Memories with Marcus

The Sword of Damocles By Marcus Robyns, NMU Archivist and NMU-AAUP member

During a committee meeting a couple of weeks ago, I heard, for the umpteenth time, that the world was about to end. I yawned and made a disgusting scribble on my copy of the meeting agenda. Sorry, but I can’t really remember a time in my nearly eighteen years at NMU when the world wasn’t about to end in one way or another (management by crisis!). Sigh . . . Once again, I hear the coconuts of the four horsemen approaching – clip pity clop. A friend once said to me, “working at NMU is like living with the Sword of Damocles over your head.” I was clueless about the Greek dude, but I did get the metaphor (sorry, Lynne, but Greek mythology is just silly).

Unbeknownst to my friend (and probably Lynne), the Sword of Damocles had actually fallen upon NMU on April 1, 1982 (April Fools!). That spring, the Board of Control (now the Board of Trustees) formally adopted a resolution declaring financial exigency – a grave crisis akin to bankruptcy. A few days before, the governor had announced a freeze on state appropriations to all public colleges and universities. The news came as no great surprise, since Michigan was mired in a dreadful recession and the state was $500 million in the red. As a result of the freeze, NMU faced an immediate budget shortfall of $3.3 million. Early in 1980, President Jamrich had publicly speculated that the Board might declare financial exigency in the near future. His comment sparked a furious response from the NMU-AAUP executive committee.

The executive committee was upset, in part, because a declaration of financial exigency is serious business – not to be trifled with – setting into motion Article 7 of the NMU-AAUP Master Agreement. This most important of contract articles outlines the process and procedure for laying-off faculty in a time of fiscal crisis, sometimes referred to as retrenchment. In 1976, the framers of the first NMU-AAUP contract (Greene, Saari, Roth, McClellan, Foster, et al.) had purposely crafted Article 7 to be the most precise, arduous, and painful layoff process possible. They wanted to send a strong message to the Board: “you better think twice before declaring bankruptcy!”

Obviously, the Board didn’t get the message (surprise!), and their April declaration set off six grueling and contentious months of deliberation between the faculty and administration – an ordeal that took years for the campus to recover from. Throughout the process, the NMU-AAUP executive committee and the EPC fought tenaciously but to no avail. By September, 1982, both sides had grudgingly agreed to a list naming nineteen faculty members for layoff (down 14 from the administration’s original 33). The list included two “full” and seven associate professors and among them was the late Ray Ventre. At the time, Ray taught the English Department’s extension courses at the Marquette Branch Prison, and his dismissal meant the end of the program. Ray’s pink slip (they weren’t actually pink) gave him one-year to pack-up and leave campus. Former Provost Bob Glenn, the old softy, assured Ray that, “we [the administration] are willing to assist you at any time, now or in the future.” He did not elaborate, and, as far as I can determine, provided no substantive assistance. As you can imagine, the experience left an indelible mark on Ray’s psyche that he never forgot. As a Klingon general will one day say, “revenge is a dish best served cold (or did some English guy say that?).”

Unlike Ray, Former Provost Fred Joyal survived unscathed by the Sword of Damocles, but like Ray he never forgot the experience. At a social gathering many years ago, he recounted to me his recollection of events after the Board declared financial exigency. At the time, Fred was an assistant professor in Geography. Article 7 required, in part, that each academic department submit to the dean a ranked priority layoff list. Can you imagine? It would be like the notorious survivors in the overstuffed lifeboat adrift at sea and surrounded by sharks. Fred blanched and shook (splashing rum and coke all over my shirt) as he remembered sitting dejectedly at a conference room in West Science with his sullen colleagues. Their “discussions,” like many across campus, were wretched and brutal, wreaking havoc and destroying many relationships. In fact, some departments never really recovered. In Geography’s case, Fred wouldn’t give me the gory details (damn it!), but he did say emphatically that “as long as I am provost, NMU will never, ever again declare financial exigency.”

So far, the Board has adhered to Fred’s admonition (uh oh, he’s no longer provost. I hear coconuts!). Archivists like to say that history is prologue, and this history certainly made me feel déjà vu (sans the cat). The University Archives maintains a rich collection of material that documents the faculty’s tussle with the Sword of Damocles in 1982. Below, you will find links to a selection of a few of the most important documents. You will also find links to finding aids for a selection of the most relevant collections. For a complete rendering of the story, I strongly encourage you to read David Carlson’s Financial Exigency: the Case of Northern Michigan University. His account is a much more lucid (shock!), erudite, and measured history than anything I could ever write. Sorry, but I refuse to tell you how it all turned out. Suffice it to say, the World didn’t come to an end.

Jamrich rejects the NMU-AAUP Executive Committee’s argument against the decision to declare financial exigency and directs the EPC to take up its responsibility as described in Article 7.

The EC argued that Jamrich and Glenn had failed to offer “serious and compelling” reasons to reject faculty recommendations throughout the Article 7 process. Those familiar with the Union’s arbitration victory a few years ago will find these documents interesting.

List of Significant Collections:

The Robert McClellan papers

The John Kiltinen papers

The NMU-AAUP records

The John Watanen papers



By Marcus Robyns, NMU Archivist and NMU-AAUP member

Archivists like to say that the “past is prologue.” Thirty-nine years ago this month, the NMU-AAUP’s first contract negotiations with the administration had come to a deadlock. The negotiations had started the previous fall in an atmosphere of mutual antagonism, prompting Robert McClellan (History), the NMU-AAUP’s chief negotiator, to infamously threaten the administration with “blood on the table” for what he perceived to be their petty and dilatory behavior. By the following April, the union’s Executive Committee had voted to censure the administration, had filed a charge of unfair labor practice, had called for the intervention of a state mediator, and had formed a strike committee with the declared intention of shutting down the University.
The Union’s strategy of brinkmanship succeeded in forcing the administration to capitulate on May 3. We had won our first contract after ten months of hard negotiations. The administration’s demands in 1976 were nearly identical to those we struggle with today. Of course, the Union did not face an RTW and also benefited from a far more militant faculty still energized by the political activism of the 1960s.
Over the next thirty-nine years, the NMU-AAUP continued to provide courageous and steadfast leadership in defense of academic freedom and shared-governance. In the 1982-1983 academic year, the Board of Trustees (known then as the Board of Control) declared “financial exigency,” activating the provisions of Article 7 of the Master Agreement. Twenty-two tenured, full-time faculty members, including many “full” professors and the late Ray Ventre (a fact that he often gleefully told members of the administration), ended up slated for layoff. The process was so arduous and painful that former provost Fred Joyal once said to me that “the administration will never, ever declare financial exigency again.” Two years later, contract negotiations had once again reached an impasse, forcing President Dave Carlson (Political Science) to make a single mid-night phone call. By 7:00 the next morning, over 200 faculty members had surround Cohodas carrying picket signs and singing songs of solidarity. The action broke the impasse.
These two early examples are dramatic but illustrative of the Union’s power. In our long history, however, the union has solved far more conflicts with the administration peacefully and behind the scenes. Through rational and respectful discussions, more often than not the administration and the union have found common ground. These stories must be remembered and told, because taken together they have had far more long term impact on the faculty and the strength of the Master Agreement than the few instances of militant outrage. The past truly is prologue.

[1] In fact, the phrase adorns one of the statues in front of the U.S. National Archives.

[2] If you want to learn the full story of the NMU-AAUP’s rise as the faculty’s collective bargaining agent, please see my article at

[3] More remarkable was the fact that even Jim Greene showed up. Greene is notorious for doing nothing before 10 am.

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