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The “Voluntariness” of Program Reduction: Never Let a Good Crisis Go to Waste

August 17, 2021 / PSU-AAUP

“I’m tired!” This is a sentiment we can all identify with—for 18 months we’ve all lived in a world of anxious uncertainty, looming threat, and physical danger, yet the end of this remains unclear. We’re grateful, of course, for our jobs, food, and roofs, but the psychological impact—emphasized for those with care duties, the immunocompromised, and the structurally marginalized—cannot be overstated. Numerous media outlets and noted academics have wrestled with how to characterize this situation for which our conventional vocabulary simply lacks precedent.

Consequently, we cheered when PSU Administration signed an agreement (MOA) with our union (1/5/21; see page 210) acknowledging and mitigating the effects of the global pandemic on our members with a particular eye to caregivers. The title alone is clear and promises significant relief: “Mitigation of Effects of prolonged COVID-19 Pandemic on Member workload and well-being; Mitigation of amplified effects of pandemic on members with caregiving responsibilities.” The text of the MOA provided even more heartening news in the form of several enumerated bullets (emphasis mine):
1. Whenever possible, committee work and service responsibilities, including significant new projects such as program redesign, will be deferred during this academic year (20-21).
2. Attendance at non-essential meetings shall not be required during this period. Determination of which meetings are essential should be determined by the academic units.
3. Supervisors will provide flexibility to members in scheduling whenever possible.
4. Supervisors and members shall be given a reasonable period of time to respond to each other. Supervisors and members are encouraged to provide notice and schedule meeting times when applicable.
Pandemic-inspired good faith, we thought, had softened our traditionally adversarial roles. Huzzah!

Members, you can imagine our surprise at the Provost Office’s announcement of ReImagine PSU and the “Closing the Gap” program reduction toolkit initiative because you shared it. The goals are clearly stated—reduction in programs and massive workplace reorganization. These processes could not be better designed to produce maximum anxiety and disruption for our members at a time when we are at our lowest in bandwidth. PSU at this point had accepted at least $61 million in federal funds (not including direct aid to students) precisely to continue operations as normally as possible. Moreover, the MOA just signed seemed in its plain language and understanding to mitigate such things. What could it mean if not this? 

Of course shared governance norms and policy must be nominally observed in such a move. Our Faculty Senate colleagues were prevailed upon to begin preparations, despite the personal pandemic struggles of representatives. (Did this MOA only apply to those outside Faculty Senate?) And there was pushback and outrage—individuals, departments, and programs wrote letters of protest, our union lodged objections at Labor Management meetings, and members took time out of their many responsibilities to attend Administration-organized meetings that functioned mainly as legitimation exercises. All of which, in theory, our MOA was designed to obviate.  

So PSU-AAUP filed a grievance detailing the violations of both the letter and the spirit of the signed agreement. To summarize, we argued that:

“significant new projects, such as program redesign” (as articulated in the MOA) have begun and are ongoing, despite the agreement with the Association that these efforts be deferred during the 2020/2021 academic year whenever possible. All of these efforts run afoul of the spirit of the MOA and have already increased the job-related stress that the MOA was designed to alleviate. The particular piece that violates the letter of the agreement is the efforts by the Deans of various Colleges to incorporate faculty at the department level into the program redesign process. Program redesign is precisely the kind of undertaking that requires faculty time and energy and that the MOA requires be deferred until the COVID-19 crisis has abated…. Any notion that faculty participation in such sweeping change is voluntary is unrealistic…

To be sure, some in Administration agreed with us, as well as our ultimate (and reasonable) suggestion for redress—postponing massive structural readjustment until 2022 when our constantly shifting reality may have stabilized (but see here for spiking Oregon covid cases, including the Delta variant). Despite our carefully crafted grievance justified by reference the the MOA, administration rejected it and hinged their rejection on several determinations:

First, Admin interpreted the phrase “significant new projects such as program redesign” to reject its plain meaning. Somehow, naming program reduction the “Closing the Gap Initiative” and crafting it outside of normal procedures made it exempt. Little changes might have been strictly prohibited, but drastic ones are exempt? A loophole to drive a truck through.

Next, the “whenever possible” language in the MOA was used to render any argument we might have advanced against program reduction moot—Administration asserted that they can make the sole determination of when things are possible. Shared governance? Commitment to mitigate program reduction? Not here. 

Finally, Administration baldly stated: “Any input solicited of faculty, or opportunities for faculty participation in the ReImagine PSU effort were, and continue to be, voluntary.” The processes around program reduction, it seems, are completely voluntary, unless one values one’s job. When our programs may be slated for “reduction,” working to prevent such things from occurring does not seem to us to be a purely voluntary exercise.  

This is a foretelling of things to come. Association Grievances are a powerful tool, but they operate in a legal and policy landscape that does not always favor the interests of members or students. While massive structural reorganization may be needed, we are doubtful that in such an undertaking our priorities would be those of Administration. We see Administration's approach as a predetermination to move forward with layoffs and legitimize them. True change must come from all of us talking and acting together to meet our collective needs. Help us, through collective action, make this a place where our physical and mental health, monetary, and creative needs can be met. We will all need to stand up to enforced austerity come fall. 

What can you do?

  • Join the Organizing Committee! Help us craft strategy to combat austerity! (email Courtney Bailey for more info)
  • Connect with your Unit Representative 
  • Become a Unit Rep--unlike the Highlander, there can be more than one! (
  • Continue to push Administration on these issues in your department and college meetings
  • Educate, agitate, and organize your coworkers 
  • Read your union emails

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