Unions/unionization

The Perils of Academic Unions

New York City’s academic community has experienced more than a semester of labor turbulence. In September, after a summer of eschewing all formal contract negotiations, the City University of New York’s faculty union, the Professional Staff Congress, convened a mass meeting to rally support for a strike. Six weeks later, New York University graduate students walked off the job, demanding recognition of a graduate student union, the GSOC.

These strategies do not seem to have paid dividends. The PSC’s plan fizzled amidst widespread faculty ambivalence about (or even opposition to) defying New York State law, which prohibits strikes by public employee unions; a settlement on terms well short of the union’s “non-negotiable” demands appears imminent. At NYU, President John Sexton recently stated that striking graduate students would not receive 2006 teaching assignments; some of those who started off on picket lines have returned to their jobs.   In retrospect, PSC and GSOC leaders probably erred in their hard-line rhetoric and actions. But the two organizations also illustrate -- if in an exaggerated fashion -- some of the pitfalls associated with academic unionization.

Supporters of the PSC and GSOC attribute the unions’ difficulties to broader political, societal, and economic forces. The union movement has found George W. Bush an implacable foe. Organized labor is divided -- as seen in the departure of SEIU and related unions from the AFL-CIO -- and has struggled to organize new workers. Pressures from globalization have rendered obsolete the types of union contracts common in the 1950s or early 1960s.

Yet the nature of the university -- a non-profit institution in which an overwhelmingly pro-labor faculty shares the task of campus governance -- buffers academic unions from many of these national trends. It is for this reason, as supporters have noted, that academic unions have functioned at many public universities without significant controversy, if not for the overall educational good.

Campus organizations, however, also suffer from problems rare in the labor movement nationally. Since few academics enter the profession to become labor activists, those who gravitate toward union service are more likely to fall on the fringes of a professoriate that already is ideologically one-sided. They therefore become particularly susceptible to what Emory University’s Mark Bauerlein has termed the academy’s “ groupthink,” adopting extreme positions that weaken their standing with legislators, alumni, or parents.

Bauerlein contends that one aspect of groupthink occurs when “the members of a group reach a consensus and rarely encounter those who dispute it, [so] they tend to believe that everybody thinks the same way.” The GSOC has discovered how this “false consensus effect” can inadvertently alienate constituencies critical to the union’s success. For instance, the New York Sun reported that as part of its campaign to move classes off campus, the GSOC paid to hold classes in -- of all places -- the U.S. Communist Party’s headquarters. (It is doubtful that this move will help convince any neutral trustees that the union’s views represent a mainstream perspective.) Meanwhile, a pro-strike group of more than 200 professors, Faculty Democracy, threatened to withhold undergraduates’ fall-term grades unless Sexton assigned the strikers to spring-term teaching positions, from which they could then continue to refuse to work. (It seems unlikely that parents of NYU seniors will sympathize with the faculty’s casual willingness to disadvantage their children’s candidacies for admission to professional schools.)

The PSC, meanwhile, has demonstrated another component of groupthink. Cass Sunstein, a law professor at the University of Chicago, has described the " law of group polarization" as a pattern in which deliberation moves ideologically one-sided groups “toward a more extreme point in the direction indicated by their own predeliberation judgments.” Group polarization helps explain a PSC record that has limited the union’s influence by casting the organization as a caricature of out-of-touch tenured radicals. At a meeting of the American Federation of Teachers executive council five weeks after the attacks on the World Trade Center, PSC President Barbara Bowen cast the sole vote against a resolution supporting the U.S. military campaign against the Taliban.In 2004, the PSC’s delegate assembly (unanimously) approved a protest at Colombia's United Nations consulate, bizarrely contending that attacks on Colombian educators were “really designed to crush teachers’ resistance to the same conservative agenda against public education we are fighting in New York.”

As these experiences suggest, academic unions’ difficulties are in many ways self-inflicted. GSOC and PSC members have noticed: Inside Higher Ed recently revealed that the GSOC, whose ranks already excluded most science students, has seen participation in the strike by math students cease, while the latest U.S. Department of Labor figures show that an extraordinary 16.6 percent of the PSC’s bargaining unit has opted out of the union entirely despite a requirement to pay agency fees.

But if campus labor organizations do not always get their way, does higher education suffer as a result? An internal ideological contradiction leads academic unions to impose a structure ill-suited for the academy, one that can even enforce mediocrity. On the one hand, groups like GSOC and PSC have committed themselves to resisting what they term the “corporate university.” (On December 15, the PSC delegate assembly -- unanimously -- approved a resolution hailing the GSOC strike as “the cutting edge of labor solidarity in the face of academic corporatization.”) On the other, the PSC and GSOC have embraced a basic element of the corporate system -- a labor/management model in which a union can represent all workers in particular jobs.

Though appropriate to an assembly line, this vision of the academy suggests that the “work” of all graduate students or professors is essentially comparable -- standing in front of a classroom for a certain number of hours each week, regardless of the quality of the performance or the content of the lecture, and (for professors) engaging in service. This level of expectation, unfortunately, often applies to adjuncts. But it is badly misplaced for graduate students or professors. In such an academy, a union member who focuses on legal philosophy would be as competent to TA a course in aesthetics as a non-union Ph.D. student who specialized in the topic, as the GSOC claims. A professor with 30 years of service but an insignificant publication and teaching record would deserve the same salary as a colleague with similar seniority but multiple prize-winning books and a record of distinguished teaching, as the PSC insists.

The corporate model of a labor/management divide also makes unions like the PSC and GSOC at best imperfect vehicles to protect academic freedom -- and at worst, facilitators of the internal threats to free thought from which the contemporary academy suffers.

A jarring reminder of campus administrations violating academic freedom occurred in 2004 at the University of Southern Mississippi. But most corrupted personnel processes (I speak, in part, from personal experience here) involve primarily the actions of senior faculty members, with “management” only ratifying decisions that “labor” already made.

Such cases produce an inherent conflict of interest, by forcing the union to contest the record of other union members -- often campus leaders or colleagues with longstanding personal or professional relationships with key union members. At CUNY, for instance, the faculty and union leaderships are interchangeable. The chair of CUNY’s Faculty Senate,  Susan O’Malley, sits on the PSC’s executive committee; many PSC leaders are in the Senate. Likewise, it’s hard to imagine a certified GSOC aggressively representing a graduate student who filed a grievance against a member of Faculty Democracy.

Even setting aside the ideological or bureaucratic temptation to uphold the campus majorities upon which unions rely for their support, the corporate model can handicap protecting untenured faculty rights. Almost all faculty contracts resolve personnel disputes through arbitration. Unlike lawyers, union grievance counselors must balance an aggressive representation of the individual faculty member against the need to maintain long-term working relationships with the administration’s legal staff. Arbitration systems, moreover, generally are weighted in favor of the employer. While it remains difficult to win a tenure lawsuit, over the last 10 years, courts (perhaps showing less deference to academic self-governance after speech code cases revealed the shortcomings of university legal processes) have increased their involvement in college personnel matters.

Not all academic unions, of course, are as ideologically extreme as the PSC or the GSOC. And the motives behind unionization movements are understandable. Compared to the public universities of two generations ago, faculty workload has increased, even though salaries have risen at a much slower rate than in most private sector jobs. Moreover, outside pressures to cut costs and demonstrate tangible achievements have led some administrations to behave in a more unilateral fashion.

Yet it is dubious that more powerful faculty unions or newly created graduate student unions will correct these problems. As Senator Lamar Alexander informed the Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education, the “absence of true diversity of opinion” on most campuses -- a status quo to which unions contribute -- represents “the greatest threat to broader public support and funding for higher education.” And, as we’ve seen most recently at the University of Colorado following the Ward Churchill affair, dubious conduct by tenured faculty members -- which unions are committed to defend -- can unintentionally boost the leverage of campus or system administrators. Professors would be better served getting their own house in order and then making the case for higher salaries or more autonomy rather than adopting the corporate model championed by groups like the PSC or GSOC.

At NYU, Sexton deserves credit for putting the integrity of his institution first. And at CUNY, key members of the Board of Trustees have courageously resisted the outlandish demands and frequently bullying tactics of their labor foes. The records of the GSOC and PSC offer textbook examples of how groupthink and the corporate model embraced by academic unions can contradict the basic goals of higher education.

Author/s: 
KC Johnson
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

KC Johnson is a professor of history at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center.

Why We Were Arrested

Today most of those arrested at the April demonstration at New York University have their day in court. We though it an appropriate moment to explain why we participated.

Never before in its 91-year history have the officers of the American Association of University Professors heard the call to be arrested in the line of duty. But there we were -- Cary Nelson and Jane Buck, incoming and outgoing AAUP presidents and close friends -- on a New York street on April 27 waiting to be handcuffed and taken to a police station and booked. The AAUP, adding a professional to a basic human right, long ago joined the United Nations in recognizing that all employee groups have the right to choose for themselves whether to be represented collectively. It is not the responsibility of university administrators to decide what is best for their employees. The employees have the right to decide for themselves. NYU graduate employees have twice voted to affirm their decision to engage in collective bargaining.

The National Labor Relations Board appointed by Bill Clinton confirmed the first vote, and the NYU administration negotiated a contract with the union. Then, in a blatantly political move, George Bush's NLRB reversed itself and gave the university the option of withdrawing recognition of the
union. Although nothing compelled NYU to do so, it stopped negotiating with its employees. That much is unambiguous, and that alone would have been enough to put us on a New York street blocking traffic, but the crisis at hand was still broader.

The AAUP is concerned not only with the present but also with the future of higher education. We try to articulate principles and set precedents. And we are very much concerned with the precedent this New York struggle is setting. The NYU administration has recklessly ramped up the intensity of the conflict with its graduate students, most of whom had inadequate salaries and health care when the union drive began. So long as those conditions exist across the country, the movement to organize working graduate students will not disappear. But the expectations of what each side
can and will do to win have been dramatically increased by the NYU example.

University administrations resisting collective bargaining will now consider it normal and reasonable to retaliate against employees in ways the NLRB would consider flatly illegal in cases where it accepted jurisdiction. And graduate employees will have to counter with more widespread and
comprehensive nonviolent civil disobedience. Graduate employees who want some say in their salaries and working conditions will have to bring operations at institutions like NYU to a halt. That is the new and immensely regrettable future the NYU administration has made a reality.

So we sat down in the street north of Washington Square, faculty members from Delaware State University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, in a last ditch effort to give the NYU administration a wake-up call. We would prefer a future of rational negotiation, a future characterized by the productive working partnerships graduate employee unions have established with universities across the country. We are concerned that NYU is calling forth a different future -- one of antagonism and opposition.

NYU quite possibly represents a turning point in the history of efforts to improve working conditions in higher education. Especially after nearly 30 years of a steadily growing national trend toward the increasing use of poorly paid contingent labor to do most undergraduate teaching -- a trend
in which higher education mirrors the now radical disparity between CEO salaries and the salaries of those on the shop floor -- NYU's effort to decisively disempower its more poorly paid teachers heralds a future of bitter labor conflict in the industry. While it was inspiring to stand beside the courageous students at the forefront of this struggle, it was sobering indeed to realize matters may now get much worse on many other campuses.

Author/s: 
Cary Nelson and Jane Buck
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Cary Nelson is president-elect and Jane Buck is president of the American Association of University Professors.

Solidarity

It was Monday, September 4th. The faculty at Eastern Michigan University had been on strike since September 1st. Picket lines were up at a dozen places on campus -- before the administration building, at all campus entrances, at loading docks, construction sites, and elsewhere. There was an inevitable, fluid conversation ongoing about what to do the next day. Should there be a mass meeting, a rally? Where should it be held? Events could derail any plans, but classes were scheduled to start on Wednesday, and it did not look like the administration would put an acceptable contract offer on the table. So people almost certainly needed to assemble the day beforehand.

Other Michigan public universities had accepted offers of raises ranging from 3-4 percent. Despite realizing that their faculty members were already at the low end of the Michigan pay scale, the Eastern Michigan administration had offered 2 percent and combined it with a new premium to be assessed for health care that amounted to 1.6-1.8 percent of salary. The package was a wash. The union was also looking to help the students, who were unsurprisingly agitated that some classrooms had deteriorated to the point where neither heat nor air conditioning worked properly. Heavy coats worn in winter classrooms did not help note taking. So Eastern Michigan's faculty union, a unit of the American Association of University Professors, asked if the administration would be willing to receive an annual report recommending priorities for classroom repairs. The administration refused.

Their offer was an overt challenge to the union. Then the administration ramped up the pressure by adding that it would walk out of negotiations if the strike was not called off by 10 Tuesday night, the evening before classes were to begin. Late Tuesday morning consensus was reached that, save two pickets per site, everyone should gather that afternoon. Time and place were still in flux. I was in town, as national AAUP president, to offer my support and speak at the meeting. I was worried that no one would show up and said so. "They'll be there," union president Howard Bunsis replied with a smile. I cannot say that I was reassured.

What I had not calculated was how an extraordinary level of faculty solidarity would mesh with new technology. My previous experience with multiple picket sites had involved quite a bit of sending messengers running back and forth across campus. Now there were people with cell phones at every site. This was especially helpful when particular locations required additional troops, as when people needed to work at turning away delivery trucks. On one occasion I persuaded a Teamster member delivering hamburger buns to call his office, which agreed to cancel the rest of the week's deliveries. At a major university construction site, the concrete trucks had nonunion drivers. A cell phone call reached the concrete supplier, whose union loaders agreed not to load more concrete trucks. Other activists were taking cell phone messages in their cars and delivering water, picket signs, and modest edible treats as needed. Several retired professors took particular pleasure in running these on-demand delivery services.

I spent several hours on Tuesday morning visiting picket sites, introducing myself and talking with faculty, students, and university workers. The faculty were unvaryingly determined, though also anxious. False rumors abounded, as usual, but cell phone calls kept them under control. I hadn't thought of cell phones as rumor control devices, but they enable members involved in job actions to make rapid contact with the leadership. The deeper anxiety was centered on the disruption of their faculty identities. They wanted to meet their classes on Wednesday. Most simply asked to be treated the same way other Michigan employees were being treated. A few said they'd settle for any offer that wasn't blatantly insulting. But because they were faculty they could not just picket; they had to talk these issues through. Happily, it was a bright Midwestern day. Spirits overall were more than high; they were stratospheric. Professors of English and engineering were one; they had shed their disciplinary skins. They were now part of that universal faculty that now and again focuses on their common destiny and mission.

At lunch time I made my way back to the negotiating room where I had first arrived the day before. It was a busy space. The union had been asking the administration for health care statistics for a year to no avail. Suddenly, at the penultimate moment, the data had arrived. Ordinarily this would have been a disaster. In the past, interpreting the numbers with sufficient mastery so as to suggest alternative solutions would have taken weeks. But the chapter president is a business faculty member more than comfortable with spread sheets. What's more, the days of the smoke filled bargaining hall had long disappeared. Each member of the bargaining team sat in front of a computer. A ten foot high projection screen let everyone see spreadsheet proposals.

Meanwhile it had been decided that a large campus auditorium was the right place to meet. PowerPoint demonstrations were being prepared. E-mail messages went out to faculty. A phone tree got to work. An hour later we walked into an auditorium packed with hundreds of faculty. Scores of red AAUP caps dotted the room. There was applause, laughter, cheers, and pointed questioning, all echoing sharply against brick walls. My own presentation was easy. I assured everyone of continuing support from the national AAUP, and I emphasized that they were not fighting for their own interests alone. A highly conservative governing board was seeking to deny faculty any influence over their terms of employment or working conditions. This was a battle we needed to win for the country as a whole. Over 40 years in the academy I have never seen a faculty so unified and determined. It was astonishing and exhilarating. Certainly the administration had a hand in inadvertently unifying the faculty. But constant communication between the leadership and the members helped turn anger into collective action.

The overwhelming majority of faculty contracts are, of course, negotiated without a strike. Both parties ordinarily prefer a solution and, despite competing financial aims, are willing to work toward one. The Eastern Michigan administration's determination to break the faculty's will is not unprecedented but surely atypical.

As we left the hall a huge storm broke. Nothing less could have kept people from the picket lines, though when the skies cleared faculty were out on the streets again. A hundred of them were still there at 10 p.m. that night, chanting "Talk, Don't Walk" before the administration building.

Meanwhile we were back at negotiations. There I got to see a master at work. Ernie Benjamin, a 30-year veteran of collective bargaining, was in town from the national AAUP office to advise the campus professors. He would quietly predict every administration action before it happened. He estimated they would deliver a "last and best" offer minutes before they broke off negotiations, just so they could claim we hadn't responded to it. We decided to draft a counter offer without seeing their terms, though Ernie, as it happened, predicted exactly what they would propose. The team reduced its demands somewhat, printed out new spreadsheets, and delivered them to the administration negotiators at 9:58, immediately after receiving their's. At first the administration representatives refused to accept our proposal, claiming it was already 10 p.m., but our people proved otherwise.

The following morning, more than 90 percent of faculty members honored the strike and did not attend their classes. Students picketed the administration the rest of the week. The union had advised new faculty to meet their classes, since they would otherwise not have health care coverage initiated. But the faculty had spoken with one voice, though a strike carries a special emotional burden for them. They would prefer to be partners with the administration. They cannot leave their classrooms, their offices, and their labs without psychologically leaving much of themselves behind. It is not just a job; it is who they are. At Eastern Michigan the administration decided to exploit that special loyalty. The faculty stood together in support of shared governance and fair practices. When nearly 400 faculty met again on Friday, not one suggested calling off the strike. Sometimes solidarity deserves to be remembered forever.

Author/s: 
Cary Nelson
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Cary Nelson is president of the American Association of University Professors and a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

No Faculty Left Behind

First-year students are more likely to persist to their sophomore year when high-stakes "gate-keeper" courses are taught by permanent faculty, and campus unions generate significantly greater undergraduate experience of tenure-stream faculty, observe two studies just released at the annual convention of the American Education Research Association.

These studies confirm numerous other reports and bolster the widespread faculty conviction that four decades of permatemping is a major factor in the dismal rates of student persistence. Taken together, these reports provide a boost to the major faculty unions, all of whom have launched substantial recent initiatives to reconvert part-time and contingent positions to tenure-track faculty jobs.

On the other hand, the studies and the campaigns have not been universally welcomed by faculty serving contingently. While many contingent faculty welcome the chance to convert to traditional tenure-track employment, others fear that the conversion of some positions would result in long-term faculty serving contingently being forced out by younger job-seekers. Many are concerned that the rhetoric of re-conversion unfairly diminishes the qualifications of faculty members serving in contingent positions. They point out that it is generally the working conditions associated with serving contingently that present risks to student learning, not the characteristics, qualification, or ability of the faculty themselves. When studies link student non-persistence to an inability to maintain relationships with faculty, some faculty serving contingently observe that it's simply not a matter of personal choice for them whether to spend time on campus -- when they're forced to work multiple jobs in order to pay bills, or when they don't have an office. (This is usually the observation of the studies themselves, but the rhetoric surrounding the studies tends to slip from discussion of "problems caused by the working conditions of faculty conmpelled to serve contingently" to "problems caused by contingent faculty," a distinction that National Education Association has made a cornerstone of its own campaigns to organize non-tenure-track faculty.)

All of the major unions acknowledge these concerns and generally propose conversion in accordance with attrition, filling converted positions with faculty serving contingently at the same institution, and providing both pay parity and job security to faculty who prefer to work part-time. This is the case, for instance, with the American Federation of Teachers' campaign targeting state legislatures with a goal of restoring the 1970 ratio of tenurable to contingent faculty (75-25) in public higher education. All of the "Faculty and College Excellence" or FACE campaign model legislation simultaneously aims to win pay parity and employment security for faculty serving contingently during the conversion process.

Nonetheless a vocal group of faculty advocates fear that on the ground, in the actualities of regulation, oversight, and -- especially -- appropriation of funds, the rights and interests of faculty who continue to work in part-time positions will be disadvantaged. They believe that funds may well be devoted primarily to providing some tenure-track lines while faculty working on a per-course basis will continue to earn as little as 10 percent of what tenure-track faculty earn. Particularly outspoken in this regard has been the always trenchant Keith Hoeller.

Hoeller, for instance, opposed the AFT's FACE legislation in Washington state because the protections for part-time faculty were, in fact, stripped from the bill. Blaming the union for this, he wrote an intemperate and frustrated local op-ed that veered into anti-union propaganda, charging Washington AFT with "failing to bargain any job security" and "discriminating" against faculty serving contingently. Sandra Schroeder and Phil Ray Jack, respectively president of the Washington Federation of Teachers and chair of the AFT Washington Contingent Workers Committee, responded, accurately and reasonably, that a number of Washington locals had bargained degrees of job security for faculty serving contingently, and that wages had been bargained from 40 percent of full-time to 60 percent of full-time.

This tension over the legislation is a real disappointment and represents a concern for all of us trying to move forward on this issue while engaging lawmakers in the struggle -- all the more so, since politicians are actually listening to this argument for this time since 1988 (when an unfunded mandate, A.B. 1725, limiting contingent appointments was passed in California).

Since 2007, the FACE campaign has succeeded in getting legislation considered in California, Vermont, New Mexico, Washington, Florida, New Jersey, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and West Virginia. Related legislation has been enacted or considered in New York, Massachusetts, Texas, and Michigan. AFT and NEA have just completed a joint higher education conference in a political climate that, it is hoped, will be friendly to these efforts.

I think there is no question that we must seize these chances to legislate permatemping out of existence. It's not necessarily an opportunity that will come again soon.

On the other hand, those of us in the tenured minority need to recognize that if these other campaigns do move forward as they have in Washington -- if it becomes a consistent trend that protections for the contingent majority are stripped from the bills -- it would represent a crisis for solidarity in the academic labor movement.

Understandably, graduate students and the minority of faculty in the tenure stream will be tempted to welcome this kind of legislation with or without protections for the majority of faculty currently serving in contingent positions. But that would be a mistake, undermining prospects for solidarity within individual locals, in disciplinary associations, and between continent-wide activist groups such as the Coalition of Graduate Employee Unions and the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor.

Already the disappointment that some members of the contingent majority feel in the Washington bill has led to fears regarding union democracy, especially with reference to those units representing both groups. Many of these concerns are unfounded, but we need to recognize the truth that these mixed units have historically experienced numerous tensions on this score: My own introduction to academic unionism was the aftermath of Vinny Tirelli's failed drive to decertify the CUNY union for adjunct faculty. The drive ultimately resulted in the election of a reform caucus to the union's leadership, comprising a broad coalition of graduate students, faculty serving contingently and allies in the tenure stream, including Barbara Bowen and Stanley Aronowitz.

In recent years faculty serving contingently have frequently chosen to form units of their own, where state law permits. This choice reflects the growth in full-time contingent appointments, as well as the reality of academic hierarchy and, especially, broader trends in collective bargaining. Young workers everywhere lost faith in unionism during the 1980s and 1990s because, during those decades, many unions made deals that favored current members at the expense of younger workers. Complicity in the negotiation of multiple-tier workforces -- with benefits and wages for a top tier preserved at the expense of everyone else -- are not a feature exclusive to academic faculty unions, but it has been a feature of those unions nonetheless.

In part, the choice to form unions of their own represents a determination by some faculty serving contingently that -- as those living the norm of faculty life -- they can and must lead the profession. This kind of leadership is already evident in the recent blog discussions surrounding tenure, increasing job security for the contingent majority demystifies "tenure" as the privilege of an elite tier, easily abused by administrators and pushes our conception of it, thankfully, toward the more appropriate, humdrum -- and muscular -- notion of tenure enjoyed by other workers.

Of course faculty serving contingently are not just disappointed in their unions. They feel disappointed in the AAUP, their disciplinary associations, and their tenured "colleagues." And in these other academic organizations and institutions they don't have the option of choosing to form a unit of their own. If they are to lead in the disciplines and in advocacy organizations, they must lead in the "mixed units" of the AHA or ASA.

Currently, very few faculty serving contingently choose to pay the fees for active membership in academic organizations of any kind, even when the costs are set extremely low. We have to do much more in all of these groups -- including my own AAUP -- to recruit faculty serving contingently into membership and leadership. That means providing stipends and travel funding for this unpaid service, and devoting organizing time and dollars. But it also means recognizing and reversing the problematic history of all the "mixed units" in the profession -- the cultural and institutional complicity that Cary Nelson has called "academic apartheid."

Author/s: 
Marc Bousquet
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Marc Bousquet is the autho of How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation, just released by NYU Press, and maintains a blog with video interviews.

Is Fundamental Change Really 'Inevitable'?

On November 17, an article here entitled “Is Higher Ed Ready to Change?” referred to “the embrace of the necessity and inevitability of fundamental change in higher education.” It went on to characterize faculty as skeptics about change and acknowledged a certain amount of scapegoating of faculty, stating:

“Exactly why transformative change has been so hard to come by in higher education was a topic of much discussion at the meetings. As is often the case at meetings of senior administrators and policy analysts, faculty members and their unions came in for much of the blame, for failing to recognize that state and other financial support is unlikely to return to historical levels and for blocking curricular and pedagogical reforms… .” But the article also pointed out that faculty representatives are usually not present during such discussions.

Are faculty really obstacles to needed change or are they performing an important function by opposing administrative initiatives?

The budget woes seem to many commentators to be an inarguable reason for “fundamental change” in education, but is money really a sufficient excuse for reorganizing and perhaps thereby weakening an effective system of higher education that has been the envy of the world? Further, do today’s temporary budget problems really reflect a permanent inability to fund higher education in the future, a disinclination to educate students in the ways that have been traditional in the past or a dissatisfaction with the quality of prior education?

I think the pressures on education today are twofold: (1) demographic increases in the number of students seeking education combined with insufficient expansion of seats in classrooms to accommodate more students; and (2) opportunistic seeking of changes that will benefit the institutions' bottom lines but not students themselves.

Because faculty have traditionally been advocates not only for their own interests but for those of students as well, their opposition is not the self-serving intransigence of unionized labor, but a cry from the trenches opposing exploitation of a group without a voice -- present and future students -- especially at public universities and from middle- and working-class families.

Administrators once came from faculty ranks but increasingly represent business interests, either explicitly in for-profit institutions, by training when coming to academia with a business background, or by adopting the values and interests of regents selected from the business community. If administrators were once faculty members, the context in which they work changes their values over time. In general, administrators and faculty do not share the same priorities and do not have the same goals.

Whereas faculty care about the lives of individual students, administrators care about the reputation and success of the institution. Administrators want to control costs and provide the most efficient (i.e., cheapest) service to the most possible students regardless of quality. Private-sector administrators take this a step further because they must also maximize profits. Administrators believe that proposing and implementing new initiatives is the heart of their job.

Thus we are chasing an increased graduation rate this year, but last year aimed to enhance the first-year experience, and the year before that we tried to increase student engagement, all while supporting the capital development efforts of the high-priced new executives hired to put the touch on successful alumni (meaning those with dollars, not those with a satisfying job or success in creative endeavors). Administrators are evaluated by measures that have nothing to do with educational experience, such as cost savings or time to graduation. Faculty want to facilitate growth in students whether it shows up in such measures or not, and are unconcerned with cost/efficiency but very concerned about the insufficiency of resources to educate students properly.

A great deal of the faculty resistance to change occurs because many faculty regard these faddish initiatives, along with the emphasis on assessment, as a waste because they divert resources from the classroom. When tenure-track lines are replaced by adjuncts and faculty are denied lab space, travel funding, or even market-average pay, they come to doubt the sincerity of administrative assurances that the institution cares about quality education.

Faculty believe that their own competence depends on professional preparation, quality of ongoing scholarship, ability to involve students in the generation of new knowledge, and mentoring students toward roles that do not necessarily lead directly to corporate life. The less faculty are paid, the less incentive there is to pursue a faculty career, the lower the quality of teaching and the less well-educated students will be.

This happened for decades in the K-12 system; as teaching pay decreased so did the qualifications of new teachers, until now the finger points at teacher quality as an excuse to further starve K-12 systems. In the meantime, desperate parents are hiring tutors and scrambling to enroll their students in the highest-rated schools (often private), while public schools are further starved of funding to do their job well.

Universities were spared that fate for a while, but now we are being treated just as our fellow K-12 educators were. We are resisting, not because we are greedy or unreasonable, but because we do not believe we should work for insufficient pay simply because we care about student welfare.

The latest polls in California, for example, show that the public supports a high-quality university system and wants it to be funded appropriately (which means public subsidy, not exorbitant tuition that denies access to otherwise qualified students). It simultaneously doesn’t want to be taxed, but who does? The value of an educated populace to our society trumps the desire of individual Californians to evade paying for public education. In the past legislators acknowledged that and funded the university anyway. Now greed is good and individual responsibility no longer includes the duty to pay for services that contribute to the common welfare.

The result of these so-called budget pressures, as we try to educate increased numbers of students with ever-smaller budgets, is espousal by administrators of things like online education or larger class sizes or "distance" education despite evidence that these “changes” do not benefit students to the same extent as face-to-face education. For example, at one campus, administrators have encouraged faculty to teach yoked classrooms where the professor is only present in one but is broadcast to students in the other room -- something tried and discarded in the ‘70s when TV teaching failed as an educational innovation.

I am regularly contacted by students at online universities seeking hands-on research experience in my lab, because it is not offered at their school and they cannot apply to graduate programs without it. An administrator’s interest is in having fewer professors teach more students, even though this results in less personal attention to students, the one thing that correlates highest with increased graduation rates.

Their reasons are economic. This year I will be teaching face-to-face a class formerly taught only online. Students are grateful and tell me they hated the previous approach, that they avoid online classes whenever possible. Faculty who teach online have published studies showing that more faculty time is required to teach an online class effectively, not less, so class sizes cannot be increased even though there is no physical seat restriction.

But class sizes are increased and faculty thus are forced to teach less effectively. This kind of experience is being ignored by administrators because they care more about the efficiency of instruction than its quality. Then when professors point out these things, we are accused of resisting fundamental change, as if we have a collective personality flaw that makes us too rigid to recognize good ideas or “inevitability.”

A larger problem is that this focus on temporary budget difficulties obscures any discussion of the role of higher education in our society, the relation between an educated populace and an effective democracy, and the need for fostering such abilities as critical thinking, creativity, initiative, long-term thinking, deeper understandings, or grappling with subtlety and complexity. These are the abilities needed to maintain whatever competitive edge we have in the world economy. Where do new products come from if students receive only job-skills training to be workers but not innovators?

To complicate matters, there are the financial opportunists. There is talk of an "education bubble" generated by profiteers who see education as an untapped market, at the K-12 level (via private charter schools), the job-training level and now the university level. With Obama endorsing the idea that only job skills matter educationally and only community colleges need support, and the idea that everything important about education can be measured via national testing, there is a neglect of quality higher education from local to national government.

This neglect, whether motivated by financial opportunism or budget concerns, is being justified by blaming the victim. In the process of starving education, our society is being encouraged to regard teachers and students as the problem. How struggling schools can be fixed by denying them funding is beyond me, but this attitude that K-12 education is failing and thus not worth investment is now being applied to the college level as well.

Maybe university professors are not deemed underprepared (as K-12 teachers are accused of being), but they are being portrayed as trivial, snobbish, intransigent, selfish, lazy and cynical – and ultimately more concerned about their own working conditions than about their students. Demonizing faculty then excuses whatever untested reform initiative administrators might wish to propose in the name of efficiency.

Teachers must oppose changes they regard as pernicious to students. Students have power only as consumers. Unfortunately, because there is greater demand and less supply, especially among "elite" schools, students today have no leverage. Professors are supposed to speak for students and advocate for higher-quality education. We are also supposed to be society's critics, ask questions about value and purpose, and critically evaluate all proposals. Calling us obstacles to fundamental change when we fulfill our roles is manipulative and shows complete ignorance of the role of academics in public life.

The role of intellectual gadfly, the critical voice that examines social change, is protected by tenure. I believe the ongoing attack on tenure is an attempt to remove the obstacles to unfettered change and prevent faculty from carrying out their responsibilities in public life. The silencing of faculty (via economic starvation, overwork, or harsher measures such as jailing or persecution) occurs routinely in non-democratic nations.

I see a vocal professoriate protected by tenure as a bulwark against turning the U.S. into another country where erosion of freedom occurs without complaint because the educated voices have been stifled. Filling classrooms with adjunct faculty in place of tenure track professors is part of this attack on the tenure system. Just as education is being presented as nothing more than job-skills training, faculty are being offered a new role consisting of regurgitation of pre-packaged material to hordes of diploma-mill students via impersonal technologies.

Whether change is proposed out of financial necessity or a profit motive, the effect is the same. We lose the opportunity to systematically provide young people with experiences that will make them more than drones. Call me intransigent, but I wouldn’t want to work in such a system, nor would I want to send my son or daughter to that kind of university. You can call it “fundamental change,” but the fact remains that education dictated by financial considerations alone cannot produce minds with the strengths needed to pull us out of a recession, much less produce world leaders.

There is a reason why faculty are not part of the discussions being held by university administrators.

I feel hypocritical submitting this to appear under an assumed name but I do not think it will help any of my efforts to work with our campus administrators if my name appears on criticisms of their motives. I have no doubt that most administrators believe they are helping students and doing good work, including our presidents and trustees. That's why multiple perspectives with strong voices are important. The value of having a union is that it insulates individual faculty from those in power whom they must criticize, so that everyone can work more smoothly together while still being free to speak up about how the university functions -- it makes shared governance work as more than a rubber stamp.

Author/s: 
Perry A. Holloway
Author's email: 
newsroom@insidehighered.com

Perry A. Holloway is the pseudonym of a professor at a public university in California.

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