Education: George Orwell Would Love UME System Faculty’s New “Work to Rule”

I am neither a lawyer nor a major player in the National Education Association’s UME System faculty affiliate called AFUM. As a dues-paying member who has nevertheless followed closely summaries of the protracted negotiations over years now between AFUM and the University of Maine System and Trustees, I do understand that repeated efforts to obtain even modest pay increases for faculty have been met with relentless opposition. A fact-finding group of presumably objective outsiders determined the availability of ample funds for such modest pay increases. As the president of the Orono AFUM chapter put it recently, “It is not a question of having the money; it is the decision of where to spend it and the choice is made not to invest in the Faculty.”

The choice for years now has been to continue to reduce the number of full-time faculty on all seven campuses, to replace some of them with far cheaper part-time adjunct faculty, to refuse to hire even adjuncts in place of other retired and deceased faculty, and to save huge sums by denying pay increases for nearly all active faculty. Millions have been spent on outside consultants, and this trend is only accelerating. A few faculty members might get some higher pay if they were offered positions at other institutions, but there are no guarantees that even an offer from Harvard would be generate a dime more. It usually depends on one’s field and on its perceived importance, or lack thereof, to the System and, these days, to Maine’s economy and job creation for others. An offer from Harvard to a UME historian, for instance, might produce only good wishes and nothing else. Indeed, if one more historian left a department that has shrunk from 24 when I arrived in 1986 to 15 or 16 now (counting a couple of joint appointments), that would be viewed in some quarters as a cause of celebration.

To be sure, the System’s own lawyers and other “experts” contend that AFUM has its basic facts and figures wrong and that the outside fact finders cannot be trusted either. Yet many of us–and not just faculty but also staff–recall the one-time small refunds we received several years ago when another group of fact finders discovered that there really was no need for ever more deductions from our salaries for planned health care increases; that the System had, in effect, been making a profit and was going to increase its profits until it was called to account. True, these fact finders were hired by the four unions (faculty, professional staff, classified staff, and custodial and maintenance staff) covering most System employees. But if their analyses had been wrong, why would we have received even a dime more?

Those other three unions have by now concluded their respective negotiations. Whether they were pleased with the results I can’t say, but I’ve not seen any celebrations, to say the least. Still, many employees understandably prefer to have a new contract, whatever its terms, than to remain in limbo under the expired contract.

“Work to Rule,’ however, has been approved by a majority of members in each of the seven campus AFUM chapters.  The term really means doing only what is required by the expired contract and not what is, in effect, voluntary on faculty members’ part. Yet no faculty member wishes to harm any student or colleague, so that “Work to Rule” hardly means moving toward any real power. Far from it. In the absence of the power to go on strike–a basic pre-condition of AFUM’s formation decades ago by nervous legislators and other state officials–the term actually means POWERLESSNESS.

Yet even this Orwellian sense of “Rule” has been challenged by the System as a violation of the expired (but still prevailing) contract in the case of certain programs at the University of Southern Maine. What happens next remains to be seen.

It is so demoralizing to see so little appreciation from the powers that be of the hard work of the vast majority of UME System faculty with salaries, contrary to the System’s claims, far below those of nearly all “peer” public universities.  I honestly don’t know why things have to be so dismal and why faculty have to spend time trying to determine how to “Work to Rule” in order to try to obtain some results.

But what has happened in public higher education in the state of Maine has happened in many other states in recent decades, and few public officials–governors above all–have shown any genuine commitment to making the situation better rather than worse. Let’s instead blame those allegedly underworked and overworked professors save for the few who indeed deserve praise for bringing in outside funds and for helping create jobs. One notable example, however, appears to be Connecticut’s first-term Governor Malloy. Not a single Maine Governor in my twenty-seven years at the University of Maine–McKernan, King, Baldacci (a UME alumnus), LePage–has demonstrated any such commitment. The ultimate losers are, of course, Maine’s students and their families.