Playing Defense and Offense

Leaders of the AFT's college unions plan opposition to David Horowitz, cooperation with the NEA, and new organizing efforts.
April 18, 2005

Part rally, part strategy session, part seminar, and part reunion -- the annual higher education conference of the American Federation of Teachers helps chart the course of the academic labor movement.

This year's meeting -- in Minneapolis this weekend -- featured a mix of discussions about those the union dislikes (David Horowitz, President Bush, corporate-style college presidents) and goals for the next year (more organizing of campuses, and a stronger push to help part-time faculty members).

Horowitz, the creator of the Academic Bill of Rights, was on everyone's mind at the meeting, with AFT leaders vowing an all-out campaign against the legislation in both its federal and state versions. On Friday, the AFT and the higher education division of the National Education Association announced a joint lobbying campaign on the Higher Education Act that will have as one of its major goals keeping the Academic Bill of Rights out of the legislation.

William E. Scheurman, chair of the AFT's higher education division, called the legislation "crazy," "Orwellian," and McCarthyite. Scheurman, president of United University Professions, which represents faculty members at the State University of New York, said that the legislation's provisions requiring equal representation of views on controversial issues would require courses on the Holocaust to change so that "on Monday we would hear that the Holocaust was bad, on Wednesday that it was good, and on Friday that it never happened."

The legislation has been introduced in nine states and is being talked about in a dozen others. Supporters also want it attached to the Higher Education Act, the mammoth federal student aid law that is scheduled to be renewed this year. Proponents say that Horowitz's legislation -- which affirms that students and faculty members should not be judged by ideological litmus tests -- is needed because of liberal bias in academe.

But critics, such as the faculty unions, say that the bill exaggerates the problem, ignores the existence of procedures that allow colleges to deal with any problems, and would require faculty members to censor themselves or to dilute their courses by adding every conceivable viewpoint.

Scheurman and other AFT and NEA leaders said that the faculty members are being hurt by the bills today -- even if they don't pass. Focusing attention on alleged bias in higher education justifies state policies that aren't providing colleges with enough money, they said, and intimidates professors. "They are sending a message to faculty that they will be watched," he said.

In an e-mail interview, Horowitz called AFT statements on the Academic Bill of Rights "laughable." He said that the only faculty members who need to fear the legislation are those who "see their classrooms as political soapboxes for their ideological agendas." He also said that if adequate procedures existed to deal with faculty members who abuse their classroom positions, "there would be no crisis at the University of Colorado Boulder, would there?" Horowitz said that existing grievance procedures cover only "skin diversity and gender diversity," and don't protect those "who are being harassed on the basis of their political affiliation and belief."

AFT and NEA leaders will be organizing joint lobbying of Congress -- starting with letter writing and visits this week -- and in selected states to try to defeat the legislation. Officials said that the American Association of University Professors -- a third national higher education union -- was also supportive of the joint lobbying campaign, but had been unable to officially join because various committees had not had time to sign off on it.

The joint AFT-NEA lobbying campaign will extend beyond the Academic Bill of Rights. Other priority items will include opposing cuts in various education programs (especially the TRIO programs for disadvantaged students), seeking increases in Pell Grants, and fighting efforts by for-profit higher education to loosen regulation of its sector.

Kathy Sproles, president of the National Education Association's National Council for Higher Education, said that these were all issues on which "a faculty voice needs to be heard."

In a speech to all attendees, Scheurman warned that faculty members wouldn't have it easy in Washington. President Bush's re-election, he said, means that it's "payback time" and the administration is targeting two groups: "people who think -- some might call them intellectuals" and union members. But he said that professors could not afford to get discouraged, or to abandon their political efforts.

Sproles and a delegation from the NEA attended many sessions at the AFT's meeting and spoke with enthusiasm about the cooperation between the two unions, which have had a sometimes intense rivalry in the past. While the elementary and secondary education divisions of the unions continue to differ on some issues, the higher education units appear to be in sync. They are doing more joint projects, and next year plan to hold their higher education conferences together.

The AFT is also trying to grow -- by cooperating with a number of unions. The Rutgers University chapter of the American Association of University Professors just voted for a joint affiliation with the AFT, for example.

While there was much discussion about national issues and trends, some of the most intense sessions at the meeting focused on the very concrete union issue of collective bargaining. Participants at one meeting shared information about various demands that their administrations were making -- either in contract negotiations or just making -- and how they responded.

Many union leaders complained about increased teaching loads (both number of courses and number of students in a section), requirements that papers be graded in certain time periods, new curricular requirements (imposed by administrators, not designed by professors) and the push toward distance education. Many professors said that the concept of "student as consumer" was at the root of many of these demands.

One professor urged colleagues to try to push for a new "ideal" for higher education: "Can we envision a university without administrators?" While that ideal was generally endorsed, no concrete plans were offered to make it happen.

A challenge facing the AFT and other academic unions is that the interests of unionized professors do not always coincide. The most dramatic example of this concerns part-time faculty members, some of whom are represented in their own bargaining units, and some of whom are included in single units with full-time professors. Generally, AFT officials agreed that part-timers are woefully underpaid and lack the types of benefits that they deserve. Full-time and part-time leaders alike agreed that colleges should create more full-time positions.

Barbara Bowen, president of the Professional Staff Congress, the faculty union of the City University of New York, said "we've aimed too low" in solving this problem. Instead of talking about the proportion of part-time and full-time positions, professors should be questioning whether there are enough slots in total. She said that unions need to focus on the extent to which lack of funds means that students are being kept out of higher education. With adequate support, she said, the full-time/part-time split would change.

Others struggled with what to do now. Michael Dembrow is president of the Portland Community College Federation of Teachers, which has full-time and part-time members. His college currently has a rule that bars part-timers from teaching more than 82 percent of the load of a full-time professor. Dembrow said that the theory behind this rule is that it will encourage the college to hire more full-timers, and he said that in some cases, the college has done so.

But David Rives, vice president of the Portland union and a part-timer there for eight years, said that while he appreciated the theory of encouraging full-time hiring, it was of no help to him. "I'm working over 100 percent of a full-time load, but by teaching at two or three colleges in the area. It's ridiculous to have to do that commuting," he said.

Several audience members endorsed his view, and said that full-timers should agree to drop the limit on part-timers. One professor compared the rule to the rudeness of a man telling his mistress that she wasn't good enough to merit being around on Sunday mornings. Colleges tell part-timers that they are OK when they need them, but don't accept them, she said.

But others said that without limits on part-time work, colleges would just shift more positions away from full-time. Still, some said that the emphasis may need to shift to improving part-time conditions in the short run. "They are going to be exploited, but they would like their life to be a little better," said Dembrow.


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