The Oregon Institute of Technology’s faculty union Thursday declared its intent to strike. A potential strike would start no earlier than April 26.
Oregon Tech–American Association of University Professors (OT-AAUP) and OIT have been bargaining for 16 months. They have been in mediation for almost six months, the union said in a news release Thursday.
“We could have gone on strike as early as April 19th, but we hope with this additional week the administration will offer a proposal that respects the work of faculty so that a strike can be averted,” former union president Mark Clark said in a statement.
If the union strikes, it will be the first time a public university faculty union has done so in Oregon history.
“None of us want to have spent the last 500 days doing this,” Kari Lundgren, OT-AAUP secretary, told OPB. “We’d rather be focused on our students, and our teaching, and our research.”
Lundgren, who is an associate professor for rhetoric and writing at OIT, suggests a “fundamental disconnect” between the union and university administration.
Lundgren said negotiations will continue with OIT until an agreement is reached. There are bargaining sessions scheduled as soon as next week.
The union is focusing on three major demands: increased wages for faculty, secure health benefits and more clearly defined workloads. Lundgren said there has been some progress made on benefits, but that there’s still “distance” between the union and OIT on the specifics of their requests.
“We have come back to the same issue of having things written down,” she said. “The fundamental assumptions are different. We haven’t got to the point of just agreeing, ‘Yes, it’s good to have a fair, explicit criteria for workload and compensation.’ ... It’s not that we need a certain amount of money or a certain amount of workload units necessarily, we just need to be able to have a shared understanding of what those things are.”
Peter Wantuck, student body president of OIT’s campus in Wilsonville, said during a Board of Trustees meeting Thursday that many students are in support of the faculty and their demands.
“There are groups of students who are not happy with what they’ve been hearing,” Wantuck said.
He said there is a group of more than 200 students who have signed a petition to strike if the faculty strikes, though Wantuck said students are being urged to find alternative ways to support faculty, to avoid potentially failing their classes or facing other consequences.
Along with their union demands, faculty members have also expressed unhappiness directly with OIT administration — specifically President Nagi Naganathan.
OIT’s faculty senate last month called for Naganathan’s resignation and stated it had lost confidence in his leadership, as originally reported by The Herald and News.
Shortly after, Naganathan put out a statement saying he was not stepping down, and that he remained committed to carrying out his duties as president. OIT senior administration also put out a statement in support of Naganathan.
At the board meeting Thursday, the first since the faculty senate’s call for his resignation, Naganathan said the OIT community has been under a lot of stress in the past year, mostly due to the pandemic.
“Oregon Tech has done materially well compared to some of the other universities, but it doesn’t mean we did not get stressed in this process, and when stress happens, misunderstandings and conflicts happen,” Naganathan said. “It happens in every family, and then what does a family do? They try to resolve it internally, as we have. … Some families, however caring they are, they have to go to some family counseling. I think we need to have that broad conversation in Oregon Tech moving forward, engaging a lot of people rather than some groups talking in closed spaces.”
OIT Faculty Senate President Don McDonnell conveyed the faculty’s frustrations in comments he gave at Thursday’s trustees meeting.
“None of the new senior administrators, including the president after years of service, have developed relationships with the faculty. They don’t know us,” McDonnell said. “We understand how difficult it can be to trust someone you don’t know. We are faced with that every day with this administration.”
A few students spoke in support of the faculty and their demands during a public comment session Thursday.
Oregon Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, also spoke Thursday, in support of President Naganathan.
“At a time when the state continues to experience budgetary challenges even with the recent influx of federal money, a steady, disciplined leadership is and will continue to be a requirement,” Johnson said. “Seven public universities continue to compete with each other for limited state support, not to mention competition with private universities for students and resources. Now is not the time to question the motives and capabilities of Dr. Naganathan. He has a clear-eyed vision of these threats and the courage to take them all on.”
Also, at Thursday’s board meeting, trustees approved a 4.9% increase in both base undergraduate tuition and graduate tuition. Though, if the state legislature ends up increasing funding to Oregon’s seven public universities, the board agreed that it would reduce those base tuition increases to 3.9%.
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown’s recommended budget gives about $836 million to the Public University Support Fund, the fund from which money is allocated every two years to the universities to support their operations and programs. Brown’s recommendation leaves the universities flat-funded, at the same amount of funding they received last biennium.
OIT’s board agreed the university would reduce the base tuition increases to 3.9% if the legislature increases that funding by at least $49 million. Official budget decisions typically do not happen until the end of the legislative session.