In April, a union representing part-time adult education instructors at the City Colleges of Chicago agreed to a contract  that based raises in part on student performance -- a highly unusual arrangement in faculty collective bargaining. Observers debated the significance of the move, given that it was just one of a number of union chapters in a large community college system.
On Saturday, the American Federation of Teachers chapter that represents nearly 1,500 full-time professors and professional staff at the seven colleges in the system announced  that members had voted to accept a contract that eliminates the "step" increases that reward seniority every year. The contract also creates a bonus system under which all of the faculty members in the union could earn bonuses based on eight metrics on student outcomes, such as graduation rates and movement from remedial to credit courses.
Historically, faculty unions in the United States with step increases have fought against most proposals to eliminate them, and many have been skeptical of linking pay to student outcomes, arguing that low graduation rates are more likely to reflect student socioeconomics than what goes on in the classroom.
The contract was passed with the support of 72 percent of voting faculty members and 80 percent of professional staff members. But many faculty leaders opposed the deal and the union leaders at two of the system's campuses recommended that members vote no.
Tensions around the agreement are clear from the rhetoric around it, even after the union members approved it. While a spokesman for the college system spoke about how the contract de-emphasized seniority in favor of accountability, a spokesman for the union insisted that key protections for seniority remained.
Laurent Pernot, vice chancellor for institutional advancement for the City Colleges of Chicago, said that the contract reflected the goal of Chancellor Cheryl Hyman to promote accountability and value "performance over seniority."
The bonus pay will be given to all faculty members if the district achieves certain goals, and will not be awarded individually. "We're calling it student success pay. It's a group incentive," he said.
There are eight metrics, and partial bonuses may be earned if some but not all of the goals are met. The metrics involve:
- The number of students who earn degrees or certificates.
- The number of at-risk students earning degree or certificates.
- The number of students who transfer to a four-year institution within three years of enrollment.
- The number of remedial students who advance to college-level work.
- The number of new full-time students who earn 30 credits in their first year.
- The number of part-time students who earn 15 credits in their first year.
- The percentage of former students who are employed in the fields for which they received training.
- The median earnings of graduates in fields that they studied.
Pernot said that a joint faculty-administration committee will discuss ways to prevent "moral hazards" in meeting the goals. For instance, he said that the agreement specifically states that grades will not be used to measure success, so that there is no incentive for grade inflation.
He said that the goals are "meaningful but achievable."
For example, the goal on the number of graduates would require that, five years from now, the system graduate 25,000 students -- up from 8,567 this year. (There are intermediate goals for the years between now and then.) The goal would bring the three-year graduation rate for the system to 20 percent, double today's rate of 10 percent.
But Pernot noted that the current rate is up from 7 percent two years ago -- improvement he said "couldn't have happened without the faculty," and shows that the gains sought are possible to achieve.
He said that the elimination of step increases -- which will take place after one final increase agreed to in the contract -- reflect the idea that automatically increasing pay based on seniority is "an idea that has run its course and is not sustainable."
The contract has a mix of other measures -- cost-of-living increases but also an increased share of health care costs paid by employees.
Pawns for the Mayor?
As faculty members prepared to vote on the contract -- 10 months before the current contract expired -- the measure was criticized in parts of the Chicago labor world. Mayor Rahm Emanuel (who praised the new contract) is currently in a showdown with the union that represents elementary and secondary school teachers, and a strike is possible this month.
Some critics of the contract have speculated that the City Colleges offered the union a better deal than it might have otherwise so that Mayor Emanuel could embarrass the teachers' union by showing that educators are willing to approve contracts that take away long valued union benefits. One blog post said that the college faculty members have become "pawns"  in the mayor's fight with the K-12 union.
Kaitlyn Rowney, a spokeswoman for the faculty union, denied that there was any pressure on the union to complete a contract now. She said that the contract is based on "what's best for our members, for students and for taxpayers." Asked if there were advantages to agreeing to the deal now, she said that "circumstances" may play into the union's strategy, but only to the extent that those circumstances advance the interests of faculty members and students.
She said that the union did not view the loss of step increases as a major blow for two reasons. One is that the steps have not always been fully financed in the past, "so there was already inconsistency." Also, she noted that "lanes" survived the contract even if steps did not. Lanes are career stages that do provide for higher salaries based on seniority, obtaining new degrees, and other factors. While the number of lanes has been reduced for new employees from four to three, reducing the number of times in a career that such raises are available this route, Rowney said that the preservation of lanes means that seniority still contributes to some raises.
As to the bonus pay, she said union members were reassured by the contract provision that grades would not be used to measure student outcomes. Further, she said that the goals outlined were "absolutely achievable" so there is a real shot at the faculty members earning the additional funds.
While Rowney acknowledged that the contract has some critics among the rank and file, she noted that the 72 percent of faculty members suggested a solid majority behind the deal.
'Fear, Fear, Fear'
Hector Reyes is assistant chair of the union chapter at Harold Washington College, where leaders of the union urged members to vote down the contract. An associate professor of physical sciences, he said that the reason the contract passed was "fear, fear, fear." He said that the message from the system union leadership was that if the faculty rejected this contract, things would only get worse.
"I think this contract is very damaging to us," he said. "This was not a vote for the contract, but a tactical vote by many professors."
Reyes said that the anti-seniority views being espoused in eliminating step raises are "part of an agenda to treat higher education like it's just another business." Faculty members don't arrive automatically knowing how to reach students, many of whom have not been adequately prepared for college, and many of whom have many challenges in their lives, Reyes said. As a result, there is a difference in the skills of someone who has been there longer, and that should be rewarded.
"It's very dishonest for them to say that seniority doesn't matter," he said. "Any employer who says that is just trying to have their bottom line served, and that leads to a revolving door. We have to ask whether having a revolving door is a good thing for higher education."
Rudy Fichtenbaum, an economics professor at Wright State University and national president of the American Association of University Professors, said he was not familiar with details of the Chicago contract, but that he does "not buy the argument that bonuses improve accountability."
The metrics related to job placement, he said via e-mail "can be affected by conditions in the local economy or by the type of career planning an placement services that an institution offers." He said these factors "have nothing to do with faculty performance." For that reason, he said that "holding faculty accountable for job placement is like holding faculty accountable for alcohol use on campus."
Fichtenbaum also questioned the idea that faculty member bonuses should be based on metrics such as graduation rates. "Many factors that affect graduation rates; the preparation of students, the level of support that colleges and universities provide to students in the form of tutoring and the availability of remedial classes, advising, transfers, family circumstances, jobs and other economic circumstances directly related to a student's socioeconomic status can all affect graduation rates," he said. "What happens in the classroom is just one small factor in determining graduation rates.... [B]onuses will simply provide an incentive to lower academic standards."
The Wisconsin Impact
Richard Boris, director of 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, said that the ideas in the Chicago contract may soon be seen at more colleges.
Linking pay to student performance "has not been at all common, but I think it's coming," he said. Governors and mayors are encouraging the idea, Boris said.
And while there have been some cases of unions giving up step pay increases, he said that typically has been accompanied by generous raises (and better economic times) than are present today. With step increases, he said, "the conventional wisdom of unions has been that when you have bad economic times such as this one, at least 60 to 70 percent continue to get raises." For that reason, he said, many administrations have tried to get rid of steps.
Boris said that the Midwest may be seeing more of a push by management on these types of measures and slightly less resistance from unions because of the success of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker in eliminating most collective bargaining for public employees and because of the similar measure in Ohio (even though the latter was rescinded by voters).
"I can't believe that Wisconsin doesn't play a part" in what is proposed and what is accepted, Boris said.