by Ray Downs
Faculty members at Harris-Stowe State University have voted to unionize, making the troubled school the first university in Missouri to do so. And fat bonuses to administrators, as well as big payoffs to "consultants," might be the reason it happened.
The measure passed with 79 percent of the faculty voting in favor of being represented by the National Education Association, the largest professional union in the United States with more than 3.5 million members.
Now that the HSSU faculty has the NEA's legal resources at their disposal (the alliance will be known as HSSU-NEA), it hopes to take on some of the major gripes they have with the school, including those big payoffs.
HSSU faculty members say they are shut out of the decision-making process at their university, and this has had an effect on the school's abysmal graduation rate, which is about 14 percent (the state average is 55.8 percent).
"The administration doesn't communicate with faculty," says Brian Elsesser, an HSSU professor who has been at the forefront of the unionization efforts. "There's a major rift."
That rift makes it difficult for faculty to create a curriculum that is catered to their students' needs, which leads to poor retention rates and a declining enrollment, according to Elsesser.
Courtney McCall, a spokesperson for HSSU, disagrees with allegations the administration ignores the faculty.
"[The faculty] has had lots of input," she says, adding that the administration is looking forward to working with the newly formed union.
Despite declining enrollment, poor retention and a graduation rate that's just a quarter of the state average, the faculty thinks there's still a lot of money being made by the school -- and it's being wasted on six-figure admin salaries and bonuses, as well as fat "consulting" paychecks to people loosely associated with the university.
On a website for the HSSU-NEA, the union representatives say it has requested -- but has yet to receive -- disclosures about the 2013-'14 "salaries, stipends, bonuses, and job descriptions" for each of three newly promoted vice presidents, the interim president and past president Dr. Henry Givens.
McCall says those numbers have not yet been approved by the board and added that "we don't receive bonuses."
But the lack of transparency allegation is a major issue for HSSU-NEA, because they say if there is money and it's being wasted on bonuses (if they exist) and consultant fees, then it should instead be dispersed among the faculty.
In August the HSSU-NEA hired an independent analyst to go over the school's financial documents. But the report was not very conclusive because financial audits were not able to be obtained.
"The inability to find any audited financial reports is both unusual for a public institution and also makes it impossible to do a complete and accurate fiscal analysis of Harris Stowe State University," wrote Leroy Dubeck, a New Jersey-based analyst, in the report.
Dubeck says that without financial audits, he had to base his report primarily on budgets reports which, in a phone interview, he described as "not really important."
"You can make up anything with budgets," Dubeck says. "The audit is what you need."
But McCall says that the school's audits are publicly available information that is presented at monthly meetings.
"Financial statements are presented every month," she says. "And the university is in great shape. In the past fifteen years, we've had clean external audits."
As Elsesser indicated, there does indeed appear to be a "major rift" between the faculty and administration at HSSU.
The vote to unionize marks the second time over the past 12 months that a St. Louis university faculty went public over dissatisfaction with its administration. After months of faculty protests at Saint Louis University earlier this year, Father Lawrence Biondi, who suffered a "no confidence" vote by the faculty, agreed to step down and left the school Sept. 1.