UConn AAUP holds rally in Student Union

UConn students attend the AAUP rally on Feb. 24 in the Student Union to show support for faculty. (Jackson Haigis/The Daily Campus)

The University of Connecticut’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) held a rally in the Student Union Wednesday afternoon to protest the corporate direction in which the association says UConn is headed.

Chairs were pushed to the edge of the room and those in attendance were encouraged to stand, hold signs, cheer and chant. There were a number of specific topics discussed, some of which were gone over in last week’s AAUP panel, this time with more energy, and a more cohesive statement: “We are UConn.”

Held in part to drum up public support for the AAUP’s ongoing contract negotiations with UConn, the rally was also well-attended by students, both graduate and undergraduate, faculty, tenured and non-tenured, staff, an elected official and members of the Graduate Employee Union of UConn (GEU-UAW). While contract negotiations were alluded to by both the AAUP and the GEU-UAW (there are two more open sessions for the AAUP before a possible round of mediation), there were other matters of importance to discuss.

First and foremost among these matters was the reason for the rally’s existence. During November of last year, the university administration’s chief negotiator told the AAUP that “the university (is defined as) the Board of Trustees, the President, the Provost and the Deans.”

“This (definition) could not be further from the truth,” Chris Henderson, the host of the rally and an internal organizer for the AAUP, said.

Notably absent from said definition is the students, faculty and staff that populate UConn.

Henderson then noted that the AAUP is in the process of bargaining for a contract that “provides reasonable assurance of future employment” for non-tenured faculty, as well as “livable wages and working conditions for adjunct faculty,” to name a few requests.

Excited chants of “Who are we? UConn!” filled the room before the next speaker, President of the GEU-UAW Todd Vachon, took to the podium, greeting everybody with “Good afternoon sisters and brothers,” which added to the camaraderie of the event.

Todd Vachon, president of the UConn Graduate Student Employment Union, speaks at the AAUP rally on Feb. 24 in the Student Union (Jackson Haigis/The Daily Campus)

Vachon’s speech ran through the issues at hand that the people gathered took exception to. These included fair contracts for both the AAUP and the GEU-UAW, the lack of academic freedom for faculty, tuition increases for undergraduate students, shopping the Co-op, an overpaid administration and, more generally: “an overall sense of discontent with the direction the university is taking…largely driven by the administration.”

“Another reason that people are here – tuition increases for undergraduate students. They like to hide behind the veil of budget cuts…this is the typical line of austerity that’s used in every country and every employer pulls it out in the public sector,” Vachon said. “‘We can’t afford to pay you enough…but we can afford to pay millions of dollars for lawyers that will tell you that we can’t afford to pay you!’”

Whenever a new problem arises, how does the university deal with the problem? It doesn’t deal with the problem, it creates a new management position, doles out hundreds of thousands of dollars in salary, and tells the media ‘We fixed the problem.’
— Todd Vachon, president of the UConn Graduate Student Employment Union

According to Vachon, the lawyers that are negotiating the GEU-UAW contracts are paid an equivalent to the total salary for graduate assistants last summer – if that salary were raised by 12 percent. Similar claims have been made from members of the AAUP.

While Vachon criticized the university for auctioning the Co-op, a not-for-profit, democratically-managed store, to corporate entities such as Barnes & Noble, he saved his largest condemnation for UConn’s administration.

“Another issue that doesn’t come up when we say we have this budget problem is the exorbitant administrative cost of this university,” Vachon said. “It has been growing significantly for years, decades now.”

Vachon then asserted that 18 percent of UConn’s operating budget is spent on administrators, in other words, highly-paid, upper management.

“Whenever a new problem arises, how does the university deal with the problem? It doesn’t deal with the problem, it creates a new management position, doles out hundreds of thousands of dollars in salary, and tells the media ‘We fixed the problem,’” Vachon said.

Stephanie Reitz, a university spokesperson, responded to the 18 percent indictment.

“Those figures are not correct. Senior administrators account for two percent of our personnel budget. The number one personnel cost at UConn is faculty, at 41 percent of the budget, which is as it should be,” Reitz said.  “The cost of senior administrators in the overall operating budget would be less than 2 percent.”

Another chant prefaced the next speaker, this time a spirited rendition of “I believe that we will win.”

 Diana Rios, president of UConn AAUP and associate professor of communications speaks at the AAUP rally on Feb. 24 in the Student Union. (Jackson Haigis/The Daily Campus)

Diana Rios, the President of UConn’s AAUP, offered her thoughts on the contract negotiations, saying “we are after a fair, equitable contract,” but her main talking point dealt with a lack of student/faculty power in the university.

“There has been an attrition of faculty governance as the new administrators, the high-level decision-makers, have been hired, with their gigantic salaries, we have seen them take away power and decision-making, from not only faculty…but all levels,” Rios said, referring mostly to the Board of Trustees.

Stephanie Reitz responded to Rios’s argument.

“UConn’s administrative compensation is consistent with our peer institutions, notably the other top 50 national research universities in the nation,” Reitz said. “UConn has a well-established commitment to shared governance through the University Senate – an elected body that plays the key role in shared governance at the university. In fact, more than 70 of the 84 voting members of the Senate are faculty members.”

Gregory Haddad, the Democratic state Rep. for Mansfield, also showed support for the event by addressing the crowd, discussing his experience as a UConn student and the importance of professors.

“When I think about my time as a student here, the people that were UConn to me, they were my professors,” Haddad said. “I look forward to hearing about the agreement, negotiated in good faith between the AAUP and the university. It’s the only way the university can move forward.”

Mae Flexer, the Democratic State Sen. of the 29th district, which encompasses Mansfield, was unable to attend the event, but also expressed support for the AAUP and the rally.

Students closed out the rally with strong words and performances.

Bob Hannan of the UConn Free Press lamented UConn’s “corporatization.”

“I’m not anyone of any particular significance, or so I’ve come to learn in my three years here at UConn,” Hannan said. “How do we take back control of our university if we can’t even elect our own leaders? The answer is to confront their corporate business model through unity. If we, the students, the graduate students, the professors, adjunct faculty and the staff, if we come together…they will lose the theoretical power over us that they’ve taken for granted for so long.”

Alyssa Hughes, a campus correspondent for the Daily Campus as well as a WHUS radio host, performed a song with Sathia Diaz, a UConn student and independent poet. The song, presented a cappella, is called “Free the Students.”

“Hello hello students of UConn/thank you for all of the hard work that you’ve done/ thank you for all of the heart that you’ve all shown/guess what? We’re raising tuition,” the two students rapped. “Mrs. Herbst, didn’t we just get a billion? Yes, but don’t you see all the pretty stuff that we building…Most of us graduate and become indentured/paying off these loans until we wearing dentures.”

Diaz said both during and after the rally that when he performed the song at HuskyTHON, he was escorted off the stage and the music was cut before he could finish.