FIU fight among professors, trustees escalates

By Jennifer Peltz
Staff Writer

March 8, 2005

MIAMI *Faculty unrest is nearing a boiling point at Florida International University, where professors and trustees are facing off over how to protect professors’ interests in areas ranging from inventions to pay for teaching extra summer classes.

The standoff has simmered through months of negotiations between the faculty union and administration. But both sides turned up the temperature Monday, in uncommonly sharp terms.

Faculty union leader Alan Gummerson described relations as verging on “war.” He threatened a faculty no-confidence vote for the president and trustees, a symbolic gesture, but one that would broadcast fractiousness at a time when FIU is trying to make an impression of academic maturity. The university is trying to persuade state lawmakers to part with at least $68 million for one of the collegiate world’s weightiest marks of arrival: a medical school.

Trustee chief Adolfo Henriques, in turn, described relations as verging on “blackmail.” And he threatened to have as many as 250 professors and members of other campus unions removed from the trustees’ public meeting after they met his claim of “good-faith bargaining” with a robust “boo.”

He also invoked, if obliquely, the trustees’ considerable advantage. If the bargaining bogs down, trustees can impose a settlement after consulting an outside mediator for non-binding recommendations, according to both sides. As state employees, professors are forbidden to strike.

And there is no clear deadline for reaching an agreement; the last faculty contract expired with a university-system overhaul in January 2004. Meanwhile, professors’ last raise came in December 2002.

The dispute centers on the administration’s desire to erase a range of contract provisions, covering topics as sweeping as intellectual property rights and as specific as workload rules. They would be replaced by administrative policies, which, unlike contract provisions, can’t be disputed through an outside arbitrator.

FIU administrators and trustees say the goal is to make management both more agile and more equitable, noting that non-union staff doesn’t have recourse to outside arbitrators.

“[We want] consistent policies for all employees,” Henriques said.

But professors see the administration’s move as an attack on their union and on faculty life itself. While they count only six instances of outside arbitration in the past 18 years, they say it’s a crucial tool to ensure fair play.

Without it, “there is no way to force [administrators] to follow their policies or to get redress if they don’t,” Gummerson said.

For all the tough talk, faculty and administrators tentatively agreed to contract language on tenure.

The negotiations have so far focused mainly on working conditions, but FIU administrators put their salary proposal on the table Friday. It would guarantee professors raises totaling 4 percent over three years, with the possibility of 6 percent more based on performance.

Administrators and trustees call it a good offer in tight times. Gummerson says otherwise, noting that Miami-Dade federal labor statisticians already have clocked 6-percent inflation in Miami and Broward counties since the last faculty raise in 2002.

Jennifer Peltz can be reached at jpeltz@sun-sentinel.com or 561-243-6636.

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