After a Fraught Semester, a University Wrestles With the Meaning of ‘Shared Governance’

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After a war of words over a graduate-student strike last semester, faculty members and senior leaders at Indiana University at Bloomington have found themselves in a messy rendition of an age-old debate over what shared governance means — which has effectively led to a stalemate.

Indiana University’s Board of Trustees sent a letter to the Bloomington Faculty Council in late May declining to recognize the Indiana Graduate Workers Coalition as a union, saying that it was “incompatible with IU’s approach to shared governance” because the university has “existing channels” for working with grad students. But some pro-union professors said that, in fact, the way Indiana officials have handled the situation violates shared governance because they have taken such a hostile stance against the grad students.

Grad students began their strike in mid-April and suspended their strike for the summer on May 10, the last day to submit final grades for the spring semester, to “see the effects of the strike,” according to a strike-updates website, throughout the summer. They plan to resume the strike on September 26.

Indiana isn’t the only college that’s recently clashed with a unionization effort, but the tenor of the conversation there has escalated in recent weeks.

The process to enhance the experience for our graduate students is best accomplished through the existing channels of shared governance and collaboration.

The Bloomington Faculty Council passed a resolution in mid-April in support of the grad-student workers, calling for Provost Rahul Shrivastav to talk with the coalition to avoid a strike, and to not retaliate against those who choose to strike. That same day, university leaders told professors that they are responsible for disciplining graduate-student instructors who don’t “fulfill their assigned duties,” and that those punishments could include being fired and losing their stipend, health insurance, and other benefits.

Graduate-student organizers have accused Indiana administrators of “bullying departments into undermining the strike.”

Sam Smucker, a Ph.D. student and a member of the Indiana Graduate Workers Coalition, said it is disappointed in the board’s refusal to recognize the union and called it a “pretty big violation” of shared governance. A university spokesman told The Chronicle previously that officials have held meetings with graduate students regularly. Smucker said officials haven’t formally met with coalition members in any “meaningful” way to discuss next steps.

Given what’s happened over the past month, the rift doesn’t seem any closer to being resolved.

Reaching a Stalemate

On May 9, a majority of the 700 faculty members in attendance at a historic facultywide meeting voted to approve two resolutions — one calling on the university not to retaliate against grad students who participated in the strike, and another asking the university to recognize the coalition as a union. After the meeting, the faculty council held a formal vote on the measures. Of 1,900 faculty members who participated, two-thirds voted to support the grad students.

Then, on May 31, the trustees rejected those calls. In that letter to faculty leaders, the board wrote that the university “must ensure that there is no disruption to the undergraduate experience” at Indiana.

“Existing, long-standing university policies that were developed through shared governance recognize this, and any member of the community — whether staff or tenured faculty or associate instructor — who fails to uphold their responsibilities in this regard will be subject to the consequences stated in these policies,” the letter states.

The board’s letter said that the Task Force on the Future of Graduate Education, which university officials established during the strike in April, would make recommendations to improve the graduate-student experience.

“The process to enhance the experience for our graduate students is best accomplished through the existing channels of shared governance and collaboration, some new and some that have long driven IU’s progress,” the letter said.

A university spokesman referred The Chronicle to a recent email from the provost with an update on the task force’s progress in meeting with graduate students. According to the email, the graduate workers’ coalition declined an invitation to meet with James Wimbush, dean of the graduate school, but officials will continue to invite the group to meetings in the future.

“I hope to see even greater participation at the next round of meetings in July, so we continue to hear a broad range of perspectives as we work together to develop meaningful solutions,” the provost wrote. “This includes representatives of the IGWC and other graduate student groups.”

Smucker said the coalition responded to Wimbush’s invitation for a meeting this week with a request to delay the meeting a week to include additional department-level union representatives and accommodate their schedules. The coalition said it wanted to discuss “pathways to union recognition” and the graduate-education task force at the meeting.

In an emailed response, shared with The Chronicle by Smucker, Wimbush asked that coalition members meet on the day he initially proposed so that the task force could remain on track to develop its recommendations by the end of July, and said the coalition would have other opportunities later in the summer for “further dialogue.”

“So that the meeting is an actual dialogue, we ask that you find a time that is mutually acceptable,” the coalition replied in an email, also shared by Smucker. “Refusing to consider times that occur after the Board of Trustees meeting suggests to us that you are not seriously interested in union members’ input on the Task Force.”

Ben Robinson, president of Bloomington’s American Association of University Professors chapter, said the way administrators have handled the union push was “an attack on shared governance,” because of their “hostile” response to the Faculty Council’s recommendations.

“The faculty felt it was damaging to our mission, which is to teach and research,” he said.

Joseph Varga, an associate professor of labor studies at Indiana University who has consulted with the graduate-student organizers, said the response of Indiana officials to the unionization efforts has been particularly combative, compared with other labor movements he has studied.

Though striking is a “powerful weapon” in labor movements, it creates a scenario that is not ideal for the grad students or the university. “I think that Indiana University as an institution has ways of avoiding that, and one way is to simply sit down and talk with them,” Varga said.

The response has really caused unnecessary rifts between the faculty and the administration.

Varga said the lack of productive conversation between the university and the graduate-student coalition so far has made more professors sympathetic to the grad students’ cause. But it has also widened the divide between grad students and their allies and university leaders.

“The response has really caused unnecessary rifts between the faculty and the administration,” he said.

An ‘Inevitable’ Strike

But Steve Sanders, a law professor at Indiana, said he doesn’t see the situation as a mishandling of shared governance. Sanders said some professors are most likely misunderstanding what shared governance means at Indiana.

In certain areas like grading policies and standards for promotion and tenure, the faculty voice “must prevail,” he said. But that’s not necessarily the case when it comes to the discussion of labor.

“Labor issues, employment issues — yes, in a in a big-picture way, these affect the academic mission of the university. But they’re areas where I think it’s generally understood that the trustees and the administration have the final say,” he said. “Faculty have what’s called in our constitution ‘consultative authority’ but not legislative authority.”

Scott Libson, the librarian for history, Jewish studies, and religious studies at Indiana, said he doesn’t think a grad-student union would be incompatible with shared governance, as the board wrote in its letter. But he also doesn’t believe it’s a violation of shared governance to refuse to recognize the union.

“We cannot remove the executive authority of the provost,” he said. “The provost has his job, the responsibilities of which are articulated by the Board of Trustees and the president. It’s not like we have the authority to just change his authority.”

Looking ahead, Libson said he doesn’t think either group — the grad-student coalition or the Board of Trustees — will compromise before September 26, and a strike will be “inevitable.” He said regardless of what the task force on the future of graduate education comes up with, the coalition will choose to resume its strike in the fall.

“Given the political climate in Indiana, I just see it as unlikely that the board of trustees will recognize the union,” he said. “So looking ahead, I see no resolution to this problem.”

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