Search for Common Ground

Collective bargaining is on the rise for faculty members. As union leaders and campus administrators gather at conference, they agree that state cuts have been devastating, but on little else.

April 3, 2012

NEW YORK -- It sometimes seems that university administrators and faculty members inhabit different worlds.

And that's even true at the one national conference each year devoted to bringing together faculty union leaders with the administrators they face across the negotiating table, the annual meeting organized by the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College of the City University of New York.

The backdrop for this year's conference was a continuation of deep budget cuts at many institutions -- and new data showing a notable increase over the last five years in the numbers of faculty members in unions.

On Monday, at session after session, the two sides offered their perception of the higher education landscape. Barbara Bowen, president of the Professional Staff Congress, the faculty union at City University of New York, said her message to faculty members was: “Don’t cope.”

That’s because if faculty members agree to changes, Bowen said, they send the message to state governments that “we can cope” with reallocation in funds. Her suggested strategy was to challenge university policies. Bowen said every time faculty agreed to “cope,” the costs are either passed on to students, or the students get a raw deal.

Administrators, meanwhile, talked about the “new normal.” Joe Glover, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at the University of Florida, for example, talked about how universities have to do more with less and of increased accountability. He mentioned nimbleness, entrepreneurship and self-sufficiency as some of the qualities required of a modern university.

So, what can the two sides agree on and what do they disagree on? Some possible answers, but only some, emerged in one afternoon session Monday where participants discussed the nexus between budget conditions and collective bargaining realities.

The two participants: Howard Bunsis, chair of the American Association of University Professors Collective Bargaining Congress, and Patrick Lenz, vice president for budget and capital resources at the University of California. Here’s what they could agree on: many state legislatures don’t support higher education and do not see it as a public good.

“While I learned that there is a problem with state appropriations, we completely disagree on the remedies,” Bunsis said. “What we need is a reordering of the priorities, what is broken are the priorities of these administrations. Their priorities are not what they need to be. Universities are in much better shape than we realize.”

Bunsis said no matter what is being cut, he would like to see half of the resources of a university go to its classrooms and its research mission, which he said is not always the case now.

Lenz said it was imperative that there was more collaboration between the two sides on the budget process. “Sitting down to discuss issues so that they have a clear understanding builds trust. It reduces the perception that we are shuffling the money in different accounts,” he said. “A better understanding is in my interest, a better understanding is in their interest.”

Lenz said the two sides point to each other as the enemy, but forget to point out to policy makers that investing in higher education is for the public good. “The states are not investing in higher education; we can clearly agree that universities are relying on alternate revenue sources,” Lenz said.

He talked about perceptions that universities have more resources available than they are indicating. But some of these resources, such as a donation for a specific purpose, may not be flexible sources of funding, he said.

A better understanding of how the budget process works may be the need of the moment, especially at a time when collective bargaining at universities seem to be rising. According to a survey released this week by the collective bargaining center, organized faculty in the United States has grown by about 50,000, a 14 percent increase since 2006 when the survey was last published.

According to the survey the growth can be attributed to three factors: growth within bargaining units, new bargaining units and possible miscounts in 2006.  "The majority of the increased number of organized faculty is in the growth of pre-2006 units with roughly 29,000 new members; for new units formed after 2006 and for units that were missed in the 2006 count approximately 20,900 members compose these categories," the survey said.

The survey found that 368,473 faculty members currently represented in a recognized collective bargaining unit. “These faculty members are heavily concentrated in public institutions; less than 7 percent percent are employed by private colleges or universities,” the report said. Among graduate student employees, about 64,400 students were part of bargaining units, all of them at public institutions.

One reason for the growth, in part, could be an unintended consequence of challenges against collective bargaining in states such as Wisconsin and Ohio, said Richard Boris, director of the collective bargaining center.

“Of the unionized workforce in the country, this might be one of the only areas where we are seeing strong growth,” he said.


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