June 24, 2020
Chairman Toscano, President Katsouleas, and esteemed members of the Board,
My name is Tom Bontly. I have the honor of serving as President of UConn-AAUP (for one more week anyway), representing our 2200+ faculty members, coaches, and other academic professionals in collective bargaining. Thank you for this opportunity to address the Board.
UConn-AAUP is keenly aware of the hardship felt throughout Connecticut due to COVID-19 and the ensuing economic disruption. Many of our members have spouses or partners out of work, or children out of school, or family members needing care. At the same time, our members have worked overtime to move their classes online; to shutdown, preserve, and eventually restart complex and costly research projects and infrastructure; and to support students and colleagues in crisis. They have performed above and beyond the call of duty and continue to do so, prepping now for an uncertain fall semester.
In short, we know what people in the state are going through, and we are deeply concerned about the impact these events continue to have on our members, our students, our university, and our community.
Likewise, we are keenly aware of the administration’s revenue projections, and of the deep uncertainty with which they must contend. We appreciate their attempts to keep our members informed, and we would appreciate even more information as we move forward.
As always, UConn-AAUP stands ready to work with our colleagues in administration to advance UConn’s mission as a great public research university. We especially need to work together on “win-win” solutions, both long- and short-term, big and small. We need to identify opportunities to enhance revenue and/or reduce costs, without passing that buck either to students or faculty and staff. Creative and unconventional opportunities must be explored. Every aspect of the operation should be reexamined, with priority given to the central mission(s) of public higher ed.
Our members understand shared sacrifice. For the University and the State, they took it on the chin during State budget crises in 2009, 2011, and 2017; they’ve had salary freezes in 6 of the last 11 years, plus furlough days and benefit cuts. The 2017 SEBAC deal alone saved the State $1.7 billion in its first biennium, and also saved UConn from a dramatic and debilitating loss of state support. Over the next 20 years, furthermore Comptroller Kevin Lembo projects that SEBAC 2017 will go on saving the State: $25 billion over 20 years. With about 40,000 state employees, that means each one is already giving back, on average, $30,000 per year, every year.
Without those sacrifices by AAUP and other union members, furthermore, the State of Connecticut would never have been able to set aside $2.5 billion for a “rainy day”. Now the State needs to be prepared to draw on the rainy day fund to help the University make it through the current downturn. (In other words: it’s raining!).
The State could start by relieving UConn of the unfair and unwise surcharge the State lards onto the bill for fringe benefits. That surcharge has nothing to do with the cost of current employees’ benefits and everything to do with the State’s long-running failure to pre-fund retirement benefits. Governors, legislators, and voters of both parties are responsible for the State’s accrued unfunded liability problem, which costs the University approximately $30 million per year.
In the meanwhile, we urge every member of the University community to contact their elected representatives, both federal and state. Please, urge our representatives to support our institutions of public higher education, so that they can educate the next generation of scholars, problem solvers, entrepreneurs, and skilled workers who will be vital to our economic recovery. Urge them to invest in digital and physical infrastructure, scientific research, clean energy, livable cities – and whatever else is required to position Connecticut for recovery and growth.
Finally, please contact our congressional delegation in Washington, and urge them to support aid for state and municipal governments and higher ed, so that we do not experience a second, deadlier waive of unemployment and recession.
BOT Comments by UCHC-AAUP President Ibrahim Elali
My name is Ibrahim Elali, I am a Nephrologist at UConn Health and the President of the UCHC-AAUP, a Union Chapter representing over 600 physicians, dentists, and researchers. Thank you for the opportunity to speak today. I’m going to address our role as we face COVID and financial challenges.
We are proud to be faculty at Connecticut’s only public medical center, and we are extremely proud of our partnership between the University of Connecticut and UConn Health.
Since the pandemic arrived here in Connecticut, our AAUP members made sacrifices willingly at the hospital and on the home front. For example, colleagues Michael and Jennifer Baldwin, both practicing physicians, were at UConn Health throughout the crisis. They didn’t want to expose their young children and had them stay with relatives for nearly 2.5 months.
AAUP members at the Health Center also pivoted to remote medical and dental education, engaged in telemedicine for our outpatients, answered the COVID hotline, and continued writing grants.
For example, during the course of the shutdown, research faculty engaged in Herculean efforts to save sensitive biological preparations and to arrange for care of animals used in research. Despite the fact that essentially all laboratory research was halted, faculty continued progress by analyzing data, publishing manuscripts, and preparing grant applications.
The specific expertise of our research and dental faculty played a crucial role in the crafting of guidelines for the safe resumption of research and dental operations.
Physicians, in collaboration with the Administration at UConn Health, formed a COVID think tank to generate COVID treatment protocols for our clinical divisions and departments, which is updated weekly online.
In fact, faculty at both the Farmington and Storrs campuses worked together to help UConn Health’s clinical mission during these trying times. For example, UConn Health, like many other health systems, experienced a shortage of PPE (personal protective equipment) at the outset of this crisis.
Physicians at UConn Health partnered with Physicists and Engineers at UConn Storrs, including Dr Jason Hancock, who developed an apparatus to test the integrity of various N95 masks UConn Health had in our existing inventory as well as that of potential emergency N95 replacement options.
Faculty partnerships between UConn Health doctors, such as Dr. Mark Metersky of the Pulmonary Division, and the Innovative Partnership Building at the UConn Tech Park in Storrs, including Dr Jeffrey McCutcheon and Joseph Luciani, led to the design and production of invaluable face shields for our clinicians at the bedside and emergency ventilators for our Intensive Care Units.
Thankfully, our Intensive Care Units do not require our Connecticut-made emergency ventilators at the moment, but this PPE development and production project was recognized by the administration and adopted as a cross-campus initiative.
Together, we may need to continue with the design and production of PPE in the coming years. We are confident that the collaborative effort here at UConn will enhance our ability to produce critical clinical supplies both in-house and in partnership with Connecticut private industry. There are many unknowns ahead of us and we need to be prepared.
We understand there are tremendous budget challenges ahead of us, as well. Our members are fully committed to help UConn Health succeed in these challenging times. Within the past month, UCHC-AAUP invited a group of physicians and dentists to join together to discuss ways to maximize revenue at UConn Health. Suggestions included creating a separate COVID clinical space in the recently retrofitted Connecticut Tower of the Health Center so we could continue with our normal operations if there is a second wave of COVID this summer or fall. In short, our members are problem solvers.
Last week, Dr. Agwunobi agreed to launch a multi-union / administration task force to talk about revenue generation and cost savings at UConn Health. We look forward to a robust conversation with dynamic ideas.
Now, more than ever, Connecticut needs a public University Hospital that cares for all of our fellow residents. We know that working together, we can take on the challenges ahead of us, ensure patient safety, and continue educating the Physicians, Dentists, and Researchers of tomorrow.