The battle continues: Faculty rally, Von Arx under fire

Faculty and students line up outside Gonzaga Auditorium
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Photo by Nick DiFazio/The Mirror. Click for more photos.

 

Late afternoon on Wednesday, as students were taking their final exams, a united voice sprang from the outside. Students scrambled to their windows to discover the noise and to their surprise, they saw a line of faculty members and students marching towards the doors of the Gonzaga Auditorium.

As the group walked over to where President Jeffrey von Arx, S.J., would make his end-of-the-year address to the faculty, they chanted in unison: “Fairfield united, we’ll never be divided” and “Unity, community, put the ‘fair’ in Fairfield!” Many wore signs and carried bright red papers that read “broken promises.”

The faculty members wanted to publicize at the rally the fight between them and the administration, which had, up until a few weeks ago, occurred without many students’ knowledge.

Since 1994, the University had been committed to keeping the faculty’s total compensation at a 95th percentile, a benchmark for the faculty’s salary and benefits. This high compensation is integral to recruiting faculty members to the school. Recently, administration said they must reconsider the terms of that 95th percentile.

In addition, administration also proposed cuts to the faculty’s benefits in health coverage and benefits. Over the years, faculty members have already conceded benefits in order to deal with the school’s financial troubles. In turn, the administration said they would commit to upholding the 95th percentile agreement. English professor Robert Epstein, had supported this because he said he trusted the administration to follow through with their promise.

Although the administration had once stood “firmly” behind this commitment to maintain a 95th percentile, they have since removed “firmly” from their language, according to an April 27 General Faculty meeting.

Because of the disagreements on the terms of their salary and benefits, the faculty has refused to sign a Memo of Understanding (MOU), a document that outlines the faculty members’ salary and benefits.

Read more background information on this issue in “Faculty battles broken promises,” published in the May 2 edition.

At the President’s address, Epstein has withdrawn his support for the administration. “I made the mistake of taking the President and the rest of the administration at their word,” he said to his colleagues. “And I promise you that I will not make that mistake again.”

Like other faculty members, Nancy Dallavalle, associate professor of religious studies, acknowledged the changes that are undergoing in institutions of higher education and the financial struggles the University has. However, she believes the commitment to the 95th percentile should not be sidelined.

Von Arx asserted that the administration’s agreement to maintain the total compensation at a 95th percentile benchmark is “not off the table.”

“The issue is not whether we hold this commitment to competitive compensation. Of course we do,”  the president said. However, the compensation may not be at the desired 95th percentile.

“For us to stand here and say we are committed to the 95th percentile moving forward when we know that we are in . . . a situation of financial constraint where we may or may not be able to reach the benchmark does not seem to be, to me, [very honest],” Von Arx said.

Von Arx proposed that the faculty and administration try to find an “appropriate and sustainable benchmark.”

Members in the audience expressed their discontent with murmured comments and scoffs.

David Crawford, a professor of anthropology asked von Arx why the 95th percentile should be eliminated now, after the administration had repeated their commitment throughout the year.

He and his colleagues criticized the administration for a lack of communication. Another attendee said to the president: “You are the leader of this community . . . You never thought to call us together when this crisis was unfolding months ago . . . you chose instead, as far as I can tell, to work at this with a small group of people behind the walls of Bellarmine.

“We hear you talk the talk about community but you don’t walk the walk.”

Thunderous applause followed.

According to Crawford, for the faculty to sign the administration’s proposed agreement that guarantees only short-term solutions to their salary and benefits would be “foolish” to do.

Faculty members also believe that the University has prioritized administration, athletics and renovation plans over the faculty itself.

Earlier that day, a document was sent to the General Faculty and it included information from IPED, the federal Education Department’s Integrated Post-Secondary Education Data System, which puts a certain university’s expenditure into seven categories. The Mirror was able to obtain a copy.

In the document it is shown that for expenditures towards Instruction, Fairfield University placed second to last out of the 16 in the comparison group of universities it compares itself. Fairfield’s percentage of total expenditure on Instruction is 37.86 percent.

Schools like Wesleyan University, Villanova University, and Quinnipiac University spend over 50 percent.

Faculty members also criticized the high number of administrators, and how much of the University’s expenditure goes towards the Institution Support. The University ranks as the fourth highest with 23.69 percent of the expenditures. The school has 18 vice presidents, including associate and assistant positions, and 29 senior administrators, including the president, a number that seemed unreasonable to philosophy professor Joy Gordon.

Von Arx countered that all of these positions are necessary for the school to properly function.

Gordon also voiced her opinion that the money spent on athletics has increased unjustifiably. In 2003, the amount of money spent on athletics was 8.3 million dollars. In 2010, it was 15.7 million dollars.

Overall, the view of the rallying faculty members was this: Reducing the faculty’s compensation to offset financial constraint from bad administrative decisions is not the answer.

Ultimately, the faculty members believe the school’s reputation is at stake. One professor said: “There will be no quality university if there are no quality faculty.”

Not only professors spoke their minds; students also entered the dialogue. Several students joined in the rally before the meeting. Senior Jasmine Mickey said that she wanted to “support the faculty that supported us the whole four years.”

Similarly, at the end of the meeting, Mikaela Tierney ‘12, former Editor-in-Chief of The Mirror, said to the President von Arx: “There’s one priority you need to focus on. It’s respecting and working with the faculty.”

He agreed to work on faculty and administration dialogue in the future.

“I am doing the best I can,” the president said. “Yeah, it hurts; my heart bleeds over this stuff. But it is what it is. Right now, my sense is to carry on in the best way I can. We are in a very difficult situation.” He went on to acknowledge that other universities are experiencing some financial restraints as well.

When asked about his feelings towards the result of Wednesday’s meeting, which largely discussed the total compensation of the faculty, Von Arx answered that there wasn’t much that hadn’t been said in previous meetings, but it is still “always important to listen to how people feel.”

 

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