knowledge of something many of my fellow citizens have long known all too well, and that is how the demeanor and behavior of police can escalate a situation if they mishandle it by confronting citizens with anger, hostility, and intimidation. The campus police arrived on the scene of a peaceful protest that was already winding down before they got there, but by the time their work was done, a lot of my professorial-type colleagues were pretty righteously pissed off. The behavior of the officers not only did absolutely nothing to defuse the situation, but it went a long way toward making many of us very, very angry. If we had been anything but completely nonthreatening and nonconfrontational, which is what we were (and you can see for yourself in the video of the demonstration linked here), I can’t imagine what might have happened.
3. The officer who identified himself as the chief of police failed to remain calm or conduct himself professionally in his interaction with the faculty of the university that employs all of us. In addition to his unprofessional and inappropriate interaction with the colleague whom he allegedly pushed, his overall demeanor toward all of us was hostile and disrespectful from the moment he arrived. His emotionally charged response was completely inappropriate and unprofessional, and several of the officers under his command unfortunately followed his example. Once again, if this was his response to a peaceful protest involving a bunch of middle-aged professors, I can only imagine what might happen when he is called to respond to a situation involving our students.
Over the past two weeks, colleagues have been sharing photos that they took that day, and in every one the police chief appears in, his body language and facial expressions are aggressive and angry. (Some of these pictures are included in the diary. You can see more pictures here.) His demeanor on Friday and the way he treated and spoke to us should raise serious questions about his fitness for such an important position at our university. I hope the senior university leadership is exploring these questions and taking them seriously. If they are not, the faculty and the campus community deserve an explanation as to why they are not.
However, I am not optimistic. A colleague texted me on Thursday from where she was having lunch at the student center to say that she had just overheard a campus police officer tell an administrative staffer that the faculty union “entrapped” the campus police at the protest. The staffer replied that she thought “those images of the police were obviously Photoshopped.” Such is the culture of denial on my campus.
4. Was the approach the chief used with us on September 5 condoned by the university’s senior administration? We don’t know. The student newspaper covered the incident but no administrators are quoted in their story, which is so far the only coverage the incident has received. The faculty member who was pushed has filed her complaint about the officer, and so now the administration is probably circling its legal wagons and clamming up. Until and unless the administration says or does something (convincing) to the contrary, the overreaction to our peaceful protest unfortunately suggests some disturbing things about how faculty are viewed by the administration (and apparently also by the campus police), about our campus culture, and about the university’s overall leadership style. Their actions – administration and campus police – should raise serious questions with the university’s board of trustees and in the community about what is going on with the university’s leadership and with the increasingly toxic culture at WMU for faculty, staff, and most importantly, for our students.
(Sadly, it probably won’t. There are a lot of heads stuck in a lot of sand round these parts. And as I’ve mentioned, there is no local media to pressure the administration to come clean and do any real soul-searching.
5. As we’ve seen in the news lately, campus police around the country are now being provided with military weapons, including M-16s and grenade launchers, by the Department of Defense. Can I just say what a breathtakingly stupid and dangerous idea that is?
I have a few additional thoughts, but I think this is already way longer than anyone’s got the patience to read all the way through, so I’m going to stop where I am and just leave it where it is.