Iowa's only labor-related research center to close (updated)

The University of Iowa will soon announce plans to shutter our state’s only institution dedicated to labor-related education and research, Labor Center Director Jennifer Sherer warned in a July 8 e-mail.

Established in 1951, the Labor Center has a unique mission within our state university system, to conduct adult education and applied research “on subjects important to Iowa workers and unions.” Since 2016, it has been part of the University of Iowa’s College of Law. The law school’s new dean Kevin Washburn informed Sherer on July 6 of the decision, depicting the Labor Center’s demise as a done deal.

I enclose below the full text of Sherer’s message to some 30 advisory committee members, many of whom lead large labor organizations. The e-mail indicates that university higher-ups decided the center’s fate without consulting faculty members, staff or unions. Sherer, Washburn, and University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld did not respond to requests for comment on July 9. Nor did communications staff for the University of Iowa or the Board of Regents, which oversees the three state universities. UPDATE: Added new comments from Sherer below.

Harreld told the Board of Regents in April that the university may “reduce or eliminate activities previously supported by the state,” including “centers and institutes that served the state, region, and nation” rather than students. At the time, Harreld said, “Since the state is no longer providing the same level of support it did a generation ago, we can no longer perform various activities the state asked us to perform in the past. […] We cannot let student tuition subsidize the various activities the state of Iowa no longer funds.”

The university announced in May the impending closure of its Institute of Public Affairs, which had assisted local governments for decades.

Sherer noted in her July 8 e-mail,

While administrators will say they want to close the Center for purely budgetary reasons, the reality is that the Labor Center’s annual General Education Fund (GEF) allocation from the UI has already been cut multiple times, and is now less than one-thousandth of one percent (0.00075) of the UI’s total GEF budget. Indeed, the Center’s entire 2018 GEF allocation is less than the UI President’s annual salary.

While any savings from eliminating the Center will be tiny, the permanent costs of destroying the Center are immeasurable. In budgetary terms, closure of the Center would put an end to the tens of thousands of dollars the UI takes in from union and community program fees and sponsorships each year, and would eliminate UI from consideration for federal grants in areas of Labor Center expertise (such as the $950,000 in competitive federal funding the Center has secured since 2002). The fate of crown jewels like the Iowa Labor History Oral History Project, the Center’s entire repertoire of high-quality educational manuals and curriculum, or continually in-demand resources created by initiatives like the Iowa Worker Rights Project or the Child Labor Public Education Project, would all be thrown into question. And of greatest concern, thousands of Iowans would suddenly lose access to leadership development programs and critical education about their rights at work.

At least 2,500 people take one of the Labor Center’s non-credit courses each year, covering subjects such as public sector and private sector collective bargaining, workers’ compensation, the Family & Medical Leave Act, and training for union stewards and financial officers. The center also organizes conferences and special projects on labor topics.

I will update this post as needed with any relevant comments or confirmation. UPDATE: Speaking by phone on July 10, Sherer highlighted the lack of transparency in the decision-making process.

Who’s trying to prevent Iowans from accessing information about their rights in the workplace? So I have a brand-new dean who just got here, who’s telling me other people made this decision before he arrived. And I have a university president who’s telling faculty that the decision was up to the dean. I have people in the Regents’ office telling legislators that it’s ok if we stay open, but they’re not going to fund us anymore, and then I have the law school handing all of my staff furlough notices this morning.

So I want to know, and I really feel responsible to the people of this state, who deserve an answer. Who is trying to cut them off from access to critical information about workplace issues? About how to combat harassment, how to prevent discrimination, how to know OSHA regulations so they can keep their workplaces safe and healthy, how to recover their wages if their paychecks are incorrect. Who is trying to cut them off from that information? Because that’s what we do, and that’s the constituency we serve. And nobody’s giving me an answer as to who initiated this decision. […]

Nobody wants to own the decision or say it was my idea.

The furlough notices take effect immediately, Sherer explained. Because of their longevity at the center, staff will have nine months to a year to find other employment. However, Sherer emphasized that she doesn’t see the closure as inevitable. She has not spoken to Harreld and has been told that the university president is on vacation for the rest of this week. “From my point of view, this is the start of what will be a very long process of making sure that Iowans who are affected by a potential decision like this get to have their voices heard and get to be a part of determining what the future is.”

Full text of July 8 e-mail to Labor Advisory Committee members (emphasis in original):

From: Sherer, Jennifer K
Sent: Sunday, July 8, 2018 4:08 PM
Subject: Urgent threat to the Labor Center
Importance: High

Dear Labor Advisory Committee members,

I am writing with important news about a serious threat to the Labor Center, and with great confidence that together, we will prevent attempts to destroy it.

Friday morning, I was asked to meet with Kevin Washburn, the brand new Dean of the College of Law, for the first time.

He informed me that a decision “has already been made” to close the Labor Center within the next year, and that the UI plans to announce this decision publicly on Thursday, July 12.

My response was to make clear to the new Dean that because he does not yet know the Labor Center and our programs, he has not yet had a chance to understand our role within the College of Law, the university, the labor community, and the state of Iowa, and he has not yet had any opportunity to consult with UI faculty, labor leaders, and community members about the impact of such a drastic measure, I do not consider any decisions about the Labor Center’s future to be final.

As director of the Labor Center for the past decade, I have always viewed myself as the steward of a sacred trust developed among generations of university administrators, state leaders, and the working people of Iowa. The Labor Center has since 1951 been the sole unit in the Iowa Regents system devoted to education about and for Iowa workers, and it has evolved into an essential on-campus hub for interdisciplinary research, teaching, and public engagement on a host of pressing labor and employment issues. The Center and its programs have been built in large part by the Iowa labor movement’s investment of ideas and time, direct funding from unions, payment of program fees, and active support for state investment in public higher education.

Because the Labor Center has been built by generations of Iowans and their labor organizations, in my view a decision to “close” the Center is not for me, or a new Dean, or a university President or Provost to make alone.

I and the rest of the staff at the Labor Center intend to ensure that everyone affected by Labor Center programs—starting with you and your members—has a full opportunity to be part of determining its future.

Before next Thursday, we invite you to contact UI College of Law Dean Washburn and UI President Bruce Harreld to insist that they change course, halt their planned Thursday announcement, and initiate a genuine dialogue about the Labor Center’s future.

Dean Kevin Washburn: 319-384-4658 (office) / 505-206-9834 (cell)

President Bruce Harreld: 319-335-3549 (office)

All of us are aware of the devastating effects state cuts are having on Iowa’s public institutions and education systems. As we continue to advocate for a reversal of these destructive trends, we cannot allow this moment of crisis to be used to opportunistically destroy entire programs without any public or faculty input, and inflict further, permanent harm to the UI and the state.

While administrators will say they want to close the Center for purely budgetary reasons, the reality is that the Labor Center’s annual General Education Fund (GEF) allocation from the UI has already been cut multiple times, and is now less than one-thousandth of one percent (0.00075) of the UI’s total GEF budget. Indeed, the Center’s entire 2018 GEF allocation is less than the UI President’s annual salary.

While any savings from eliminating the Center will be tiny, the permanent costs of destroying the Center are immeasurable. In budgetary terms, closure of the Center would put an end to the tens of thousands of dollars the UI takes in from union and community program fees and sponsorships each year, and would eliminate UI from consideration for federal grants in areas of Labor Center expertise (such as the $950,000 in competitive federal funding the Center has secured since 2002). The fate of crown jewels like the Iowa Labor History Oral History Project, the Center’s entire repertoire of high-quality educational manuals and curriculum, or continually in-demand resources created by initiatives like the Iowa Worker Rights Project or the Child Labor Public Education Project, would all be thrown into question. And of greatest concern, thousands of Iowans would suddenly lose access to leadership development programs and critical education about their rights at work.

Please call me with further questions and to let me know of any responses you receive from UI administrators about their position on the threatened closure of the Labor Center. I look forward to continuing the discussion of the Labor Center’s future with many of you in person at our July 20th Labor Advisory Committee meeting.

In solidarity, Jen

Jennifer Sherer

Director, Labor Center
100 BVC Rm W130
University of Iowa
Iowa City, IA 52242
319-335-4144
laborcenter.uiowa.edu
jennifer-sherer@uiowa.edu

SECOND UPDATE: Early in the afternoon of July 10, the university confirmed plans to close seven entities, including the Labor Center, and reduce funding for three others. The official statement, enclosed in full below, said “The president and provost made the decision after receiving recommendations from the vice presidents and deans. UI administrators evaluated the budget line by line to determine which activities could be trimmed without significantly harming the university’s academic mission or student success.”

Although the headline on the press release portrayed the action as “forced” by budget cuts, the Ditchwalk blogger noted that due to a series of tuition hikes, the university is “net-ahead about $40M in total revenue through this coming year, despite all funding cuts over the past two years.” In fact, for every dollar of state funding lost, Regents have “approved the taking of two and a half times that amount from students.” As Ditchwalk discussed in detail last month, that reality is not well-known because the Board of Regents “goes to great lengths to make sure it rarely mentions the total amount of tuition revenue that will be generated from new hikes, while at the same time engaging in histrionics about any legislative cuts that can plausibly (or even implausibly) be blamed for rapacious increases in the cost to students.”

July 10 press release from the University of Iowa’s Office of Strategic Communication:

UI forced to make difficult budget decisions following state funding cuts
University will maintain focus on core mission of education and research

After back-to-back state budget cuts by the Iowa Legislature, the University of Iowa will close several centers and furlough more than 30 individuals whose position is not directly tied to student instruction. The president and provost made the decision after receiving recommendations from the vice presidents and deans. UI administrators evaluated the budget line by line to determine which activities could be trimmed without significantly harming the university’s academic mission or student success.

“We’re disappointed to be in this position because these centers and employees provide valuable outreach and service to Iowans,” says UI President J. Bruce Harreld. “But we can no longer ask our students to support activities previously supported by the state just a generation ago.”

The list of closures includes:

• University of Iowa Center on Aging
• Confucius Institute
• Iowa Center for Assistive Technology Education and Research (I-CATER)
• Iowa Center for Higher Education (ICHE)
• Labor Center
• Office of Iowa Practice Opportunities
• UI Mobile Museum

The university also will reduce funding for a handful of other centers, including:

• The DeLTA Center
• Iowa’s Center for Agricultural Safety and Health (I-CASH)
• Iowa Supports Education and Resources for Veterans and Enlisted (I-SERVE)

The State Hygienic Laboratory (SHL) and UI Research Foundation (UIRF) have also experienced budget challenges and have reorganized to do more with less, and in May, the university closed the Institute for Public Affairs. Collectively, budget-compelled changes will result in permanent furloughs for 31 fulltime Professional & Scientific employees and 2 Merit employees. Not every furlough is tied to a specific center, and it is possible some employees may be reassigned to other positions at the university.

“The university will offer assistance to the affected employees to help them understand their options and the resources available for securing other employment at the UI,” says Cheryl Reardon, chief human resources officer and associate vice president.

Since Fiscal Year 2016, the Iowa Legislature has cut the UI budget by $16 million. The midyear cut in April forced the university to adopt a five-month moratorium on construction projects. University leaders are concerned that the generational disinvestment in public higher education will continue.

Since 1998, the state budget has grown by nearly $3 billion and UI enrollment has grown by more than 5,000 students, but state funding for the UI has decreased by $9 million.

“The university cannot continue doing everything it’s done in the past if we want to have enough resources to recruit and retain top-notch faculty, which we know results in better instruction, research, and scholarship opportunities for our students,” says UI Interim Provost Sue Curry. “As part of our commitment to Iowa, we value outreach and the positive impact our university has on communities across the state, but these difficult decisions are necessary to protect our core mission of teaching and research.”

Not all of the closures will happen immediately as the centers wind down work and complete contractual obligations, some extending up to a year. Once concluded, the university will save about $3.5 million, which will stay within the colleges and units to offset the loss in state funding.

The Iowa Center for Higher Education

The UI will continue to offer classes in Des Moines but will close the former AIB College of Business campus now known as ICHE. AIB’s board of trustees donated the campus to the UI in 2015 and the university began offering three new undergraduate majors on the campus in fall 2016: political science, sport and recreation management, and enterprise leadership. The UI also moved undergraduate and graduate social work programs, which previously held classes at the John and Mary Pappajohn Educational Center (JMPEC) in Des Moines, to ICHE.

While social work continued to draw steady enrollment, the new programs struggled to gain traction in a competitive market. With the closing of ICHE, the social work programs will return to JMPEC. Students in the other three programs will either take classes at JMPEC or online.

“Our commitment to providing educational opportunities in Des Moines has not waned, and we will continue to look for ways to expand our course offerings. But the cost of maintaining a campus without appropriate state support is unsustainable at this time,” says Tom Rice, director of ICHE.

The UI leases space on the ICHE campus to several nonprofit organizations and offers short-term summer housing to students interning in Des Moines. The university will seek a buyer for the property. Current tenants will be able to continue to operate at ICHE until at least Dec. 31, 2018. Under the terms of the gift from AIB, any proceeds from the sale of the property must be used to provide scholarships to central Iowa students wishing to attend the UI.

Democratic State Senator Joe Bolkcom, who works at the University of Iowa, released the following statement:

I am disappointed in the news about the center closures and furloughs.

I am deeply disappointed at the proposed closure the UI Labor Center. This proposal is the latest gut punch to Iowa workers and their families. This is a terrible time to even consider closing the UI Labor Center.

Since 1950, the Labor Center has helped make Iowa a better place to live and do business. It has helped workers and Iowa employers meet the changing workforce needs of the state. As an interdisciplinary educational and research center it has help educated students and advance the public’s understanding of work during a time of rapid change.

It has also has leveraged its state appropriation in securing competitive federal grants for the university.

While there is no doubt that the University of Iowa is under financial pressure because of bad budget priorities of Governor Reynolds and the Republican Legislature, I hope that President Harreld will change his mind and reconsider this ill-advised decision that would only worsen Iowa’s efforts to build a strong, modern economy that rewards hard work.

Harreld responded via e-mail on July 10,

As you are aware the University of Iowa has faced 2 straight mid year cuts and 4 over the past 10 years. These mid year cuts are part of a pattern of a 20 year generational disinvestment in higher education in our state.

Over the past 20 years the state budget has increased by $3 billion, the University is educating over 5,000 more students, while our state appropriation has decreased by $9 million. As a result the university has been forced to make difficult decisions about work that does not directly support student success, scholarship, and research.

That being said I am hopeful that over the next 12 months the Labor Center will be able to obtain grant funding or direct funding from the legislature so that their work may continue here at the University of Iowa.

Sherer indicated that the Labor Center received about $550,000 annually in direct funding from the university. I can’t imagine state lawmakers would consider replacing that money, given the number of anti-labor bills Republicans enacted in 2017 and 2018. It seems unlikely grant-makers would approve new funding for the center, knowing the university is cutting off financial support.

Josh Lehman replied on behalf of the Board of Regents, “This decision was made by the University of Iowa. The center closure will come before the Board at its September meeting.”

Iowa Senate and House Democrats released a joint statement from Senate Minority Leader Janet Petersen and House Minority Leader Mark Smith:

“This afternoon, we sent separate letters to (a) Governor Reynolds, Leader Whitver and Speaker Upmeyer and (b) University of President Harreld and Board of Regent President Richards to object to plans to close the Labor Center and other centers at the University of Iowa.

“We encouraged Republican leaders to contact University officials and the Board of Regents to encourage them to reverse course.

“Our letter stated: ‘This is not the first negative consequence of your fiscal mismanagement and Iowans know it won’t be the last. The budgets you have approved for our three universities have already raised tuition on working families and this decision to close the Labor Center is another attack on Iowa workers.’

“We added: ‘At a time when Iowa’s income growth and job creation efforts have failed to meet expectations, the Labor Center has the potential to provide policymakers with timely information about today’s rapidly changing economic and legal environment, about how best to create and preserve quality jobs, and about how to strengthen workers’ rights.’

  • It gets worse

    It’s not just the Labor Center, according to the Iowa Now newsletter:

    “The list of closures includes:
    University of Iowa Center on Aging
    Confucius Institute
    Iowa Center for Assistive Technology Education and Research (I-CATER)
    Iowa Center for Higher Education (ICHE)
    Labor Center
    Office of Iowa Practice Opportunities
    UI Mobile Museum

    “The university also will reduce funding for a handful of other centers, including:
    The DeLTA Center
    Iowa’s Center for Agricultural Safety and Health (I-CASH)
    Iowa Supports Education and Resources for Veterans and Enlisted (I-SERVE)”

    Full text here: https://now.uiowa.edu/2018/07/ui-forced-make-difficult-budget-decisions-following-state-funding-cuts

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