Letter to the Editor – Ambiguity is a fact of life

Written by: Peter Fretwell

The following is a letter to the editor and does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the VOICE editorial staff.

Ambiguity is one of the few certainties in life. Learning to live comfortably with life’s many uncertainties is a sign of maturity and emotional healthiness.

Despite that truism, needless and intentional ambiguity corrodes relationships and harms trust. MCCC could use some strong relationships and trust right now.

One obvious obstacle to building relationships and trust is a needless ambiguity that can be clarified, if we have the courage and willingness to learn. It is in our collective interest to seek some clarity on one simple question: Was the recent faculty job action legal under their contract, as they claim, or illegal as the administration and board claim?

At the moment, neither side can conclusively prove their claim. And the opportunity to find out what the New Jersey Public Employment Relations Commission – the ruling body in such labor disputes – would say was lost when both sides conveniently agreed to drop the college’s unfair labor practices complaint about the job action when the contract was ratified and faculty returned to all duties.

This entire episode carried a high human cost. Students were harmed, trust was eroded, and relationships were (at best) strained or (at worst) broken. Morale is extremely low and resumes and CVs of good people are going out the door with the sincere hope by their owners that they can follow shortly.

If it was legal, the board and administration need to learn and make amends. They claimed the job action was illegal. They moved to end the employment of some junior faculty members during the job action. They also notified faculty members that performance reviews could suffer because of alleged contract violations.

If the job action was legal, none of that should have happened. If the job action was legal, the college board engaged in an unfair labor practice. They damaged the institution’s future on the basis of authority, rather than the basis of fact.

However, if the job action was illegal, the faculty got a “do over” on a collective decision that would have brought career and financial disaster for the rest of us. They need to take responsibility for recklessly leading and quietly following. (The vote for the job action was reportedly unanimous, so nobody can say they had no choice or responsibility.)

If the job action was illegal, faculty members would show some class by acknowledging that many MCCC staff people covered them – both with students and on critical school-wide initiatives – while the faculty indulged harmful behavior.

More importantly, if it was illegal, those of us who carried that load would appreciate assurances that a job action will not happen again. We should not have a special elite class above the law, nor should enlightened professionals seek special treatment at the expense of others.

I know many good and honorable faculty members who will commit to sticking with legal means if the job action is clarified as illegal. Until there is clarity, however, there can be no informed decisions on either side.

While we seek clarity on the question of legality, there is one other question we can answer in the meantime: “Did we learn anything for the high price we paid?” Learning produces value from an otherwise harmful episode.

Being human, both sides are more than willing to say that the other side (the proverbial “they”) did not learn much. We are all less prone to examine whether “we” learned anything that might prevent future disasters.

Try asking anybody on campus, “What did we learn from the recent job action episode?” Often, you will get a shrug that implies, “We learned nothing,” or you will hear what both parties believed going into this fight: “They” (the folks on the other side of the issue) proved they are bad people. “

Neither answer shows learning from this costly episode. Bluntly, we are an institution of higher learning that refuses to learn. Because we have not learned, we are doomed to repeat the same mistakes again and again.

There can be no more damning indictment of us collectively than that we are failing to do what we claim to be. There is no higher cost for such carelessness than seeing students and good staff harmed needlessly.

 

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