The Lecturers' Filibuster

Union says its tentative agreement with U. of California lets it block online initiatives. The university disagrees.
October 11, 2011

The specter and promise of online education is perhaps nowhere more deeply felt than in California, where campus administrators and instructors are faced with a bloodletting. University of California officials have suggested that the system will have to innovate out of the current financial crisis by expanding online programs. (State house analysts agree.) Instructors, meanwhile, are terrified that this is code for cutting their pay, or increasing their workloads, or outsourcing their jobs to interlopers, or replacing them with online teaching software.

The system’s corps of lecturers feels this threat sharply. “We believe that if courses are moved online, they will most likely be the classes currently taught by lecturers,” reads a brief declaration against online education on the website of UC-AFT, the University of California chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, “and so we will use our collective bargaining power to make sure that this move to distance education is done in a fair and just way for our members.”

Now the California lecturers, who make up nearly half of the system’s undergraduate teaching teachers, believe they have used that bargaining power to score a rare coup. The University of California last week tentatively agreed to a deal with UC-AFT that included a new provision barring the system and its campuses from creating online courses or programs that would result in “a change to a term or condition of employment” of any lecturer without first dealing with the union.

Bob Samuels, the president of the union, says this effectively gives the union veto power over any online initiative that might endangers the jobs or work lives of its members. “We feel that we could stop almost any online program through this contract,” Samuels told Inside Higher Ed.

And stop it they would. Regardless of any data administrators trot out to argue that students learn just as well online as they do in the classroom, the union would do whatever it could to block the university from moving courses online if it decides the move would make life worse for lecturers, says Samuels. Because some of the important social benefits of classroom education are hard to quantify, Samuels says he distrusts those who argue for the equivalency of online learning based on "the evidence." "I don’t think you’re going to find any conclusive analysis or study of that," he says. "I think it’s [always] going to be a judgment call."

The union president says he thinks the university, which would be bound by the deal for the next three years, did not grasp the implications of the online provision.

“We feel we got something that the university didn’t really understand,” he says.

But the university says it grasps the implications of the pact quite well — and that Samuels and his cohort are the ones who seem to misunderstand it.

“They do not have the power to block the university from implementing new online programs,” says Dianne Klein, a spokeswoman for the Office of the President.

“The most the [union’s] bargaining unit could do,” Klein says, “is provide written notice saying, ‘We don’t like this.’ ” The university would then have to sit down with the union to try to resolve the issue no later than January, 2013. “But the union would not have the power to say, ‘We’re shutting down the online program,’ ” she says. Instead, the two sides would go through the same process of mediation, fact-finding, and, if necessary, a university mandate and potentially a union strike. As far as the university is concerned, there is nothing new in the agreement other than a reiteration of existing terms in the context of online education.

Klein did acknowledge that the new provision puts the university in a “holding pattern” with regard to its ability to experiment with online programs that might affect lecturers. “We couldn’t say, ‘Oh, we’ve got a computer that can do your work — we’re getting rid of you,’ ” she says.

This scenario has already taken place elsewhere in the state. At California State University at Bakersfield, administrators laid off four math instructors in 2009, shifting the emphasis in two developmental math courses to mandatory lab time devoted an automated e-tutoring program. Pass rates in the two courses fell dramatically at first, but then recovered the following year after the courses were redesigned to include more supervision. The four instructors were not rehired.

Disruptive software is not the only threat that online education might pose to the lecturers. They also do not want to be asked to teach unmanageably large classes online, Samuels says. There is also the fear that large state universities might expand their online programs by partnering with outside providers, who would hire their own instructors. California is one of several states entertaining the possibility of incorporating Western Governors University, an online nonprofit institution based in Utah, into its online expansion strategy. And one of the major themes at last week’s Future of State Universities conference, in Texas, was the idea that public universities need to move toward more cost-effective, online delivery models. The sponsor of the conference was Academic Partnerships, a for-profit firm that specializes in helping universities do exactly that. (Top officials at the AFT's national headquarters declined to comment.)

It is not yet clear how these broader trends, and the California system’s current (limited) online pilot program, stand to affect the pay, employment, or working conditions of lecturers who teach undergraduate courses. Klein, the university spokeswoman, emphasizes that the university's online push, despite its high-level support, is still in its infancy. " 'New' does not begin to describe it," she says, noting that only one of the pilot program's 30 test courses is being taught by a lecturer. But Samuels says he and his colleagues are not taking any chances. “It’s up to us to stop any program we think is going to be counterproductive,” he says.

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