Laura Engelken, former Director of Spiritual and Religious Life was met with a severance package the day she was allegedly supposed to be meeting Dean Stiglitz. Engelken was just one of eight layoffs or staff reductions that have recently occurred. These layoffs have resulted in an attempt to rebuild from the college’s $5 million deficit. However, these attempts have resulted in outcry from students, faculty and in one case, an entire department.
On May 14, over 130 adjunct faculty at Mills unionized under Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1021, an organization that represents workers’ rights in Northern California. Two weeks later, President Alecia DeCoudreaux, released a memorandum to faculty and staff detailing the impacts of the impending restructuring plan. The ultimate aim of the restructuring efforts is balancing the overall budget of the college.
According to a second memorandum circulated to faculty and staff in July, a crucial part of the restructuring process included financial cuts to “examine the core functions and services provided by Mills” and “meet the needs of future generations of students.” As part of an effort to meet these goals, the memo concluded, eight faculty and staff members’ positions were either reduced or eliminated.
SEIU files unfair labor practice charges against Mills
SEIU currently has two unfair labor practice charges filed against the College. The first charge alleges that Mills made a series of changes that affected the hours and terms of employment for adjunct faculty without advance notice or opportunity to negotiate. For example, the minimum required enrollment for a class is now 10 students; previously, there was no specified number of students required for a class to exist. A number of classes were subsequently cancelled for the coming year because they did not meet this requirement.
The second charge alleges that the College took retaliatory action against Stephanie Young, a faculty member and former administrator in the English department, by eliminating her administrative position for participating in union-related activity. However, she will still be teaching at Mills this year.
Bargaining with the administration is well underway, said Jennifer Smith-Camejo, spokesperson for SEIU. The bargaining team, comprised of faculty members from all disciplines, is involved in negotiating the changes made by the administration that affected the adjunct population. Mills made immediate changes after the union election without advance warning for or input from faculty and staff which, Smith-Camejo said, ultimately ends up affecting the students the most.
“Both faculty and staff want to be part of that discussion especially when it concerns students,” Smith-Camejo said. “They want to have meaningful input about how changes are made at the College. This goes directly against what they’re trying to do.”
Neha Dave, lecturer in the economics department for the past four years and member of the bargaining team, said that navigating these kinds of changes is uncharted territory for the College, where staffing and administrative decisions have typically been made the same way for years.
“This is an important opportunity for reassessment and to strengthen what we have done and what we have that is good about us, and see what we can do about what our weaknesses are,” Dave said.
Dave said she is confident this is not an adversarial battle between the administration and the adjunct faculty.
“At the end of it, we want to create a healthier, more sound, more enduring learning environment,” Dave said. “To that end, we’re not on opposite sides of the table.”
The National Labor Relations Board, an organization that protects the rights of private-sector employees to campaign for better working conditions and wages, is currently investigating the charges filed against the College. Dave said the bargaining team can expect to hear about the outcome of the charges in the coming weeks.
In late June, the English department announced a series of changes that left the department with one remaining administrative staff member and no official leadership. Tenured faculty members Diane Cady and Juliana Spahr, who were slated to co-chair the department beginning in the fall, both resigned their pending positions for the 2014-15 academic year due to their inability to make basic staffing changes, according to an email sent to members of the English department.
“My feeling was that if I, as the department chair, cannot have some say in something as fundamental as my staffing, I cannot be an effective chair of the department,” Cady said. “It just didn’t make any sense to me, and I decided to resign.”
Cady said she requested an explanation from the Provost’s office for why Stephanie Young, visiting assistant professor of English, was removed from her position as Director of English Graduate Enrollment and Admission on June 9, but instead received multiple “contradictory” responses from the Provost’s office. According to Cady, the Provost’s office claimed that it was looking for possible areas to cut costs across the College, but the English department’s graduate program is the only one to have sustained cuts to its administrative staff, Cady stated.
With only 40 percent of the faculty at Mills tenured,Cady said she hopes the vital work adjunct faculty do begins to gain some recognition at institutions everywhere.
“This has been done primarily on the backs of contingent faculty,” Cady said. “I think some people are under the misconception that people are contingent faculty because their qualifications are different than that of their tenured colleagues. The simple fact is that there are very few tenure track jobs now being offered by colleges and universities.”
The Provost’s office was not available for comment about changes within the English department.
Let go without warning
One of those affected by the summer lay-offs was Reverend Laura Engelken. On June 5, Engelken, former director of Spiritual and Religious Life at Mills College, received an email from Eloise Stiglitz, dean of students, that allegedly requested a meeting with Engelken to discuss her experiences as a member of the Diversity and Social Justice Resource Center. Engelken said when she arrived at Stiglitz’ office that afternoon, a human resources representative escorted her to a conference room in a different building. Upon entry, Engelken supposedly met Stiglitz with a severance package on the table in front of her.
Engelken reportedly lost access to her email records immediately following her meeting with Stiglitz, and said she was unable to retrieve any previous work or correspondence that she could transfer elsewhere. According to Engelken, Mills also allegedly offered her a severance contract proposing that she receive four weeks of severance pay as opposed to two in exchange for a waiver of any wrongful termination claims by the College.
Engelken did not sign the contract. She said that staying silent was not an option.
“This pattern of cutting and sending people out, not notifying the community, not notifying people who were continuing, it’s this continued avoidance of responsibility,” Engelken said.
With Engelken’s departure comes the dismantling of a one-woman department, which is currently funded by a $80,000 grant specifically designated for chaplaincy. Engelken said she was not aware of future plans for the department, but she expressed concern about its survival and where its funds will be allocated. Engelken said she felt disrespected over the way she was severed from her position and expressed frustration over misalignment with Mills’ core values: developing people into effective communicators who take responsibility for their leadership.
“Throughout this process, Mills has the opportunity to model that leadership, to model that communication, and consistently fails to do so in really awful ways that cause harm to individuals in the community,” Engelken said.
According to a memorandum sent out to faculty and staff from the Office of the President, funds from programs and services that are cut will be re-prioritized for “strategic initiatives for the long term success of the College, including enhanced student services.”
Engelken encouraged students to ask critical questions about the current institutional process.
“They have tremendous power as students to ask questions and to name things clearly that in this climate of fear, staff and faculty are not able to do,” Engelken said. “It’s an opportunity to act as an ally to themselves and each other as well as to faculty, staff and the institution as a whole.”
Engelken was a beacon for interfaith collaboration between religious clubs on campus and helped educate students about other religions, said Rachel Birenbaum, president of the Jewish Student Collective.
“A lot of people need religious support on campus,” Birenbaum said. “There’s a giant hole, and [the administration] haven’t given us any concrete information about how they’re going to resolve it.” Dean Stiglitz was not available for comment.
A follow-up interview with President DeCoudreaux is slated for September 3rd as she was unable to comment prior to this article’s release. Due to the administration’s limited availability during the summer, The Campanil has not yet been able to report on the cause of the budget deficit but will continue to investigate the matter.
The Mills Action group will be hosting a sit-in as a form of protest to the lay-offs on August 27 from 11am-1pm. Expect further reports as this is an ongoing issue.