Nova to Workers: Drop Dead

Janitors go jobless for months, and students don't give a damn

The grand finale came Saturday, May 12. As undergraduates and their families prepared for a cap-and-gown commencement ceremony, union activists were in position at the BankAtlantic Center in Sunrise. They handed out 300 neon-green packets stuffed with alarming information about the school before being escorted off the premises. The bullet points shouted that US News & World Report ranks Nova undergraduates as having the tenth-highest level of student debt nationwide. And that, according to Nova stats, only 47 percent of the school´s full-time freshmen in 2000 were able to get their bachelor´s degrees within six years.

Yet all seems well on the financial front for Nova. According to its most recent tax return, the university boasted hearty revenue of $469 million for the 2005-06 school year. After $424 million in expenses, that left it with nearly $45 million. Also during that period, Nova banked almost $8 million in fees from loans the school told the IRS it extended for the convenience of students. According to the Department of Education, Nova is the top school lender in the country, having given out $392 million in loans in 2005.

All the commotion and negative publicity has finally stirred up some critics from within the university. Some of them are natural watchdogs, like professors in the law school. Others are simply rebels at heart, like Professor Barry Barker, chair of the environmental sciences program. Barker was at the forefront of the Nova faculty´s failed unionization attempt in 1998, at the onset of Ferrero´s presidency. The concerns at that time were varied, with some staffers upset about workloads, salaries, and management practices. Others feared that academics would take a back seat under Ferrero, who had no experience in education. The administration, Barker recalls, tried its darnedest to keep the faculty from garnering enough votes for a union. The effort was effectively squashed, in part because the university management challenged the rights of some employees to participate in the election.

Rosario López and sons in the family kitchen.
Rosario López and sons in the family kitchen.
Displaced Nova workers protest outside the school with the SEIU.
Amy Guthrie
Displaced Nova workers protest outside the school with the SEIU.


¨I wish I knew how many dollars were spent ten years ago preventing unionization,¨ Barker says. ¨Whether it´s informal or a cultural thing, somewhere there is a policy that says... Thou Shall Not Unionize.´¨

Above all else, Nova seems to value the entrepreneurial spirit. And some folks in its higher echelons might be under the impression that unions and corporations clash like oil and water. But Barker resents the belief that universities should be run like businesses. Nova´s aim, he says, ¨is to operate as a for-profit corporation. When you become a business, then you make decisions as a business, not necessarily in the interest of your customers.¨

Although some areas could improve, the faculty is largely satisfied these days. After the professors´ union drive, the university made a number of concessions. Still, most -- including Barker -- have renewable contracts that make their jobs vulnerable. ¨There is, rightly or wrongly, the perception that if you don´t have tenure, you speak at your peril,¨ says Michael Masinter, a law professor who has taught at Nova since 1978.

Masinter and others in the law school have tenure. Yet they have been slow to speak publicly about the university´s battle with the SEIU, choosing instead to negotiate from within, they say. ¨Not everybody at the university is in lockstep on this,¨ Masinter says. ¨Some of us think that we should do better by the people who have worked for the university for years, and I´m certainly one of those people.

¨Individuals who worked long and hard for the benefit of everybody at the university -- the students and the faculty -- sought to better themselves by creating a union, and they lost their jobs. And that´s a terrible thing. These are good people, and they didn´t do anything wrong. They exercised a right that belongs to them under our legal system, and they shouldn´t suffer for it.¨

Meanwhile, Nova´s reputation is getting tarnished. ¨Look at the parade of politicians and individuals who have reached out to try to talk some sense into Nova,¨ says Bruce Nissen, a director at the Center for Labor Research and Studies at Florida International University in Miami.

FIU was also confronted by the SEIU in 2006, but the state university acted swiftly to recognize the workers´ right to unionize. If it hadn´t, Nissen says the FIU faculty would have revolted.

Paul Saneaux, managing editor of Nova´s student newspaper, has decided FIU is the place for him. He has one more year to go before clinching a bachelor´s degree in biology, with a minor in English, and he´ll be damned if that diploma says Nova. So he´s transferring. ¨Maybe it´s because I´ve worked at the newspaper and know more about the school than the average student -- but I wouldn´t want to see NSU on my degree right now.¨ And tuition at FIU for in-state students is about a fifth of what Nova charges.

On May 17, President Ferrero sent another letter about the union to faculty and students. This time, his words were angry. ¨Nova Southeastern University has been under direct attack by a national union that is aggressively seeking to increase its membership,¨ he began. ¨This attack has gone beyond a routine effort to lawfully organize workers. It is intended to damage our academic reputation, discredit our faculty, and disrupt our academic activities. The tactics are aimed at devaluing an NSU degree in the marketplace and to undermine the important mission our university has in the community.¨

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