UConn hiring outside counsel is standard practice

The University of Connecticut has decided to hire outside counsel in its collective bargaining negotiations for expiring labor union contracts. As noted by The Hartford Courant, this decision has sparked anger and frustration from the faculty: “Michael Bailey, executive director of the UConn Chapter of the American Association of University Professors, told the university’s board of trustees Wednesday that the reaction from faculty has been quick, with some asking: ‘Shouldn’t those dollars, those public dollars, be spent on educating students?’”

Despite the concerns of faculty and union leaders, UConn’s decision to hire outside counsel is not an unusual practice. Given the stakes involved in these negotiations, it may even be the most responsible choice.

As reported in The CT Mirror, “the university in June reported it was facing a $52.7 million deficit for the fiscal year that begins in July 2016 – a 4 percent hole in the $1.36 billion needed to continue providing existing programs, services and salary levels. That projection was made before the final two-year state budget was adopted, providing UConn $4.5 million less than its leaders were anticipating.” As the university faces a fairly large deficit in the upcoming fiscal year, it is going to have to find ways to reduce savings, all of which are likely to be unpopular. One of these ways is likely going to involve changes in labor contracts.

The university has hired the McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney & Carpenter firm for up to $250,000 to negotiate the $276 million AAUP contract at Storrs. As noted by The Hartford Courant, UConn board chairman Lawrence McHugh claimed that “the AAUP contract in Storrs has not been negotiated for eight years and is one of the ‘largest contracts we have’ …with ‘a great deal of complexity to it.’”

In addition to this large complicated contract with a large labor union, six other contracts will also soon be under negotiation. UConn has claimed that its in-house counsel, while capable, cannot negotiate all of them, but will work on four. Outside counsel will handle the other three, including the large AAUP contract in Storrs.

When facing a large deficit and declining state funding, negotiating a fiscally responsible labor contract given the circumstances may result in decisions that are strongly opposed by unions. In hiring outside counsel, the university is trying to ensure that they have the best representation in what are likely to be controversial negotiations.

Given the value of some of the contracts involved, the $250,000 spent may be greatly outweighed by savings in contract terms. Of course, this decision is unpopular among faculty and unions, but it is not irresponsible or detrimental to students.