Full-time union, administration clash over budget solutions; 68 faculty, librarians in limbo

UPDATED: 6:30 P.M. 5/31/20

As USF faces an uncertain financial future, nearly 70 faculty and librarians may lose their jobs as early as June 1, barring an agreement between University administration and the full-time faculty union. Negotiations have been underway but, at the time of publication, no agreement has been reached. 

The 68 faculty and librarians whose jobs are in jeopardy are members of the USF Faculty Association (USFFA), a union consisting of over 450 members. In an email obtained by the Foghorn, the USFFA warned its members that if an agreement could not be reached, the administration would terminate the contracts of probationary faculty and librarians. 

These disagreements between the union and the administration stem from the University’s decision to make certain budget cuts in an attempt to mitigate the severe financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Current predictions from the University estimate that, as a result of a potential decrease in enrollment due to the pandemic, USF can lose anywhere between $15 million and $65 million in the upcoming fiscal year, which begins on June 1. This loss would follow $5.5 million in housing refunds losses and nearly $500,000 stemming from food service operations and online classes.

In preparation for the impending financial losses, the University issued furloughs to staff and has begun laying off some employees, according to an email sent by President Paul Fitzgerald to all USF employees. University administration also requested to reopen the USFFA collective bargaining agreement (CBA), a contract between the university and the full-time union. The administration intends to invoke article 45.1 of the CBA, “Renegotiation of Economic Terms upon Change in Student Enrollment,” which allows either party to request both sides come to the bargaining table if enrollment drops 5% or more. This is in addition to invoking article 45.3, which allows either party to renegotiate wages or Faculty Development Funds (FDF) if net tuition revenue is 2% below budget.

According to the administration, they notified the USFFA of their intent to invoke article 45.1 in April. In a May 27 weekly newsletter to members, the USFFA wrote that it did not reopen the contract as, “After consultations with legal counsel, we agreed that there were no grounds to open the CBA.”

Other unions such as the USF Part-Time Faculty Association (PTFA) have not received a request to reopen their contracts. John Higgins, president of the PTFA, told the Foghorn that the union does not intend to invoke article 45.1 on their end. However, the part-time faculty union has had disagreements with the University over compensation for online learning and has filed both a demand and request to bargain, which are requests any party can make to have both parties come to the table to resolve disagreements. In this case, the PTFA has a disagreement over not receiving compensation for working extra hours and needing to use personal home technology. The PTFA claims the administration has not responded to their demand or request. 

On May 18, administrators approached the USFFA with a package containing five concept proposals to help the University save money and address the incoming budget shortfall. According to the union, the administration requested that the union vote on the package’s concepts by May 22. The union’s policy board contended, in an email, that the administration’s request was impossible because, “Four days is nowhere near enough time to consult with our members, evaluate and explain the situation, and obtain positions on critical issues.”

The most significant action the University proposed was moving back the deadline to issue non-renewal notices to probationary faculty and librarians from June 1 to July 1; originally, the administration proposed the date be moved back to November 1. In a normal year, probationary faculty in their third to sixth year at the University would have their contracts automatically renewed, unless they received a non-renewal notice. If a faculty member receives a non-renewal notice, they can be asked to work one more year as “term faculty” and then potentially be terminated, or be immediately terminated with six months of severance pay, all at the administration’s discretion. 

In an email sent on May 20, USFFA President Sonja Martin-Poole wrote to members that this was the first time the union was notified that the administration is considering layoffs for USFFA members. 

“The administration represented that they do not want to issue the non-renewal notices to probationary faculty, but they did threaten to do so if we are unable to co-produce solutions to the university’s immediate need to have flexibility in their ability to scale up or down as needed to address financial difficulties and course staffing needs related to COVID-19,” Poole wrote. 

In a later email to the Foghorn, Poole claimed, “The University has threatened to send the notices to all probationary faculty to get us to renegotiate terms covered in our CBA.”

The administration has contended that pushing the non-renewal deadline back to November 1 would allow them to see the effects of COVID-19 play out and better understand the financial situation in the fall. 

In an email sent on May 24 to USFFA members, David Philpott, assistant vice president for labor and employee relations, wrote, “The university supports its probationary faculty and values their scholarly and pedagogical contributions; it does not wish to issue these terminal notices. The university is fully cognizant that these probationary faculty members represent the future of the university, but it also must prepare for the formidable financial challenges the future will bring.”

Donna Davis, general counsel for the University, said in an email statement to the Foghorn, “The administration does NOT want to terminate or give notice of non renewal to probationary faculty. Rather, it is seeking shared sacrifice to address the serious financial threats it faces… All employees have agreed except the faculty union and clerical union. The university has worked to preserve jobs and is continuing to do so.”

The USFFA disagrees with this. The union’s newsletter read, “We have taken the position that mass layoffs of probationary faculty are not acceptable. This would devastate the university and undermine the entire idea of union solidarity. The junior faculty are USF’s future. They have in many cases come here from around the country and around the world to take these jobs, some would have visas revoked, and layoffs would destroy many careers. We have offered to bring every other proposal to a vote if they take the mass layoffs off the table. They refused.” 

The administration’s proposal left numerous faculty members concerned for themselves and for their junior colleagues. Professor of sociology and USFFA member Hwaji Shin said, “I found it not only fiscally unnecessary but also unethical and inhumane for the university to even consider and mention the possibility of firing the most vulnerable probationary faculty and librarians if we don’t agree to cut the faculty’s wages and benefits during this pandemic crisis.” 

In an email to union members, Poole emphasized her belief that the University has alternate options and does not need to resort to the potential termination of faculty members.

“One critical point in their concept, pertaining to a date change for probationary faculty non-renewal notifications, became a sticking point. We sought clarification on the direct financial savings associated with this concept and have yet to receive a concrete reply. After some discussion, the Administration has offered flexibility on the date but signaled their unwillingness to remove the concept,” Poole wrote. “We are ready to submit counter concepts that we believe will make up for any projected savings of non-renewals and could, thus, alleviate the need to take this measure.”

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, three other USFFA members echoed Poole’s sentiment and told the Foghorn that they believe the University is not being transparent by not disclosing all the relevant budget and financial information needed to fully evaluate the problem. 

“At this point, the university has not disclosed all the relevant budgetary information which allows our union to make a well-informed decision on what ways we could cooperate and help the institution not only to survive but also to thrive beyond this pandemic,” said Shin. “However, the faculty union has been always cooperative to that end.”

“I am not entirely convinced that it is necessary for the University at this point, when they don’t have a full data about Fall enrollment, to request any further cut from the academic division which produce over 88% of the entire university’s revenue,” Shin continued.

Additionally, some union members have felt that the administration has not distributed budget cuts equally and is not following the progressive “shared sacrifice” model Fitzgerald outlined in his May town hall. 

“It’s particularly egregious that they seem to be borrowing a classic divide-and-rule tactic from the private sector by trying to place responsibility on the tenured faculty for their plans to lay off probationary faculty,” wrote Stephen Zunes, USFFA member and professor of politics, in an email to the Foghorn. “The administration’s proposals are looking like an example of Disaster Capitalism, of imposing a neo-liberal corporate model on the university that would otherwise be unthinkable. This is startling unbecoming behavior for a Jesuit institution.”

Other University proposals to the USFFA included the suspension of the commuter benefits, the suspension of FDF and Librarian Development Funds (LDF), a salary freeze for USFFA members, and the approval of the University’s April 8 proposal to cancel most sabbaticals for the 2020-21 academic year.

Poole attempted to quell concern amongst union members by sending an email to them affirming that the union is willing to concede and agree to the other proposals in exchange for removing the concept of extending the non-renewal notification deadline. 

The administration, however, rejected this counterproposal, as they have taken the position that more actions would come in the later months, regardless of whether or not the USFFA agrees with the deal.

In the administration’s email to union members, Philpott wrote, “Further discussions are scheduled in June to address net revenue shortfall benchmarks that, if triggered at fall 2020 census, would lead to salary reductions, retirement contribution reductions, and increases in workload. The parties also need to discuss fiscal year 2021 instructional compensation practices in light of COVID-19, as well as other matters, in June.”

Other concepts included discussion over sabbaticals for the 2020-21 academic year. In the original plan the administration proposed on April 8, most sabbaticals would be delayed one year.

According to an anonymous USFFA member, this delay would be detrimental, especially for those who have been awarded with non-renewable fellowships. Furthermore, some members have argued that faculty taking sabbaticals would actually save the University money as, under the collective bargaining agreement, faculty who take a year-long sabbatical are paid 75% of their salary.

The USFFA presented a counterproposal to the administration on May 24. At the time of publication, it is unclear if the administration agreed to the counterproposal.

In addition to conflicts over sabbaticals, there is a concern over the suspension of FDF and LDF funds. FDF funds help finance professional development and faculty research. Faculty can use this money to support their research, travel to academic conferences, and hire student research assistants.

“In case some or all students are not on campus in the fall, this would be virtually the only [student] employment possible. It would also be one of the few completely safe forms of employment, since much of it could be done through their computer,” Zunes said. He also noted that the elimination of student research assistants would contribute to the already-present lack of online student employment opportunities, which some students depend on for income.

As the USFFA has until June 1 to reach a deal before the administration proceeds with its plan to terminate probationary faculty and librarians, the union is hoping it can strike a deal that its members will approve soon — any agreement it makes needs to be voted on by its members.

On May 26, the administration approached the union with a new proposal, which was obtained by the Foghorn. The new proposal includes five concepts, one of which still tables moving the deadline for issuing non-renewal notices. Any mention of a plan for managing sabbaticals has been removed.

Other points include a salary freeze; amending the 30-day notice for term faculty contract renewal for the spring and summer 2020 terms to May 31, 2021; and the USFFA agreeing that up to 48% of the net revenue shortfall for the 2021 fiscal year will be offset by decreases in union members’ compensation. 

Decreases in compensation would entail salary freezes, retirement contribution reducations, increases in workload, overload compensation arrangements, and would still affect FDF and LDF funding. The last concepts include that if both parties cannot reach an agreement to a roadmap by June 30, the administration will automatically assume control of the roadmap and make a “final determination” on it.

In a statement to the Foghorn, Poole said that the union does not currently have a position on the latest proposal. She additionally noted that it will be brought up for debate and discussion at the union’s May 28 general membership meeting. A counterproposal may be developed then.

In their newsletter, the USFFA’s policy board wrote, “We have prepared a counter-offer. We have made clear that we will work with the administration on financial savings to make the budget work. But we want that done in the spirit of shared governance, not ultimatums. We want to move forward, not backward. The bargaining is continuing.”

Philpott appeared to remain optimistic in his email to USFFA members, writing, “Representatives of the USFFA and the administration are committed to working together during this unprecedented crisis to protect the institution, as well as its mission, vision, and values, and to save as many jobs as possible. We will continue to meet frequently in the coming days, and to keep USFFA membership apprised through ongoing communications.”

Representatives from the administration and members of the USFFA’s contingency planning team have met with each other frequently since the administration first presented their proposal. They are slated to meet again, as the June 1 non-renewal deadline is just days away.

UPDATE —  7:30 P.M. 05/30/20:

After the USFFA’s general membership meeting on May 28, the union decided to hold a vote on the administration’s latest proposal, albeit with some late revisions. These revisions included a commitment from the administration that they would meet with the USFFA throughout June and that they would use a third-party mediator if negotiations stalled. The revision also includes additional protections for librarians, who would now need to be notified of their termination 60 days in advance — previously, it was 30 days. Additionally, salary freezes would count towards the USFFA’s 48% share of the net revenue shortfall in the 2021 fiscal year.

The ballot has two questions, and members will have to select “Yes” or “No.” The first question asks members to approve the latest proposal on the table, and the second question asks for members to approve the May 24 sabbatical proposal. As previously reported, this proposal would delay most sabbaticals by one year, with some exceptions. Both questions require a simple majority to pass, and the roughly 450 union members have until 11:59 p.m. tonight (May 30) to submit their votes.

If the question seeking approval for the latest proposal fails to pass, then the USFFA and the administration will have roughly 48 hours to hash out a new deal — otherwise, the administration could exercise their option to terminate 68 probationary faculty and librarians. If the question regarding sabbaticals were to fail, it would not affect approval of the first question. It would, however, mean that the USFFA and administration would have to come to the table again to discuss sabbaticals. If both were to pass, the delay in sabbaticals would count toward the USFFA’s 48% share in revenue shortfalls.

Interim Provost Tyrone Cannon commented on the ongoing vote in a written statement to the Foghorn:

“It is heartbreaking that 68 of our highly valued and most promising faculty members and librarians may receive non-renewal notices which could mean they would no longer be employed after May 31, 2021, depending on the results of the weekend’s voting by USFFA members. The university administration is grateful for the long hours the USFFA has worked to respond to proposals. The current proposal includes salary and step freezes through October. This proposal echoes the efforts being made across the university to preserve our community through shared sacrifices of salary freezes, changed workloads, and reduced spending.  Importantly, the proposal being considered by the USFFA features a commitment to working with the university’s administration to determine a financial roadmap in the face of a significant fiscal year 2021 net revenue shortfall — up to and perhaps exceeding $65 million.”

At this time, it is unclear which direction the vote will swing. However, the probationary caucus of the union released a solidarity statement yesterday, May 29, requesting the University to take any threat of layoffs off the table altogether.

In addition, the three major unions on campus — the USFFA, PTFA, and OPEIU Local 29 representing professional office staff — released a joint solidarity statement on May 29:

“The USFFA, USF PTFA, and OPEIU remain ready and willing to collaborate across the institution and with the University administration to protect each other, our students, and the future of USF. Our unions are meeting with each other regularly. Our unions stand united to hold the University of San Francisco accountable for financial transparency, true shared governance, and the just treatment of employees.”

When asked about the vote, Poole wrote in an email to the Foghorn, “My fingers are crossed for the hope that it passes.”

UPDATE — 6:30 PM 05/31/20: 

The USFFA membership voted overwhelmingly in favor of approving both the administration’s recent proposal and the sabbatical proposal. Nearly 85% of the union’s roughly 450 members participated in the vote. 

The question to approve and authorize the USFFA negotiating team to agree to the administration’s latest proposal passed with nearly 92% of the vote, 365 in favor, 32 against.

Regarding sabbaticals, 362 members voted in favor of adopting the proposal and 34 members voted against it, passing with just over 91% approval.

By approving both proposals, the union has essentially voted to offset 48% of all revenue shortfall for the 2021 fiscal year with reductions in spending. The union will also take on cost-saving measures such as the salary freeze and the freezing of FDF and LDF funds. The savings associated with the approved sabbatical plan will help to offset the USFFA’s share of revenue shortfall. 

In an email announcing the results to all members, the USFFA negotiating team wrote, “We do not celebrate this result. Frankly, we find it unacceptable that the administration threatened our members’ careers and, in some cases, their immigration status.”

“USFFA members spent valuable time fighting for our colleagues’ jobs, during a pandemic when our university needs all hands on deck to plan for an uncertain future,” the email continued.

The negotiating team will now have to formally meet with the University’s administration to agree to the terms of the proposal, as the membership vote merely authorizes the team to move forward in the negotiating process. It is unclear at this point when the meeting will take place.

In an email statement to the Foghorn, Interim Provost Cannon said, “I am grateful to the USFFA leadership and to every faculty member who worked so hard over the past few weeks to debate, review, and vote on the proposal to put contingency plans in place should USF see serious fiscal year 2021 financial difficulties due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“I know it has been very difficult to contemplate the belt-tightening we must all do now and in the months to come. There is much more hard work ahead of us. Not only must we together reimagine and reconfigure USF’s academic and cocurricular offerings as the campus reopens for the fall semester, we must face our mounting financial challenges. I am confident that we can do all of this if we continue our collaboration and discussions with transparency and good faith,” Cannon said.  

In the announcement, the negotiating team described the union as “united and activated,” stating that “[its] collective strength will be crucial to our success over the next month,” as the June negotiations the USFFA and the administration agreed to in the proposal will commence soon.

After the vote, the negotiating team accused the administration of abandoning its commitment to President Fitzgerald’s standard of shared sacrifice and criticized them for “fostering an adversarial process” by targeting probationary faculty and librarians. 

Interim Provost Cannon and other members of University leadership also sent emails to probationary faculty and librarians during the voting period, which was described by the union’s negotiating team as “confusing” and not reflective of shared sacrifice and shared governance.

The USFFA has expressed that it hopes the University will further the principle of shared governance as it heads into the next phase of a budget crisis spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic. Although some may have seen the proposal the union agreed to as a loss to the USFFA, in an FAQ email sent out prior to the vote, the negotiating team wrote, “This is a massive global health and economic crisis, and our goal here is to avoid devastating layoffs and re-opening the CBA (collective bargaining agreement), which could put us in an even worse position.”

Looking to June, the USFFA and the administration will be discussing salary freezes, reductions in retirement contribution reductions, increases in workload, and overload compensation arrangements. The administration has agreed to meet regularly with the union throughout the month and has agreed to use a third-party mediator if talks stall. The newly-approved proposal stipulates that if there is no agreement on a plan by the end of June, the administration will have the ability to “make a final determination.”

If the University’s budget crisis worsens over the coming weeks or months, the administration can still reopen the CBA and exercise article 45, meaning they can request that the USFFA return to the bargaining table if enrollment drops at least 5% or if tuition revenue is 2% below budget. The USFFA has been opposed to opening up the CBA for renegotiations, repeatedly stating the thresholds to reopen have not been met. 

In their announcement, the USFFA’s negotiating team wrote, “Please remember that is our ‘yes’, not the administrations. We will now use our power as a union to demand that the administration work with us in good faith, and to hold them to their words, in the spirit of the Mission and Values of the University of San Francisco.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the administration approached the USFFA with its latest proposal on May 27. The proposal was presented on May 26.


3 thoughts on “Full-time union, administration clash over budget solutions; 68 faculty, librarians in limbo

  1. This is sad news…hopefully these wonderful math and stats professors won’t be let go due to the fallout of pandemic/economic issues. Please update me and my SF student on all news of this important and vital information.

  2. Ethan, brilliant reporting in this piece. Thank you for taking this so seriously and keeping readers informed. And seriously, shame on USF. An institution that I count on to uphold its own values and set a standard for other universities utterly failed here. This cynical divide and conquer strategy may have worked in the short term, but you reap what you sow, administrators.

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