An association representing more than 1,700 UConn professors is concerned about the university’s decision to use an outside law firm for the first time ever to lead contract renewal negotiations, according to association officials.
More than eight years have passed since professors last faced a full-contract renegotiation, setting up a “high stakes” situation, according to university spokesperson Stephanie Reitz. The contract is worth nearly $276 million annually according to Reitz, and representatives will debate whether to raise salaries or institute another pay freeze in light of continued budgetary troubles for the university and the state government.
UConn plans to spend up to $250,000 on legal counsel with the outside firm, McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney & Carpenter, LLP, according to the university’s contract. That has Michael Bailey, executive director of UConn’s chapter of American Association of University Professors (AAUP), asking questions.
“The most significant concern we have is the questionable belief that hiring of an out-of-state attorney ‘will put the administration in the best position to save (money),’” Bailey said. “An out-of state attorney, who will have to learn the investment that the faculty, state of Connecticut, students, parents and the community have made in the future of UConn, will best advise the administration on where to make cost savings?”
The university is currently working to renew seven major contracts set to expire at the end of the fiscal year next June, including the contract for the university’s professors, according to director of faculty and staff labor relations Michael Eagen.
UConn plans to use the firm to negotiate three out of the seven expiring contracts – the other two being the AAUP and University Health Professionals (UHP) chapters at the UConn Health Center in Farmington, Reitz said. She added that the university will negotiate the remaining four contracts through its own staff.
Bailey addressed the UConn Board of Trustees Wednesday and called out the administration’s decision to turn to outside counsel. He said the relationship between the faculty and the administration must be “stable and inclusive,” which the decision to use outside counsel could endanger.
Following his remarks, board chairman Larry McHugh said he believed bringing in outside counsel was a necessity, given the number of contracts expiring simultaneously.
“We need to bring outside counsel in who specialize in negotiation of higher education contracts to assist the university and to help ensure the contracts are negotiated as thoughtfully and thoroughly as possible from UConn's perspective,” McHugh told board members. “I contend that it would be irresponsible to the taxpayers of Connecticut not to have the best advice available when the financial impact on the university is so large.”
It is not typical for so many contracts to expire at once. However, changes to the State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition (SEBAC) agreement in 2011 that resulted in a two-year wage freeze for state employees set up the conundrum, according to Reitz. With only three labor lawyers capable of conducting negotiations for the university, Reitz said there was no choice but to utilize outside counsel.
Bailey said one of the major negotiating points will be ensuring professors are paid enough for the jobs they are doing, as the university’s “core mission” is first and foremost “to focus on educating our students and preparing them for the future.”
“(In 2014), the total salaries and fringes for teaching were $322.3 million; the total salaries and fringes for research were $50.6 million; and the total operating expenses were $1.097 billion,” Bailey said. “That means the total teaching and research salaries and fringes were only 34 percent of the operating expenses for 2014.”
The university and the professors association have held two preliminary meetings, primarily taking care of “housekeeping” items, Bailey said. He said communication with the university has been “adequate,” and so far negotiations have been “pretty routine.”
However, the first item of possible contention – an issue dealing with faculty governance in individual departments – was not introduced until the end of the second meeting, according to Bailey. The parties will meet again on Oct. 16, according to the UConn-AAUP website.
The association only has one “make-or-break” issue in the early stages of the negotiations.
“The most obvious issue would be a compensation package that keeps faculty competitive with our peer institutions so that we are able to attract and retain the most qualified faculty to teach our students,” Bailey said. “But as we proceed with negotiations, one or two other issues may surface that become as important.”
McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney & Carpenter, LLP provides legal counsel in a wide array of areas, according to its website. John Peirano, whose background is negotiating education contracts in New Jersey, has been designated by the firm to represent the university’s interests, a Sept. 1 UConn-AAUP blog post said.
Peirano’s selection has generated some controversy, however. A Sept. 3 blog post from UConn-AAUP said the association contacted the AAUP chapter at Rutgers, which had previously dealt with Peirano. According to UConn-AAUP, Rutgers’ administration had “disastrous results” with Peirano and a conclusion was only reached after he was removed from the negotiating team.
In addition, negotiations that Peirano began with Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences are still ongoing after six years. He was removed from that negotiating team as well, UConn-AAUP said.
Eagen said he is confident in the university’s ability to work around the potential negative impacts of using an outside law firm.
“If the proper message gets out to faculty – that we care about this contract and how it affects them, and we want to make sure we have the right expertise at the table – I don’t think they should be concerned at all,” Eagen said. “The person, and the persons, at the table are getting direction from the leadership of the university. They don’t have independent authority.”
While the contracts are not set to expire until June 30 next year, Bailey hopes negotiations will continue in December, so the Connecticut General Assembly has ample time to approve the proposed collective bargaining agreement.