By | Dec 14, 2020

Furloughs for faculty, librarians and support staff are incredibly harmful to students in so many ways. As such, they are bad policy per se.

However that, there is a particularly insidious angle to what has happened at Salem State University. Because he arbitrarily and unilaterally decreed all faculty and librarians members take a furlough outside the legal contract process, President Keenan is breaking the law. Instead of uniting the campus during this uniquely stressful year, President Keenan instead chose to violate Mass General Law 150E, undermining an already overworked faculty and librarians’ ability to adapt to pandemic teaching and leading to an unfair labor practice complaint with the Department of Labor.

Along with violating labor law, if the furloughs are legitimized, then a precedent is set for President Keenan and the Board of Trustees to ignore the faculty contract, and any other contract, at will. These are not idle concerns: at their May 27 Finance Committee meeting, some trustees questioned why the board must abide by the contract in the first place. This precedent could lead to not only to further non-bargained furloughs for faculty and staff, but also to layoffs and retrenchment in a manner that disregards bargained agreements. Once Salem State sets this precedent, it opens the gates to management at other public institutions of higher education, public K-12 schools, those who work for mass transit, fire departments, police departments, and any other Massachusetts government institutions.

In short, decreeing furloughs undermines both the rule of law and the ability of unions to function as unions.

There is an additional question as well. Should the commonwealth pay unemployment benefits for illegal and unneeded furloughs when Salem State has enough money in its reserves to pay faculty and librarian salaries? Is it even legal? Given that President Keenan and the board have not prioritized advocating for increased state funding for public higher education, it is ironic (if nothing else) that they now demand that the state pay part of the salaries of faculty, librarians, and staff — at a time when they are legally prohibited from doing ANY university work, whether it be teaching, preparing for classes, advising, connecting with students, conducting research etc. If Salem State is later found to have violated the law, it will still have profited by only having to repay faculty and librarians the difference between what they received from unemployment and what they should have received were there no furloughs.

Moreover, the faculty furloughs are not a one off at Salem State. They are part of a pattern.

Because of upper management’s framework – downsizing Salem State and not prioritizing working for increased public funding, its main response to virtually any change is to cut and cut and cut despite the long-term consequences of these cuts for students and for the North Shore community. This is the same financial constraints argument that has led to hiring freezes, the last year’s voluntary separation incentive, illegal and union-busting furloughs, and potential retrenchment.

Although currently Salem State is the only state university going so far as to push for faculty furloughs (legally or illegally), if this illegal action is not stopped, it is likely that more will follow – and not only at Salem.

Richard Levy is professor emeritus in the Political Science Department of Salem State University. Brad Hubeny, Ph.D., is professor and chairperson of the Geological Science Department, and Dan Mulcare is professor and chairperson of the Political Science Department.

Read the full article on The Salem News.

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