By Damon Krane
The InterActivist Magazine (Athens, Ohio)
In the first installment of his two-part series on current faculty unrest at Ohio University, InterAct’s Damon Krane investigates faculty activism surrounding potential health care benefits reductions for faculty and other non-unionized OU employees. In next month’s issue, Krane looks at the debate about unionization and other ways the OU faculty might establish greater influence over university governance.
Upset with the current state of the university, a number of OU faculty are organizing for greater influence over university policy. Some are even talking about unionization. A wide range of grievances exist, but for the past two months faculty activists have focused on opposing a reduction of employee health benefits in which faculty as well as classified and administrative staff would be required to contribute more to the university’s healthcare fund and pay higher out-of-pocket expenses for medical care.
A study conducted by OU’s Human Resources department found that under the new plan OU employees would be paying significantly more in out-of-pocket expenses than employees at other Ohio schools such as Ohio State and the University of Cincinnati.
“I have had conversations with untenured professors, visiting professors and, more importantly, the very poorly paid staff members here at OU, who are all taking the same health care hits – and with much less room to avoid it,” said Political Science Professor John Gilliom. “And they’re afraid to say anything about it.”
As Gilliom sees it, professors with the job security of tenure have a “moral obligation” to publicly oppose the changes.
Upper administrators argue the changes are in response to a national crisis of rapidly increasing healthcare costs. But since under the current plan surpluses have existed in OU’s healthcare fund for the past two years – with another $2 million surplus expected at the end of this fiscal year – faculty activists argue the increases are unnecessary.
According to the September 22, 2003 edition of OU’s Benefits Update newslelter, the changes were to become effective July I of this year. However, in an email interview conducted on April 5, OU President Robert Glidden denied that such changes had ever been announced to take effect July l.
“We had actually never announced that we would implement the plan in July 2004,” said Glidden. “But some people assumed we would and began a campaign.”
Perhaps the most outspoken critic of the administration’s handling of employee healthcare, Chemistry Professor Ken Brown disagrees. Pointing to the bold-faced heading “Overview of Changes Effective July l, 2004” listed at the top of the second page of the September 2003 Benefits Update, Brown said, “It seems to me that might give a reasonable person the impression that changes are going to happen on July I of 2004.”
Who exactly makes health care policy decisions at OU?
According to President Glidden, “The plans for the healthcare benefits are developed by a committee called the Benefits Advisory Committee, made up of representatives from all different categories of employees.”
However, Glidden went on to mention an undefined “we” that appears to have final authority over the matter. Referring to an old plan to increase employee fees this past January (which Glidden attributed to the BAC), he stated, “But because of the reserve from the previous year, we announced in July of 2003 that we would not implement that.”
Faculty representative to the BAC since January, Ken Brown objected to Glidden’s portrayal of the Committee. “The implication is that the Benefits Advisory Committee is a policy body. That’s not true,” said Brown. “It doesn’t entertain motions, and it doesn’t take votes. It discusses, and then the chair of the Committee [OU Benefits Director Greg Fialko] reports on those discussions to his boss, who is the Vice President for Budgets Gary North. Now, we obviously have no idea what [Fialko] reports to Gary North; there are no minutes or anything like that.”
A self-insured institution, OU and its employees each contribute to a fund used to partially cover employee’s medical expenses. OU then pays Medical Mutual of Ohio to manage the plan. OU also maintains several “reserve” accounts, used to cover claims processed after the end of a fiscal year and as back-up for unforeseen catastrophes.
As Brown tells the story Medical Mutual and an actuarial firm of administrators sought for a second opinion, have both said the reserve is needlessly high. The actuarial firm, said Brown, recommended the administrators lower the reserve by $1.6 million, but administrators have only lowered it by half that amount.
In addition to the $800,000 which the university held onto, Brown says another
$1.2 million from last year’s healthcare surplus was added to this year’s reserve after upper administrators opted against increasing employee healthcare contributions last summer.
Originally planned to take effect in July 2003, Brown says increased employee contributions were expected to cover $2.4 million that the university would otherwise have had to contribute over the course of this fiscal year. When the administration decided to put the increases on hold until January 2004 (midway through the current fiscal year), Brown says it moved $1.2 million from last year’s surplus into the reserve to cover the amount of additional contributions the university expected to have to make during the first half of this fiscal year when employee contributions had not yet been increased. (As it turned out, administrators then decided to further delay increases to employee contributions until this July.)
Now, more than halfway through fiscal year 2004, Brown argues it is apparent that both the $1.2 million and the $800.000 aren’t needed to cover employee healthcare expenses. With another $2 million surplus expected at the end of this fiscal year, Brown says “The question is: what should we do with $4 million?”
His answer? Cancel the July I changes designed to shift an estimated $2.7 million in increased healthcare costs onto employees; take $2.7 million from last year’s surplus to cover the new expenses; and return the remaining $1.3 million surplus to employees by reducing their monthly contributions for the coming year.
Brown reports presenting this as a motion at a meeting of the Benefits Advisory Committee.
“And that’s when I was informed by the chair of the Committee that the Committee doesn’t operate by Robert’s Rules, it doesn’t entertain motions, and it doesn’t vote,” he said.
Unable to make headway through the Benefits Advisory Committee, faculty opponents to the healthcare changes began a public campaign. During OU Parents Weekend on February 16, a group of faculty picketed at the corner of Court and Union. Others activities included a February 23 commentary in The Athens News by Political Science Professor John Gilliom, a February 26 letter in The Athens News by Ken Brown, an open letter to President Glidden and Provost Steven Kopp signed by members of 12 professors from 9 different departments, a March 8 Faculty Senate resolution, and a March l0 resolution passed by the Scripps School of Journalism faculty-all in opposition to the planned changes. Faculty activists have also made further information about the planned changes available through their website, OU Faculty Voice.
Victory for Faculty Health Care Activists?
In a March 18 letter to faculty and staff posted on OU’s website, President Glidden stated his commitment to recommend that the Board of Trustees not reduce employee healthcare benefits for the coming fiscal year, which begins of July 1, 2004.
“A lot of us put a long of time and effort into this campaign,” said Brown. “I think we were effective at stopping something that was certainly going to happen otherwise.”
The faculty I spoke with expect the Board to take Glidden’s advice this year, but expect the same fight in years ahead as employers across the country attempt to pass the burden of increasing healthcare costs onto employees too disorganized and disempowered to resist. But for now these professors are happy to have helped themselves and other OU employees escaped a reduction in their health benefits.
Electrical Engineering Professor Brian Manhire said he was proud he and fellow faculty activists made healthcare a top priority. “It helped a lot of people, particularly lower income employees.” he said. “I’m happy to have been part of something that actually seems to have had some impact for the good of people.”
John Gilliom had much the same to say.
“It makes me feel a hell of a lot better at the end of the day to know I’m not just doing paycheck politics. It’s a broader issue.”
Just how broad? As many of these professors see it, they’re working on an issue that reaches far beyond the university community.
“People say ‘You’re professors. You’re middle class. And in the context of Appalachia, you’re a privileged elite,”‘ said History Professor Kevin Mattson. “And I think that’s true. But I think what’s been most remarkable about politics recently is that everyone thought the middle class was going to be able to escape what the working class couldn’t escape- offshoring of jobs, healthcare problems. Everybody thought it would just go away because the middle class doesn’t get hit by this stuff. And guess what? Everybody’s getting hit.”
“If employees everywhere resisted being fleeced, then we wouldn’t have a national
Health care crisis,” said Bernt. “We’d have a single payer system for the whole country, with better care and up to 4o percent less waste than the current system.” But so long as employers are able to push the costs of the current system off on employees, Bernt said employers have no reason to oppose the current system.
Brown agreed that employers would probably resist the current system if they had to foot more of the bill themselves. If more employees successfully resisted shouldering increased costs themselves, he said employers would be left with a choice: They could do away with health benefits for the entire workforce –which would leave nearly all Americans without access to medical care, and which Brown doesn’t see as a viable political option- or they could push for national public healthcare. Thus, despite
the “entrenched special interests” behind the current system, Brown predicted a that
“even the Republicans” will eventually come to favor national public healthcare.
“Citizens with Spines”
Several of the professors I interviewed also see an important link between their teaching and their activism.
“I tell my students to be good citizens, by which I mean participating in the democratic process. And you don’t tell students to do that and then not do it yourself, because they know that’s hypocritical bullshit,” said History Professor Kevin Mattson. “This is our backyard. This is where we confront the problems we have a responsibility to solve.”
Gilliom agreed, saying faculty ought to “model positive citizenship” for students.
“You make an assessment of the situation, you identify what you believe to be the truth, you make decisions about right and wrong, and you move forth in an effective way to make the world better,” he explained, adding: “You don’t become a craven careerist and never leave your office.”
Asked for his perspective such comments, President Glidden said, “I do not disagree with Professor Mattson that professors should be active and serve as models for students. But these are not ‘debates,’ they are simply misleading accusations based on misinformation and being spread in the press and on the web. If the objective is to provide a model for students, then I should think the model would include getting the facts and interpretations for administrative decisions from the people who make those decisions before disseminating misinformation.”
Professor like Joe Bernt, however, don’t appear likely to be dissuaded from their activism anytime soon.
“One of my goals in this world has always been to empower people, to make people realize that raising hell can be fun, and beneficial, and a source of community,” said Bernt.
“I’ve felt more of a sense of community among this group than I’ve seen among faculty during my entire 15 years here. That’s one of the things that organizing and social movements do,” he concluded. “They give you a psychological boost. You realize something can happen.”
“I much better understand protest now than before I participated in it,” said Manhire.
“It’s been a real education for me.”