By Staff Alliance Chair Monique Musick
Good morning Chair Heckman, Regents, President Gamble and all who are here today or listening online,
It occurred to me recently that the new members of the Board in particular may still be uncertain who we are and who we represent in these Governance Reports. “Shared Governance” is a term that is often used, but rarely defined similarly from one reference to the next. It is a fundamental principal in higher education and integral to the policies and practices governing the university.
As Staff Alliance Chair I give voice to the nearly 3,000 regular and part-time staff that support the university’s academic and research mission. Staff governance representatives are elected by their peers at the local level – UAA Classified & APT councils, UAF Staff Council, UAS Staff Council and the Statewide Administration Assembly respectively – and the chairs or presidents of those local councils sit on the Staff Alliance. I was elected as Chair – and thereby spokesperson – from among the other staff leaders on the Alliance. Each of these groups are bound by individual Constitutions and Bylaws in addition to official Board of Regent Policy and University Regulation. Faculty and students are similarly configured. The System Governance Council is where the heads of each of the groups share information with each other on a quarterly basis and address issues of joint concern. Alumni leadership also sit in at the System Governance level. The System Governance Council is important for information sharing, but does not supersede the ability of any one of the other system governance groups to come to the President or the Board of Regents directly. That is why each of us is granted through policy this opportunity to speak to and interact with you as Regents and administration directly.
We are here to advise, to give voice to our constituents, to assist in the two-way flow of communication, to suggest improvements and to help implement positive change. Unfortunately it is not clear to anyone exactly how we are to do this work. We are actively working to define and improve processes and to increase our own levels of involvement and communication. Unfortunately much of this effort to improve the system is being addressed by a System Governance office of one right now, and it may take some time to make the necessary procedural guides and protocols that will make our governance system even better.
With the state budget still up in the air, our livelihoods are caught in a political tug-of-war right now that is out of our control. But we have the ability within this institution to plan for possible impacts in innovative ways. In my heart I wanted to sit up here today and say that I’d rather preserve jobs than get an increase in my salary; that I don’t like the idea of breaking union contracts bargained in good faith; but that treating union and non-union employees differently could lead to division and further unionizing activity; that no one right now can afford a raise on a reduced budget; and that we desperately need to support those employees who are doing the same or more work with fewer people. But I need more than my gut feelings, I need to know what the majority of staff feel to speak with any authority. So I took action.
Earlier this week I sent out a poll to all staff in the university system regarding possible compensation scenarios. In just a few days 1,107 staff responded to the survey. That’s about 1/3 of the staff. I found that my initial gut reaction is shared by the majority of staff: 54% responded that they prefer that no one get a raise. The second most popular option – 38% – and one that triggered a lot of positive comments, was to grant the compensation increase, but offset the amount with a furlough, so that the budget impact is neutral, but those employees who remain and stick with the university through the hard times will still see some salary grid movement and increased compensation in the future when the state budget recovers and the university is reduced to a sustainable budget. Unfortunately there is no current mechanism for furloughing union employees, and figuring out an equitable balance in this scenario would require some difficult decisions. Least popular to staff (2%) would be that union employees get funded increases and non-union staff don’t. In that case, over and over staff comments insisted that the price be paid by those in the union, and not through further cuts to staff. Concern over breaking union contracts is mentioned quite a bit, including the cost of renegotiating and possibly having legal expenses related to not funding CBAs. Even stronger is concern that treating union and non-union staff differently would lead to division and likely a unionization effort by staff who have otherwise traditionally opposed organizing; bringing with it increased expense to the university. Of those who think everyone deserves their increase (6%) most argued that we do need to trim back staffing and that everyone deserves compensation for doing more with less. But in the end most staff don’t think anyone should get a raise right now, especially since no matter which course is chosen there still will be layoffs, closures and reductions.
That is an example of effective staff governance. We gave individuals a chance to speak for themselves so that when I speak I truly represent university staff. I need more time to fully evaluate the 368 individual comments from staff members in greater detail, but I learned a lot through this outreach effort. I will be reaching out to administration with the results, suggestions, comments and feedback I received. This information goes a long way toward taking the guesswork out of gauging staff “feelings” on the matter. There will never be complete consensus, but we are a lot more aligned—and much more generous—than many may be led to believe.
There are many other levels of “governance” in the university that are not nearly so clear. An alphabet soup of system-wide boards and task forces –SALT, SAC, ITEC, JHCC, Tuition Task Force, etc. – meet semi-regularly. In many cases appropriate governance groups have a representative attend the meetings to take notes and report back to the central councils thus informing governance groups of initiatives underway. In other cases it is representatives themselves who are addressing the issues and making decisions. But there are some boards that have no governance inclusion, and no one, not even the system governance office, has a list of all of these groups, their membership or meeting schedules. Consistency is necessary for the system to flourish.
The recently formed Summit Team is the most powerful of all, yet has no organizational documents or policies, posts neither agendas or minutes, makes decisions without including the formal governance groups and does not include governance in announcements of the decisions. This is a major concern for staff leaders. We recognize the incredible importance and effectiveness of this new organization, but want clarity on where it fits in the governance chain-or where governance fits with it.
Sometimes governance groups receive news about a decision slightly earlier than the general population. This is also a matter of concern. What purpose does a ten-minute advancer serve? That provides neither an opportunity for feedback nor discussion, but satisfies an appearance of shared governance. Whether or not given a formal opportunity for comment, governance is an important part of the decision-making processes and not just a public to which to communicate final decisions.
Transparency with governance carries some of the same risk of transparency in general- that things may be taken out of perspective or considered final when they are not, plus it adds time and takes away the ability to change direction without notice. That risk is much less than the risk of letting the governance system crumble in favor of executive expediency. Yes, a lot of decisions need to be made rapidly. Yes, sometimes governance takes time. Sometimes though, it does not, and the risk of fully using governance is far less than of avoiding the opportunity for council, gauging reaction, providing unique perspectives and generating innovative solutions.
It is extremely important that the new UA President understands and embraces the vital role that Governance groups play in the university system. If you have questions about governance, our role, reporting and responsibilities please talk to us and ask questions. We are far more than just a report on your agenda. We are the living, breathing, speaking interface with the university populace. Just as we come to you with our concerns—you can come to us with yours. We are here for an important purpose, and not to be pushed aside in the interest of saving time, face or effort. Together we can find answers to the challenges we face.