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The B.U. Faculty: Striking Back


By Nicholas D. Kristof

JOHN R. SILBER, president of Boston University (B.U.), is paying dearly for his iniquities. In the eight years he has served as B.U. president, Silber has alienated most of his constituency. He underpaid professors; he usurped the faculty powers of appointment, tenure, and dismissal; he disregarded student opinion entirely and oversaw the censorship of student publications. Students and faculty didn't like it, but until recently they accepted it. Then, this spring, they had enough--the faculty demanded substantial salary increases and more input into decision-making. When the administration balked, the faculty united with clerical workers and librarians to form a "labor alliance" that went on strike last week, effectively closing the university.

Silber is the central figure in the controversy. Even his admirers admit he is tough, abrasive, and outspoken. His detractors charge he is corrupt, completely unreasonable, a dictator, and adjectives then become unprintable. Hundreds of students and faculty sport "Dump Silber" buttons and many people insist B.U.'s problems will not be resolved until the university has a new president. The trustees, however, support Silber and faculty leaders are willing to put up with him if they have a good contract guaranteeing them wage increases and the right to govern their own affairs.

Such a contract was in fact agreed to by negotiators for both sides on March 31. Two days later the full faculty approved the contract, which granted them a 32.4-per-cent salary increase over three years and input into appointments, promotions, tenure and related issues. Since the university's negotiators had approved the pact, ratification by the trustees should have been a mere formality. Then the blow came: the trustees withheld approval of the contract pending clarification of sections they called ambiguous.

The faculty was outraged and that evening the executive board of the faculty union called a strike for the next day, April 5. About 80 per cent of the 900 faculty members represented by the union cancelled their classes, and student attendance at the remaining few classes was sparse.

Joining the faculty on the picket lines are a 900-member clerical workers' union and a 20-member librarians' union. The clerical workers and the librarians are demanding that the university recognize their unions and meet with them at the bargaining table. The university insists it will not deal piecemeal with a number of small unions but only with one large union representing all of B.U.'s employees. Although the National Labor Relations Board has certified the clerical workers' union, the administration knows that by appealing the decision through the courts it will delay negotiations with the clerical and librarian unions for up to three years. Last year the university hired a notorious union-busting firm, Modern Management Methods--effectively used by Harvard in the past--to prevent the clerical workers from forming a union. That firm was successful in defeating unions at 98 of the 100 firms it represented last year, but it was unsuccessful at B.U.

THE points the trustees want cleared up include a no-strike clause, the contract's termination date, and the method for determining salary increases. Administrators are particularly concerned about the wording of the no-strike clause because they fear the faculty might hold a sympathy strike when negotiations begin with the clerical workers and librarians. Faculty leaders have signed a pledge of mutual support with the other unions and they do not hide their sympathy for them. The administration is very aware of the danger because buildings and grounds workers--although formally barred by their contract from holding a sympathy strike--are now calling in sick to show solidarity with the strikers.

President Silber is very deeply concerned by the strike both because his future is on the line and because the strike could have disastrous implications for the future of B.U.A prolonged strike would scare students away, and the university--a private institution with a small endowment whose students are its lifeblood--can ill afford a drop in enrollment. Droves of alumni have been flocking to Silber's door warning that unless he contains the strike they will pull their sons and daughters from the university and will refuse to contribute to fund drives.

Student reaction to the strike is ambivalent. Most students hate Silber with a passion and welcome rumblings among the faculty both as a way to get at Silber and to gain more of a voice in university affairs. The faculty union has nurtured student support for the strike and many students are joining the picket lines. However, some students believe they were abandoned when the faculty agreed to settle for a contract ignoring student issues. Many students are also worried that faculty salary increases will cause tuition hikes, while others fear missing too many days of school. On Monday, officers of B.U.'s student union announced they filed a class-action lawsuit demanding reimbursment of tuition for classes cancelled because of the strike.

THE ADMINISTRATION desperately needs--far more than the faculty--to resolve the strike quickly. Even if the faculty refuses to compromise on the remaining points, the trustees will be under a great deal of pressure to ratify the contract anyway. Faculty spokesmen, knowing and relishing their position of strength, have said they are willing to discuss minor ambiguities but that major rewording of the contract is out of the question. Just how much longer the strike will last is an open question, but it seems likely the administration will make the necessary concessions and end the strike fairly soon. In the meantime, President Silber will be sweating hard--with ample time to regret his sins.

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