Alongside 14-foot inflatable skunk, CSCU faculty say proposed contracts 'stink'

Photo of Julia Perkins

DANBURY — Baki Izzat came to Western Connecticut State University with a self-proclaimed “identity crisis.”

But Izzat — a first-generation Pakistani American and Muslim woman — said she didn’t have to tackle this alone. Thanks to small class sizes and one-one-one support from her professors, she said flourished at WestConn.

“I’m graduating into a world of doing what I love,” said Izzat, who is set to earn a degree in political science this weekend. “Without these hardworking professors connecting with me, I wouldn’t have been able to do any of that.”

But students like Izzat and professors argued those close relationships would be at jeopardy under the faculty contract the Board of Regents has proposed.

Roughly 60 people — many faculty in red shirts representing their union CSU-AAUP — protested the proposals on Western Connecticut State University’s Midtown campus on Thursday afternoon.

It was the final stop on what John O’Connor, an associate professor of sociology at Central Connecticut State University and vice president of the CSU-AAUP, called the “Board of Regents can go straight to hell tour.”

Highlighting their point was a 14-foot inflatable skunk, Skunkzilla, with a sign that read “Regents’ proposals stink.”

The proposals are only a “starting point” for the Board of Regents and union, said Leigh Appleby, spokesman for the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system.

“We are confident that we will ultimately come to a reasonable contract that enables our management team, including the campus leaders who helped craft our proposals, to provide excellent education and services that students can afford and that can be sustained in every community,” Appleby said in an email. “Coming out of the pandemic, it is imperative that we hold down expenses and not increase tuition costs for students.”

The Board of Regents froze tuition and most mandatory fees for next academic year.

Appleby said the board’s proposal would not jeopardize the universities’ accreditation — a claim the union has made.

Speakers argued the proposal goes against what the vision should be for the CSCU system.

“It’s not really about sabbaticals,” O’Connor said. “It’s not about professional development. It’s not about raises. Of course, we want all of those things and we deserve all of those things and we’re going to win all of those things.”

Instead, the union is fighting to show that the CSCU system belongs to its diverse student body, not the board, he said.

“The CSCU system is ours,” O’Connor said. “It’s not the play thing of some empty suits. It's about students and faculty together. We are not spreadsheets. We are not bottom lines and we are not reserves. We fight because our students deserve nothing less than a first-class university.”

Speakers suggested the board’s plan would limit the amount of time professors have with their students.

James Cantafio, who is graduating from WestConn this weekend with a bachelor’s degree in meteorology, said his professors invested in his growth as a learner, as well his mental health.

“An educator should always be there for their students,” said Cantafio, who is pursuing a master of arts in teaching at Southern Connecticut State University in the fall. “We only can expect educators to do that for our students if they are able to commit that time and that energy.”

But Appleby said some of the union’s requests would reduce faculty teaching workload and increase their time away from the classrooms.

“These demands would not just have a significant negative impact on the students we serve, but would increase costs to run the universities — and by extension tuition paid by students and their families,” he said. “These demands come at a time when neither the state universities or our students can afford such an increase and when the faculty and student engagement is a critical piece to rebuilding our enrollment and serving our students.”

Hannah Reynolds, an assistant professor in WestConn’s biology department, conducts research with students on human and animal diseases, among other studies. She said students have gained valuable skills that have helped them in their careers.

“Researching and teaching at Western are innately intertwined,” she said.

Howell Williams, assistant professor of political science, said the proposal would prevent professors from exercising “academic freedom,” which could hurt how they teach political issues. It would also affect him as gay man, he said.

“I do not leave my identity at home,” he said. “It’s an important part of my teaching. Academic freedom also protects my ability to address social inequality in personal terms without these protections, I would feel vulnerable in my ability to advocate for students from underrepresented backgrounds.”