A union representing UB faculty and staff recently passed a referendum demanding the university to cut its ties with the Buffalo Niagara Partnership and the Business Council of New York State.
But UB will not do so.
"The referendum is not contractually binding; it simply is information provided by the union to the university's administration," said university spokesman John Della Contrada in an email. "UB's leadership took the information under advisement and has decided to continue the university's membership in the Buffalo Niagara Partnership."
The Buffalo Niagara Partnership (BNP) and the Business Council of New York State (BCNYS) are chambers of commerce at the local and state levels, respectively.
A significant portion of the union – UB's United University Professions (UUP) chapter – believes it is unethical for UB to use state funds to annually pay ($47,994 to BNP and $5,000 to BCNYS) for membership in the chambers, as both engage in political lobbying, fundraising, and endorsement of candidates. UB officials have said that UB's money does not fund the organizations' political action committees, however.
UB is listed in the "President's Circle" of "Major Investors" on BNP's website, and President Satish K. Tripathi serves on BNP's board of directors.
The UUP referendum, held via a mail ballot, passed by a 191-172 margin. UB's chapter of the union serves approximately 2,400 members, so many did not participate in the referendum.
A Dec. 18 document circulated throughout the union contains the referendum's text and numerous arguments, both for and against the referendum, from UB faculty. The contents of the document are also available on UUP Buffalo's website.
Arguing for the referendum, Professor of Law Martha McCluskey noted that the president of the University of California system, Mark Yudof, resigned from the California Chamber of Commerce's board of directors in 2010 after the chamber directly endorsed political candidates, saying, "As the president of a public university, I cannot take sides in electoral politics."
McCluskey also cited UB's Faculty/Staff Handbook, which states, "Political activities, including fund-raising, may not be conducted on university property or time, using university funds (all sources), or in UB's name."
"As an official member of these business groups, UB gives its name and public resources to a controversial and wide-ranging political agenda under the authority of external private interests and not clearly related to UB's institutional mission," McCluskey wrote.
Della Contrada maintains that UB's membership in both chambers is aligned with the SUNY mission statement, which reads, in part, "The state university shall…encourage, support and participate through facility planning and projects, personnel policies and programs with local governments, school districts, businesses and civic sectors of host communities regarding the health of local economies and quality of life."
"UB plays an important role in improving the quality of life in Western New York and throughout the state," Della Contrada said of UB's engagement with different segments of the community, including BNP and BCNYS.
Arguing against the referendum, SUNY Distinguished Professor Bruce Jackson questioned whether UUP has the right to determine what political activity UB community members should be allowed to engage in. He also asked how UUP would enforce its demands.
"I think this is lunatic and hypocritical," Jackson wrote. "UUP lobbies all the time. It tried to kill [UB] 2020…Why shouldn't the university try to pressure the local chamber of commerce to act in a responsible way, rather than the dysfunctional and greedy way the scoundrels would prefer?"
To seek clarification, The Spectrum emailed Jackson, wondering whether UUP's lobbying is different from BNP's, since UUP does not receive state money and BNP does (via UB's membership).
"It is true that UUP does not use state money to pay for its political campaigns," Jackson said in his response. "It uses our money, which is taken from our salaries whether we belong [to the union] or not, whether we agree or disagree with its political campaigns…[UUP's money is] all, or just about all, money pulled out of our paychecks. So, yes: hypocritical. And short-sighted."
Other faculty members who opposed the referendum wrote that UB is key to the development of the Western New York economy, that BNP has advocated for UB's needs, and that BNP's mission is tied to the development of UB's downtown campus.
Despite those arguments, the referendum passed, and in a labor-management meeting on Tuesday, union representatives presented its results to Tripathi and others in the UB administration. Though Della Contrada called the meeting "very professional and civil," the university ultimately decided not to comply with the referendum's demands.
UUP Buffalo President Michael Behun did not return phone calls and emails placed by The Spectrum.