From overlooked to essential: a former faculty union president’s experience with academic calendaring language in collective bargaining agreements

This post is the first in our series on shared governance. Dr. Matt Johnson is a professor of higher education at Central Michigan University, and we invited him to share his experience for our Nebraska audience.

Academic Calendaring

I served a three-year term as our faculty association union president from 2019-2022 at Central Michigan University. I was drawn to the presidency because I benefitted from my father’s good-paying, stable union job working for General Motors. His union undoubtedly was the reason I was able to afford going to college. I wanted to serve the union, and a three-year term in the middle of a five-year contract was particularly appealing. I would avoid presiding over a contentious bargaining cycle and the horizon seemed clear. As I began my term, I settled into pouring over our 112-page collective bargaining agreement, anxious to learn the ins and outs of the contract.

I do not remember paying much attention to the four-sentence article in our collective bargaining agreement focused on the academic calendar. Like some other articles, it felt unimportant, especially as it related to other hot button issues such as tenure, grievances, and individual faculty rights. The article on the academic calendar contains a university calendar with specific dates for faculty preparation week, the first and last day of classes, university breaks, holidays, examination weeks, commencement, and grade submission due dates. These dates are also publicly available on the university’s website. Having these important dates established for the duration of the contract from the outset of ratifying the agreement has made planning for administration and faculty easier, especially when planning multi-year projects. The format of these dates is rarely contested and follow an agreed-upon semester length, break periods, and start and end times. Standard stuff.  

The same article also discusses what happens in the event of any substantive calendar changes. It states:

Article 27

Both parties acknowledge that the calendar has been established, as described in Paragraph 3 of this Article, for the life of this Agreement. Any calendar change proposed by CMU that would substantially affect the teaching schedule or work assignments of bargaining unit members for the academic year and/or summer session shall be subject to negotiations between CMU and the ASSOCIATION. Before CMU implements any calendar change viewed by CMU as not substantially affecting the teaching schedule or work assignments, CMU will consult with the ASSOCIATION regarding the change. The parties at any time may agree to refer selected calendar matters to the Academic Senate for advice and counsel.

With no chatter of calendar changes within Academic Senate, I could not imagine a scenario that would prompt a substantive change (remember the luxury of not paying attention to the prospect of pandemics that disrupt all aspects of life?). But as the world would soon be disrupted by COVID-19, this article would become the focus of much consternation and debate, particularly the last three sentences.

Spring and Summer 2020

Like most campuses around the world, we received an email in early March 2020 stating that all instruction would shift to remote, which endured until summer 2020. Our faculty did their best, scrambling to move content online and contend with competing priorities and fear. We submitted final grades, exasperated, defeated, and fearful of what would come next in our personal lives and our careers. Our union sought to engage the administration on as many fronts as we could – choice in modality, opt-outs for faculty who did not want to teach face-to-face, having a voice at tables where decisions about reopening were being made, among other issues.

As our membership sought to recuperate from a chaotic spring semester, the summer of 2020 meant continuous meetings about how we would navigate the 2020-2021 academic year. As naïve hopes for a short-lived virus lifespan faded, many institutions announced plans for remote instruction. Central Michigan University announced plans to return to in-person instruction, offering most courses in “HyFlex” – simultaneous instruction that offered students opportunities for attending class in-person or virtual. As part of their plan to return to face-to-face instruction, the administration wanted to begin classes earlier and end the semester by Thanksgiving, thus eliminating students returning from Thanksgiving break and the likelihood of increased virus transmission. Because they were changing the start and end times of the semester, the administration agreed this change constituted a “substantially affecting the teaching schedule or work assignments of bargaining unit members,” which required a negotiation between the union and the administration. In exchange for agreeing to the calendaring change, we negotiated that faculty would have the option of administering and/or having to report teaching evaluations for spring 2020, fall 2020, and spring 2021. We codified this agreement in a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). The MOU provided important solace for our members who could now stop worrying about negative student evaluation scores amidst the stress of teaching in a new modality and adjusting to life with COVID-19. Faculty would still be required to demonstrate teaching excellence during this time, but standardized student evaluations were optional.

Spring 2021

As faculty, staff, and students were adjusting to a new instructional modality in the first few weeks of fall semester, the administration approached our union as part of our regular meetings with a proposal: they wanted to cancel spring break the following semester, and instead, redistribute the five consecutive spring break days to non-consecutive wellness days distributed throughout the semester. Their logic was, at the time, fairly strong: sending hordes of unvaccinated students around the country (many of whom traditionally might travel to densely populated locales) and having them descend back upon the campus would likely lead to increased spread of COVID-19. Eliminating spring break would dissuade students from travelling and likely lower virus transmission.

When we first heard the proposal, we were mostly supportive. Those of us teaching face-to-face were not thrilled with the idea of breathing the same air in poorly ventilated classrooms with students who might have been crammed into crowded bars 48-72 hours earlier. Vaccines were still a pipe dream, and our members were supportive of measures to mitigate transmission.

Knowing that we had the protection of Article 27, we contended that reworking our syllabi and research schedules to accommodate the loss of spring break into the new distributed break model constituted “substantially affecting the teaching schedule or work assignments” of our members, which would thus trigger a negotiation. The administration did not agree. They instead contended that this change did not substantially affect teaching schedules or work assignments, and thus only needed to consult with our union. We contemplated filing a grievance but weighed the time to resolve a potential grievance against the myriad other issues happening during this stressful academic year and ultimately decided to flag this section for future bargaining in hopes of strengthening the language. Our consolation prize was that we were consulted about the plan and were able to offer substantive feedback about the redistribution of spring break days throughout the semester. We were able to mitigate issues caused by not having a true spring break and gave thoughtful input on the placement of what would soon become known as “wellness days.” Surveying our membership offered valuable input into the placement of the days and both parties arrived at a solution that made the best of a trying decision. We are hopeful to gain more clarity (and faculty-friendly language!) in the next round of bargaining on this article.

Concluding Thoughts

My hope in sharing our story with the academic calendaring article in our collective bargaining agreement is to bring attention to the issue so faculty may seek to add or strengthen their contract language around calendaring. The often-overlooked article on the academic calendar in our collective bargaining agreement became a focal point during the COVID-19 pandemic. Our contract ensured that moving the start and end dates in fall 2020 afforded us an opportunity to bargain, which strengthened shared governance and allowed both parties to walk away from the negotiation satisfied. The administration was able to enact a plan they felt best positioned the university for safety and continuity of instruction and faculty received much-needed solace for the stress of adapting to a new modality amid a global health crisis. Although we were only consulted on eliminating spring break in spring 2021, we were still able to provide valuable input into the redistribution of spring break days throughout the semester. I am confident that without a collective bargaining agreement specifically defining parameters for changes to the academic calendar, we would have not been able to affect these changes in any significant way.