Looking Beyond Themselves

Administrators and unions should work to restore “collective” to the notion of collective bargaining in higher education, conference participants say.
April 12, 2011

NEW YORK -- If collective bargaining in higher education, and the sector itself, are to weather current political storms, administrators and unions will have to move beyond narrow self-interest, several speakers said here Monday at a conference on academic labor.

“We need to get beyond ourselves as institutions or as sectors,” Gary Rhoades, general secretary of the American Association of University Professors (for the moment, at least), said at the annual meeting of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions, which is housed in and supported by Hunter College of the City University of New York.

To many speakers in several different sessions, the notion of getting beyond oneself sounded much like an adaptation of the famous saying by Senator Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan that "politics stops at the water's edge." That is, they said, administrators and labor unions ought to seek out more common ground and let their disputes stop at the campus gates -- particularly as preliminary state budgets from Pennsylvania to California have proposed cutting deeply into appropriations for higher education.

While some speakers discussed the value, in certain circumstances, of an interest-based approach, which seeks to align the common goals and values of both sides, many speakers hastened to add that the search for common ground ought not to sand away the very real differences between labor and management.

“You've got to start from the position that there is a certain shared, common cultural set of values,” said Jeffrey Halpern, associate professor of sociology and contract administrator and chief grievance officer for the AAUP chapter at Rider University. “We may differ starkly on how we get there.”

But the larger risk in the current context is that politicians can more easily tune out the needs of higher education if the two most vocal advocates, administrators and faculty, cannot agree on priorities, said James H. McCormick, chancellor of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system. Politicians may think, “if they don't know what they want, don't give them anything,” McCormick said.

The conference, which brings together college administrators and heads of academic unions, as well as labor lawyers, is by its nature geared toward finding common ground -- and the title of this year's conference, “Together at the Table: Moving the Academy Forward through Collective Bargaining,” only reinforced that impression. But events in recent months, including the stripping of collective bargaining rights of public employees in Ohio and Wisconsin, have put the need for collective action into more urgent focus. Richard Boris, executive director of the conference, vowed at the start of the session that it would not be the last time the convening would occur.

Speakers on both sides of the labor/management divide shared common ground in many respects: they agreed that higher education confers not just personal benefits but a wider social good -- an idea many said too often was absent from the public discussion. Several questioned the assumption that states' finances are irreparably broken. “I know that we're in hard times. I know we need to look for some creative solutions,” said McCormick, adding that he was not prepared to accept a new normal of permanently diminished public investment in higher education because “I don't think Americans can survive it.”

Barbara Bowen, president of the Professional Staff Congress at CUNY, vice president of the American Federation of Teachers, and associate professor of English at Queens College, urged attendees to challenge the assumption that austerity is the only feasible path for higher education. “There's plenty of money,” she said. “It's just distributed in the most unequal way since the eve of the Great Depression.” At the same time, many speakers conceded that the appetite to raise taxes seems to be a political nonstarter right now.

A few audience members voiced concern that some of the speakers seemed to exist in a bubble, because deep problems confront those working in higher education. The change in attitude as seen in statehouses across the country dovetails with frustration among families that the cost of higher education is increasingly growing out of reach, they said. This confluence of attitudes has created what many referred to as a toxic environment that is likely to be in place for a long time.

While much attention and frustration was pointed outward -- at politicians and corporations -- some speakers probed the decisions that have been made in higher education in recent years. Rhoades of the AAUP challenged decision makers in higher education to think of themselves not as victims, but as players in the public policy discussion. “We shape policy, not just receive it,” he said.

For example, Rhoades pointed to the decision made by many public institutions to boost their revenues by seeking to enroll larger numbers of out-of-state students, who pay higher tuition. Such practices may seem to be logical in the short term, he said, but they can estrange universities from their communities and increase social stratification.

Giving spots to middle and upper-middle class families who can afford to pay for, say, the education at a flagship university (Rhoades called them “engines of inequality,” citing an Education Trust study), will have the effect of freezing out poor and minority students, who represent two of the fastest-growing segments of the student body and need the most help.

Many lamented the erosion over the past 30 years of a sense that higher education serves a larger public good. Some blamed a capitalistic, business-centered mindset, or an ideology that sees privatization as always the best alternative to any government program. Others acknowledged that those who defended higher education on the grounds that it boosts individual earning power may have unintentionally reinforced the sense that college is chiefly of private benefit.

Robert C. Holub, chancellor of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, speculated that there was another reason for such an erosion. He said that waning support for the collective virtues of higher education had coincided with the democratization of the student body in colleges to include more students of color.

The resistance to the idea that higher education serves a larger public good, he argued, was rooted in “latent racism,” or a sense among the wider public that those going to college “aren't us” -- a thesis that seemed to generate murmurs of assent among some in the audience and on the panel. Rhoades referred to Rep. Denny Rehberg, a Montana Republican, who likened Pell Grants to welfare, and he called on those present to resist such arguments. “I think we need to name that,” he said.


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