IN THIS ISSUE
Program Productivity and Disciplinary Rights
In this issue, we address two quite different issues, both ultimately having to do with Tallahassee.
We will catch up with the legislature's antics in the next issue. But here's a bit of late-breaking news. Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford's bill to convert our defined benefits retirement plan into a defined contributions plan, which was described in the March 21 Biweekly, appears dead for now. It was defeated by a 22-18 vote in the Florida Senate. The Tampa Tribune quoted Florida Senator Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor, saying "A majority of the Senate supports the current pension system and we donít see any reason to start experimenting." And the Tampa Bay Times reported that during the debate, Senator Latvala told the story of two firefighters who had died fighting a blaze: "They worked for their pension. One firefighter's family was able to collect the survivor's benefit, and he was in his 20s, and his family collects $1,200 a month."
- Programs of Low Productivity. The USF Administration responded proactively, perhaps precipitately, to apparent signals that Tallahassee plans to raise 'productivity thresholds', i.e., the number of degrees an individual program must award annually to remain in good standing. For more, see below.
- Disciplinary Rights. Meanwhile, Texas just overturned a longstanding labor right that public employees had taken for granted. This was the right to a union representative in a meeting that could lead to disciplinary measures. But UFF took precautions long ago, so we are protected if Florida follows suit. For more, see below.
Programs of Low Productivity
The University of South Florida system houses 179 baccalaureate programs, 125 masters programs, and 41 doctoral programs. One restriction on the number of degree programs USF can offer is the cost, and the Florida State University System (SUS) is responding to the legislature's failure to adequately fund the universities by eliminating programs.
Some time ago, the SUS Board of Governors decided that one test of whether a program should be continued is whether it produced enough graduates. A baccalaureate program was adequately productive if it produced six graduates annually (on average); a masters program must produce at least four annually on average, and a doctoral program at least three. However, in March, Provost Ralph Wilcox wrote to system vice chancellors and to deans advising them that "we have been hearing that the [Florida Board of Governors] plans to embark on a more rigorous review of program productivity in the not too distant future" and sought information on any baccalaureate program that had failed to produce at least twelve graduates on average over the last five years, on any masters program that had failed to average at least eight graduates annually, and any doctoral program that had failed to average at least five.
Where Provost Wilcox had obtained these three thresholds was not clear, but the USF Oracle quoted him saying, "We believe by setting a higher threshold, we are providing for an early warning system across the USF system and really establishing a proactive best practice so we donít get into a situation where all of a sudden a program, or a campus or a college falls off the cliff and awards no degrees."
The results were presented to the USF Academic & Campus Environment (ACE) workgroup, one of the leading planning and policy groups associated with the USF Board of Trustees (with six trustees in the workgroup). The Degree Productivity Audit is posted online at the ACE site.
79 programs failed to meet these new thresholds. Provost Wilcox proposed that two programs, Technology Education and Liberal Arts & Sciences, which apparently have not had any students in a while, be eliminated. Two baccalaureate programs, Computer Information Systems and General Engineering, are already on schedule to be eliminated. Provost Wilcox proposed other actions for the others.
The USF Oracle also reported that USF faculty senator (and UFF USF Chief Negotiator) Business Professor Robert Welker commented, "Law schools are being sued right and left because of misrepresenting themselves for what the job market is ... Degrees might be wonderful, but if you send a student out there and there are no jobs, why are we offering these programs?" Provost Wilcox said that that issue has not come up ... yet.
- Some programs provide services for other programs, some programs are necessary for the community and the state, and these programs would not be dispensed with.
- Some programs would be maintained, corrected, consolidated with other programs, etc.
Of course, as both Confucius and Aristotle pointed out, there are other reasons for a good education. But the proposal appears to be a response to economic concerns emanating from Tallahassee, and under the contract, management does have the right to shut down programs. But there is a problem.
Current priorities are driven by fashion as much as anything else. Since the university serves the community Ė cultural needs as well as economic Ė the university should be making such decisions based on expert knowledge of the community and its culture and its economics. But it is the faculty, not the Administration, that possesses that kind of expertise. So it would be more consistent with the mission of the university for the Administration to consult with the faculty on these issues before presenting such recommendations to the Board of Trustees via the ACE workgroup.
Suppose that you are talking with your supervisor, and during this conversation, your boss starts asking you questions about something a co-worker allegedly saw you do, and your boss wants to know if it's true. While the old line - I have nothing to hide - sounds good in theory, in practice people get flustered and before they know it, they are facing disciplinary proceedings. In real life, it is helpful to have an experienced union representative present.
In 1972, a clerk at J. Weingarten supermarkets asked for a union representative to be present, her boss said no, and as noted in the 17 May 2007 Biweekly, the case went all the way up to the U. S. Supreme Court. The court ruled in National Labor Relations Board v. J. Wiengarten that "Even where such a right is not explicitly provided in the [contract] a 'well-established current of arbitral authority' sustains the right of union representation at investigatory interviews which the employee reasonably believes may result in disciplinary action against him."
Many unions, including UFF, recommend that if a conversation with a supervisor turns dicey, that the employee say, "If this discussion could in any way lead to my being disciplined or terminated, or affect my personal working conditions, I respectfully request that my union representative, officer, or steward be present at this meeting. Until my representative arrives, I choose not to participate in this discussion." Then contact the UFF Grievance Chair, Sonia Wohlmuth.
Since the ruling concerned a private company, and since the opinion itself referred to practices in private industry, there was some concern about whether the Weingarten decision applied to federal, state, and public employees. It now appears that in Texas, at least, the Weingarten rule does not apply to state or public employees.
In 2008, firefighter Jaime Rodriguez was summoned to his chief's office, where the chief and two other officers queried Rodriguez about alleged misuse of sick leave. (Actually, the underlying issue seems to be that Rodriguez was applying for a transfer, but anyway...) Rodriguez wanted to get a union representative before the discussion went any further, but the chief refused, claiming that the discussion was merely an "internal interview" and not a "pre-disciplinary meeting." Things went south from there, Rodriguez got a five day suspension, and his union sued.
The Texas Supreme Court has just ruled in favor of the fire chief, stating that as the Texas labor statute does not specifically confer the right of a public employee to a union representative during dicey meetings, no such right exists. The dissent complained that the court was overturning past practice and past reasoning. For a brief account, see the Reuters news story.
Of course, that's Texas, but in the Weingarten decision's own text, "Even where such a right is not explicitly provided in the [contract] ...," there is a reminder that sometimes insurance is useful. Even if the Florida Supreme Court decides to go along with Texas - and our supreme court seems intimidated by the legislature as of late - there is no getting around explicit provisions in a contract. And Section 16.3 of our Collective Bargaining Agreement includes the statement, "The employee has a right to union representation during investigatory questioning that may reasonably be expected to result in disciplinary action." Even if the U. S. Supreme Court itself changed its mind, all UFF USF employees would still have the right to a union representative being present during dicey meetings.
Of course, for union representation in grievance proceedings, you have to be a member.