By: Yardena Katz | Features  | 

Frozen Salaries and Numb Morale: From Supreme Court to Faculty Council

Alongside a thunderous report on the Iran hostage crisis, Yeshiva University made the New York Times front page on February 20, 1980.

“A day that will live in academic and judicial infamy, the Supreme Court rules against us, 5-4,” wrote YC Professor of English Literature Manfred Weidhorn in his memoir, By Luck Possessed. “For me, this crushing blow marks the end of the six-year quest for justice.”

As vice president of the Yeshiva University Faculty Association (YUFA), Weidhorn had been spearheading—to the horror of the YU administration and Board of Trustees—a YU faculty effort to unionize. When the YU administration refused to negotiate with the union upon its certification by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), YUFA and the NLRB sued and lost to the YU administration. Cited 1,428 times in subsequent court opinions, NLRB v. Yeshiva University is a historic case that established continuously applied federal precedent that bars American private university faculties from unionizing. The “Yeshiva Decision” is still discussed in legal academia and reviled by the influential American Association of University Professors (AAUP). Since 2016, a wave of graduate students and adjunct professors has been successfully challenging the application of the case to their faculty categories.

Weidhorn wrote that the “legal battle has cured a symptom—unionization—but left unattended the ailment that gave rise to the symptom: a badly underpaid faculty that is harassed, aggrieved, and demoralized.” Enveloping the case is an ongoing tale of YU faculty undercompensation and representation. The conditions that prompted faculty to unionize in the 1970’s have circled back for present-day faculty, whose frozen salaries and dilute morale are propelling their Faculty Council to pursue representation on the Finance Committee of the Board of Trustees.

This article is divided into two parts, each focused on one faculty generation’s representative body and its attempt at increased compensation. The first examines the Yeshiva University Faculty Association (YUFA) from 1974-1980 and its journey to the Supreme Court. The second explores the contemporary Faculty Council since its birth in 2012 and its evolving relationship with the Office of the Provost and Board of Trustees.

YUFA and Supreme Court

In the wake of a financial crisis in the 1960’s, the YU administration froze faculty salaries twice between 1968 and 1980. Because of inflation, these pay freezes actually amounted to pay cuts. Universities typically account for inflation through annual baseline raises of 1-2% that approximate the rate of inflation and maintain salaries’ real value. YU’s 0% raises actually caused salary values to shrink by 25% between 1968 and 1973. By 1974, YU had rigorized sabbatical policies and increased the minimum faculty workload to 5 courses per semester, equalling 12-15 classroom hours per week. Faculty salaries dangled at a $16,600 minimum, 20% below the average minimum at comparably ranked New York City universities.

“Morale was awful,” wrote Weidhorn. Together with a frustrated Ralph Behrends, Professor of Physics at the closing Belfer Graduate School of Science, he galvanized the separate faculty associations of Cardozo, Ferkauf, Stern, Wurzweiler and YC into a unified YUFA in 1974, of which Behrends was nominated president and Weidhorn elected vice president. Weidhorn undertook the role of “making rousing or—in the eyes of YU administrators, rabble-rousing—speeches in faculty assemblies… to persuade others to come aboard” the unionization effort. To be certified by the NLRB, YUFA needed a majority faculty vote in favor. In 1976, unionization decisively won out, 91-50.

The issue had quickly devolved into “an in-house quarrel (or civil war?) between equal components of the university,” wrote Weidhorn. The faculties of YU’s assorted schools had already been at odds with President Samuel Belkin and particularly Vice President Sheldon Socol over salary contentions, and the union tension pushed one dean to resign. Upon President Norman Lamm’s appointment in 1976, administrative opposition persisted. Unionization would disadvantage the administration because it allows faculty to collectively bargain over salaries and contract terms while wielding the power of a potential strike. A university lawyer disclosed to Weidhorn that Socol also saw the matter as one “of righteous possession of power and that he was, therefore, willing to spend any sum in order to establish that principle.”

In the Supreme Court’s majority opinion, Justice Powell wrote that because YU’s professors “effectively determine its curriculum, grading system, admission and matriculation standards, academic calendars, and course schedules,”—and that “the overwhelming majority” of their recommendations “as to faculty hiring, tenure, sabbaticals, termination, and promotion are implemented”—YU faculty are “managerial employees” whose influence over university operations precluded them from unionizing.

“Whatever legal gobbledygook the administration might resort to, there was a heartening consensus among objective observers on the question of who had the power,” wrote Weidhorn.

The New York Times front page skepticized:

Yeshiva’s faculty have far less managerial authority than most faculty members. There is no faculty senate at Yeshiva, nor is there any other forum for the administration and faculty to discuss grievances… There was no faculty influence in any of these [financial] decisions.

Having published an editorial supporting unionization in 1976, The Commentator reported:

According to [Ronald H. Schechtman, legal counsel for YUFA], the basic problem was that faculty at YU have been “alienated from decision-making.” He contends that the court has “taken away needed protection from the faculty” and left them “naked.”

YUFA reversed into an impotent faculty association and was later dismantled. Salaries remained below the comparable average for years. According to YU’s Chief Human Resources Officer Julie Auster, “Yeshiva University continues to follow the 1980 ruling, which was specifically directed at the University and has not been overturned. If this ever changes, we would comply with any future NLRB ruling.”

Faculty Council and Board of Trustees

Affiliated with 5 different undergraduate departments, YC and Stern professors separately stated the following on condition of anonymity between April 2017 and May 2018:

“Faculty morale is low.”

“I don’t think that’s much of a secret.”

“We haven’t had any say. There is no transparency.”

“Much ill-feeling about faculty being ‘taken for granted.’”

“The biggest problem amongst faculty is the depressing morale amongst them. This is affecting the quality of the institution.”

YU faculty salaries have been frozen again since 2009 when past president Richard Joel enforced extreme university-wide budget cuts as part of an effort to reduce YU’s annual budget by $30 million. Many other universities froze faculty salaries in 2010 after the recession but unfroze their faculty salaries by 2012. Accounting for inflation, one professor estimates that faculty members are now making 82% of their 2008 income. In 2009, the university’s pension matching contribution was shaved from a 7% to 2% maximum. Though President Ari Berman raised pension matching contributions to 3% in September 2017, comparable universities offer a 10% maximum.

One tenured professor remarked that “this is probably the worst pension plan for any faculty. We felt [the 7%] was a sort of contract,” he said. “It was one of the reasons I took the job. It hurts the retiring faculty because of course there will be less money for them, but it also hurts in attracting young faculty.” A 2013 Faculty Council survey found that only 11% of YU faculty foresaw being financially able to retire before age 70.

Low salaries have encouraged “the best faculty to depart for greener pastures,” said one professor, and hampered recruitment of new professors. The resultant overburdening of faculty has sapped course offerings. Numerous YC departments now scarcely offer electives because there is barely enough manpower to teach certain majors’ required courses. Professors handling heavier course loads are less likely to volunteer time towards mentoring student researchers, developing new courses and delivering external lectures that attract scholarship and promote enrollment. “It’s what we in the Faculty Council sometimes call a ‘death spiral,’” said the same professor.

The Council was founded 3 years into the freeze in 2012, at the request of the Middle States Association (MSA) during its reaccreditation of YU. The MSA expressed concern over YU’s absent faculty governance structure. Then-provost Morton Lowengrub was open to instituting a more organized system for gathering faculty sentiment, and so the administration cooperatively selected 20 professors from YC, Stern, Syms, UTS, Azrieli, Cardozo, Ferkauf, Wurzweiler and Revel to form the Council.

Now elected for 3-year terms, members proportionally represent roughly 15 faculty from their respective institutions. The Council annually selects a speaker, vice-speaker, secretary, and parliamentarian; co-speakers for 2017-18 are Syms Professor of Finance S. Abraham Ravid and Chair of Economics James Kahn. Held 5-6 times annually, Council meetings begin with an open public meeting with the provost and are followed by a closed executive meeting exclusively of members. The minutes of each meeting are posted online following their confirmation at the next meeting.

The Council’s by-laws describe it as “responsible for advising the President, the Provost, and the Board of Trustees on governance issues of importance to the University,” but the mechanism by which it does so has been mostly limited to communication with Provost Selma Botman. Typically the sole administrator who attends Council meetings, she was accompanied by President Berman in October 2017 at the second of 5 meetings conducted under his presidency thus far.

The Council also has the power to vote on formal “recommendations,” which were referred to in meeting minutes as a “departure point” for faculty pension plan revisions in February 2013 and treated as prompts for “subsequent discussion” in October 2014. Council feedback on healthcare benefits and pension changes has “probably helped with efficiency in the process,” said one member. Another commented that “some of the resolutions have been more like public statements, and so they did not seem to change any decisions that were made. But others have.”

“Normally the faculty that are on the Faculty Council are people who love this institution, although they are probably the ones that are voicing the complaints the strongest,” said one member. “But that is precisely because we care.” The same professor said that though meetings are on Fridays, during a “time that I cherish when I normally pick up my grandkids from school,” he remains involved “because I believe it is important.”

From Courtroom to Boardroom

In 2013, the Council resorted to publishing an “Open Letter from the Faculty Council to Faculty of Yeshiva University” in The Commentator in response to a financial strategy update by Joel. Yet much of the letter’s wording seemed directed at the administration rather than faculty, suggesting the minimal power of the Council in swaying administrative decisions. A main contention of the letter was that “the administration must understand and recognize that a strong and well-supported faculty is vital to the long-term stability and success of the institution.”

Of the Council’s push for broadened influence, one member commented that YU “is a very hierarchical institution. It was difficult for us to make an impact on anything. So we insisted for years that we should get representation in the Academic Affairs Committee meeting of the Board of Trustees.” In 2015, two such seats were granted to the Council and are currently filled by Kahn and YC Professor of Physics Gabriel Cwilich. Attendance at the meetings allows faculty to “see what is being discussed” and “offer feedback,” said another member.

In April 2018, the Council passed a recommendation to secure seats on the Finance Committee of the Board of Trustees. Faculty Council representatives are set to meet with YU’s CFO and Vice President of Business Affairs Jacob Harman sometime this May, though the Council has yet to receive a formal response to the recommendation.

“We hope this one will get a response,” said one Council member. “There is always a delicate equilibrium that you have to play here in how much to press for things.”

“The Board of Trustees might be very savvy, but in other universities, the faculty plays an active role in running the place,” said his colleague on the Council. “We are still fighting. We are heard more than we used to be, but there is still a long way to go until the university gives more than lip service.”