Op-ed: SMTD needs to prioritize students and lecturers, not profits and deception

Wednesday, May 15, 2019 - 6:19pm

As two long-serving lecturers at the University of Michigan, we understand the importance of building a legacy for generations of students to come. For the past 20 and 32 years, we’ve taken pride in working for a University that stands for what is right, that prioritizes its students over profits and that respects faculty and its obligation to honor contractual agreements with all employees. Over the past few months, however, the administration of the University’s School of Music, Theatre, and Dance has shown a reckless disregard for all three. 

It is therefore with great disappointment that we write this letter outlining a series of deceptions, stonewalls and contract violations coming from the SMTD we know and love — because we know our University is better than this. 

Last July, the Lecturers’ Employee Organization (LEO) ratified a new contract with the University administration. The contract gave us the salary increases and health benefits many of us needed to live and work effectively. It also required SMTD to pay the two of us a higher salary to fairly compensate for our depth of experience and outstanding results. 

Rather than pay us our worth and give students the instruction they deserve, SMTD chose instead to cut our course load by 50 percent and 66 percent for the next academic year. This in itself is a travesty: The University prioritized profits over giving its students a quality education. Even more disappointing, however, was the series of events which took place in the process of issuing these layoffs. 

First and foremost, SMTD violated our contract when it failed to forewarn us about the layoffs, choosing instead to wait until we approached them with questions about class cuts. 

Secondly, SMTD lied both to us and The Michigan Daily when it denied LEO’s new contract as the reason for the layoffs. On February 20, the Chair of the Dance Program sent an email to Missy Beck stating, “Because of the large increase in LEO salaries, the administration would like to move as many LEO courses as possible to tenure track faculty.” When prompted by The Daily, however, the chair denied the email existed and said she was “amazed at how many invented facts are circulating.” This disregard for honesty and accountability is unacceptable.

Thirdly, SMTD continues to change its reasons for laying both of us off. Over the last few months, they have cited lack of qualification and low enrollment as rationale for these changes. More recently, the reasons have been “wanting to go in a different direction,” and that our job loss is “necessary  (italics added) to offer additional opportunities and expand the learning experiences for our students.” Having taught here for decades with nothing short of outstanding results and consistent enrollment, however, we know none of these to be true — and are greatly disappointed by the deception and delays in providing rational explanations for these actions. 

Over a dozen lecturers and other allies gathered last week to speak out against these shameful tactics. Some of SMTD’s most successful alumni have turned out in droves to write letters and film videos urging them to reconsider this decision. But SMTD continues to ignore the pleas of their alumni who are Tony nominees and winners, Oscar nominees and winners, professional dancers, heads of dance programs in higher education, Broadway performers, producers and so much more, all of whom have insisted our work has been integral to their success. Students, alumni, lecturers and community members are coming together to demand better from a university to which we give so much. 

It is truly disheartening to see this University treat us with such disregard after we have devoted our entire professional lives to our students with such outstanding results. The University of Michigan prides itself in providing a world-class education for its students and an excellent working environment for its staff. We call on SMTD to live up to this creed and treat its long-serving lecturers with the respect they deserve. 

Missy Beck and Jean-Claude Biza Sompa are members of the LecturersEmployee Organization (AFT Local 6244), the union of all non-tenure track faculty at all three campuses of the University of Michigan.