The verdict came after nearly a month-long wait. On May 6, 2021, the arbitrator, the neutral third party selected to determine the ongoing dispute at the time between Point Park University and the Point Park Full-Time Faculty Union, sided with the 17 full-time non-tenured faculty members who had previously received letters of non-renewal that would have taken effect for this academic year.
With that ruling, the arbitrator ordered the university to reinstate the 17 affected faculty, thereby allowing them to keep their jobs. However, as the dust settles from this arbitration process, the university and the union are months into negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) with no end in sight, while students and the wider campus community are still reckoning with the aftermath of the proposed cuts from February.
For many of TNG-CWA Local 38061, which represents full-time faculty at Point Park, and the affected faculty members themselves, the final outcome of the arbitration process in May came as a relief.
Ben Schonberger, the faculty union’s executive committee unit delegate and full-time faculty member in the photography program, was one of the professors who received a letter back in February.
“My expectation for the ruling was that the arbitrator would favor the union’s position on the interpretation of Article 18 and 31. But there was the nebulous cloud that the institution and administration created that didn’t really go away until we received that ruling, so it was very difficult in the spring semester last year,” Schonberger said. “When we received the ruling in the very beginning of May, it was like a huge weight lifted off of my shoulders. I felt very relieved that the arbitrator interpreted the contract in the same manner the union did and continues to do.”
In a 14-page award, written by an arbitrator from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS), multiple sections outlined the parts of the CBA which were in dispute, Article 18, which covers appointments and renewals, and Article 31, used for delineating the process for seniority and position elimination.
“To state it in terms more simple, Article 18 addresses situations involving ‘firings,’ while Article 31 addresses situations involving ‘layoffs,’” the arbitrator wrote in the award.
The award also listed the evidence of the union’s grievance as presented in the April 7 arbitration hearing, each position of the union and the faculty as well as the arbitrator’s analysis of the dispute and conclusions.
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In their written position, the union argued that the university sent what they knew to be position eliminations and were therefore required to send notice by Sept. 15, 2020 in accordance with Article 31. The union also maintained that even had the university followed the deadline set by Article 31, they circumvented the order in which position eliminations are supposed to occur per Article 31 Section 2 which says that “In the event the University determines that a position elimination is necessary in a department, program or major, the University shall eliminate all part-time faculty positions, faculty Emeritae/Emeriti positions and overload assignments in the affected department, program or major before eliminating full-time faculty positions.”
The university wrote that Article 31 only applied to non-tenured faculty who had been employed at Point Park for over 12 years, which was not the case for any of the 17 faculty, and argued that they were thus justified in using Article 18 to not renew the 17 faculty’s positions at Point Park.
The arbitrator, in siding with the union, wrote that the university’s interpretation of Article 18 of the CBA was “somewhat convoluted,” also saying that “nonetheless, Article 18 non-renewals will normally address circumstances unique to an individual faculty member, while Article 31 position eliminations will generally be accomplished on a wholesale basis, as was the case herein.”
“Point Park University respects the arbitration process and the decision regarding non-renewal notices previously sent to 17 nontenured faculty members,” said Lou Corsaro, Managing Director of University Marketing and Public Relations, of the arbitrator’s decision. “The University will continue to bargain and administer the contract with full-time faculty in good faith.”
Last semester, the decision by the university to send letters of non-renewal to 17 full-time non-tenured faculty members sent shockwaves across the campus community, prompting an online petition, intense criticism on social media as well as two separate townhalls led by the Student Government Association (SGA). At the time, SGA also issued a statement condemning the university’s actions.
Dennis McDermott, who was the SGA president last academic year and continues to serve in that capacity for the fall and spring semesters, once called the move by the university “illegal” and continued to reiterate that the decision, in his opinion, had been “shortsighted.”
“Fortunately, [the arbitrator’s decision is] a stay on the quality of education, and we still lost quality…professors had resigned after they were offered benefits and increased incentive to resign to prevent other faculty from having to be fired,” McDermott said, referring to when former President Paul Hennigan admitted in a spring SGA meeting that 12 of 34 full-time faculty had accepted retirement initiatives. “And for the ones that have been able to stay, they’ve seen how the university is willing to treat them and maybe they’re not fully set on wanting to remain here.”
Not all of the affected 17 faculty members have decided to stay. Kendra Ross, who had been an assistant professor in the sports, arts, and entertainment management (SAEM) program, confirmed to The Globe last week that she had left the university for another opportunity and will not be teaching this fall. The university’s HR and media relations departments reported that the other 16 faculty members would be returning to teach for this semester.
The fate of the 17 faculty was, prior to the arbitration decision, seemingly in flux, according to full-time faculty union secretary Barbara Barrow, who is also a full-time professor in the Literary Arts and Social Justice Department.
“Originally, they had two lists of faculty that they were working with,” she said. “[For] some, they were going to try to revoke [non-renewal] if they could, and it seemed like people got moved from one list to another. They were never clear about why that was.”
Corsaro confirmed to The Globe that nine of the 17 notices sent out had been revoked prior to the arbitrator’s decision and that faculty officially received word of this on April 22.
“More than a full year into the pandemic, universities have had to continually readjust to counter significant disruptions in higher education,” the university said in its original statement. “This announcement is a result of tireless work by University and academic leaders to identify cost savings and revenue growth initiatives that would move closer to a structurally balanced budget.”
Assistant Professor Dora Ion, who teaches political science in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, was one of the nine for whom the non-renewal decision had been revoked.
“And that seemed to place me in a safer position already,” Ion said. “The arbitrator delivering a decisive victory to all of us confirmed what we knew all along: that laying off the most vulnerable of the full-time faculty, under the guise of non-renewals, was a violation of the terms and spirit of the CBA.”
The CBA’s official end date was June 30, 2021, although it still continues to act as the guide for relations between the university and the union as they negotiate terms for a new contract.
“Under federal law, we work under the conditions of our current contract until a new one is in place,” Schonberger said. “So we are still protected and governed by the articles of our expired CBA.”
Negotiations have gone on for 16 sessions and, as of last week, were about to enter the seventeenth session, according to Karen Dwyer, a full-time professor in the Department of Literary Arts and Social Justice, who is on the negotiating team for the union. The first contract, which the union and university agreed to in 2017, took 40 bargaining sessions over the course of 17 months.
Sessions have typically been held on a weekly basis, with two Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh representatives, seven full-time faculty members, including Dwyer and Barrow, and their attorney handling the union’s side in the negotiations. The union has said that a lawyer and Point Park’s Vice President of Human Resources Lisa Stefanko have been the ones primarily at the table on behalf of the university administration.
Dwyer and other members of the union have voiced concerns that they feel the talks are stalling due to the absence of President Donald Green and Provost Michael Soto at the discussions. Corsaro has stated that Green and Soto are not engaging in contract negotiations.
“I can say as a faculty member who is representing our faculty in that room, there seems to be a great distance, a grand distance, between what our experience of the university is as a faculty member and what our management is telling us the university experience is,” Dwyer said. “And I would hope that an actual academic such as Dr. Soto or our president would better be able to understand how to bridge that difference.”
“I think that if the President and the Provost actually want to build trust among faculty and students, this is one of the most important things that is happening to the faculty right now,” Barrow said.
Both the union and university verified that former President Paul Hennigan and former Provost John Pearson were also not part of those contract discussions.
“It’s just not something we do. We have our representation there, we have our HR Director there, we have trained people who are tasked with negotiating at the table,” Corsaro said.
At bargaining sessions, both parties spend hours on various proposals from each side. On July 21, the university reportedly sent the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh a “Last, Best and Final Offer” (LBFO), which the union alleges would have drastically cut retirement benefits and meant that full-time faculty at Point Park would be paid around 20% less compared to professors at similar higher education institutions. The offer had an expiration date of a week, and the union did not accept it.
A university spokesperson said it could not comment on the LBFO.
At this time, the union said it is pushing for more non-discrimination and harassment policies for faculty, recognizing Juneteenth as a holiday, faculty input on learning modalities, fair compensation, no cuts to retirement benefits, and shared governance. In regards to the potential non-discrimination policies and the status of Juneteenth as a holiday at Point Park, the union has alleged that the legal team representing the administration has either made little progress on or refused to concede to those proposals.
When asked, the university said it could not provide insights on its key agenda items for the new contract.
“There have been a number of meetings between their team and our team, and we continue to meet with them in good faith,” Corsaro said. “There’s really not much to say about that. We have been meeting with them since June, and our team is still setting up meetings.”
Both parties, however, have said that they cannot anticipate how long contract negotiations will last.
“It’s a scary situation as a faculty member in all honesty to work without a contract, and it’s a scary situation I would imagine for our university to work without a contract as well,” Dwyer said. “Having said that, we’re not going to sign a contract that’s not fair for faculty, and right now the contract and proposals that they have put forth are concessionary or punitive…and we can’t do that to our faculty after we made such strides to improve working conditions at the university.”