Faculty Work & The Education Business

Today, colleagues in the Association of Pennsylvania State College & University Faculties (APSCUF) went to the picket lines and began a strike.  They have been working without a contract for 477 days.  Here in New Jersey, where I work, my faculty and professional staff colleagues in our AFT-affiliated union have also been working without a contract for 477 days–since June 30, 2015.  This news is notable, as many of us began our academic years reading about the faculty lockout–in advance of any strike action by faculty–at Long Island University.  Why do I call this notable?  Because of the pattern of faculty (and staff, in some cases) seeking fairness of different kinds: higher wages, lower costs passed on for benefits, access to collective bargaining for full- or part-time contingent faculty, etc.

What is perhaps most notable and most important about this APSCUF strike is how perfectly it illuminates the centrality of faculty to the educational project. Here at midterm in the fall semester, faculty may or may not have completed midterm assessments of student progress, they will begin advising for spring enrollments any day now, and students who are not sure about their current school can still apply to transfer for spring at most schools. But these striking faculty won’t be doing that work, and all the institutional operations that would follow in Registrar’s Offices, Student Accounts, Financial Aid, and even Admissions won’t be happening.  This is the power of colective action, and here it demonstrates the power of faculty labor necessary to truly fuel the business of higher education.

Over a decade ago, I was working with the national office of the AAUP, delighted to get paid, in part for keeping up with higher ed news, and we were seeing the very same loggerheads and having the very same conversations around the country that APSCUF and LIU and other faculties are having now.  We may think nothing has changed in that decade because we are retreading some of the same issues, but we all must understand that things have changed.  Scott Walker’s fundamental union busting and de facto elimination of tenure in the Wisconsin state system had a ripple effect, as have the NLRB’s recent moves to consider private college athletes as employees, expanded support for part-time and contingent faculty unions at private universities and colleges, and increasing recognition of the problem of graduate “apprenticeships” that are anything but for many graduate students who teach their own courses, run research laboratories, and fulfill a host of other duties considered “training.”

So, in this changed landscape of labor unions and the work of higher education, why are we seeing such challenges to faculty voice and such difficulty–in long-unionized state systems, in some cases–with contract negotiations?  The optimist in me would like to say that this represents increased solidarity among union employees in higher ed, with faculty standing together across the deeply drawn boundary lines of position type as class system.  But I am no true optimist.  Honestly, I believe we have reached a point where the business of education (and its often harsh funding realities) can no longer be even a secondary concern for university leaders, who then end up sacrificing other things.  We are forgetting something John W. Curtis and I wrote fully 10 years ago–Faculty working conditions are student learning conditions.  When faculty have larger classes for the same or less money, when they have less job security or none, when the question is not “what can you give up?” but “how much more can you take and keep taking?”–learning suffers.  Education suffers.

But administrators see a different playing field with more pieces.  They see the increased pressure to recruit successful students, to match ever-growing discount rates (and, therefore, take in less money), to handle decreasing state support–both financially and sometimes legislatively.  They see buildings in need of repair, vendor costs going up beyond their control.  They have to answer the question “what can you give up?”  For everyone in their units.  And they do.

And it is exactly that leadership duty that makes shared governance and union representation essential components of the business of higher education today and in the future.  To lead, we have to listen, and to listen with respect and concern requires acknowledging the value of all stakeholders and the shared project of educating students.  And who knows better what students need in their classrooms and their curriculum than faculty?  And how can we call anything responsible decision-making in respect to student learning and the conditions of learning when faculty answer with a strong no?  The answer seems obvious to me.

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