Faculty unionization in higher education is a symptom of broken governance

For the first time in its history, the Association of Pennsylvania State Colleges and University Faculty went on strike, which ended after a three day impasse. Impacting thousands of faculty and students across 14 public institutions in Pennsylvania, the strike was the latest in an ongoing series of organized labor events occurring across higher education. Union members in Pennsylvania were striking for better wages, health benefits, and academic work conditions. However, I believe the Pennsylvania case is indicative of a much larger issue facing higher education. Namely, faculty unionization in higher education is a symptom of broken governance.

Photo credit: Matt Rourke/AP

Before discussing the particulars of unionization and governance, it is imperative to understand one of the root causes of the strike in Pennsylvania.

The commonwealth of Pennsylvania has slashed higher education budgets by some of the largest amounts in the nation. Per student funding in Pennsylvania is down more than 30% since the recession and ranks 49th nationally in per capita higher education funding.

The massive reductions have created a situation where students, faculty, and administrators are forced to make terrible decisions. There simply isn’t enough money to support higher education. As a result, both the union and system management must fight over a shrinking and insufficient budget.

Massive funding cuts created the circumstances that fueled the disagreements between administrators and union members.

Faculty Unionization

Historically, unions have played a much smaller role in higher education than K-12 education or other industries. In particular, faculty haven’t been drawn to unions as much as other workers because their role in governance and decision-making was much greater.

While some traditionally pro-union states saw faculty unionization efforts, many faculty saw the protections of tenure and shared governance as sufficient for protecting their personal and professional interests.

I believe a fundamental change has occurred in recent years that has changed this calculus for many faculty.

1. Universities embraced business and market oriented reforms that emphasized efficiency, accountability, and reduced instructional expenses.

2. The growth in part-time as well as non-tenure eligible faculty changed the longstanding checks and balances relationship between faculty and administrators.

3. Campus leaders placed a greater emphasis on making decisions more quickly and reduced the consultative nature of decision making.

Ultimately, external pressures and internal responses to events caused faculty to worry about their standing and influence in campus decisions. When workers worry about a decline in their influence along with economic pressures such as wage decreases, we should expect an increase in unionization efforts.

The same can be said for unionization drives by graduate students and adjuncts that seek better economic and work conditions.

When these concerns are also part of a larger concern about justice, inequality, and basic fairness, unions become particularly attractive to workers.

Broken social contract

In 2009, Florida State University laid off a dozen tenured faculty members citing the need for cost-cutting.

An arbitrator found that the layoffs violated the faculty’s union contract. In a stark admonishment of the university’s actions, the arbitrator found that the university manipulated the termination process in order to “arbitrarily select who got laid off based on [a dean’s] personal judgments and relationships” rather than according to the university contract with the union.

This case has stayed with me over the years because it was a clear case of tenure not protecting faculty, but rather protection from union membership.

Unions and management always fight about wages and health benefits. What’s notable about the Pennsylvania case is that the nature of academic work played a central role in negotiations.

For example, the system sought to:

  • Require full-time, temporary faculty to teach five courses instead of four
  • Increase the cap on number of temporary faculty from 25% to 30%
  • Allow certain graduate students to gain teaching experience in instructional labs and clinics, with department approval and under supervision of a faculty member
  • Ability to transfer qualified faculty to other departments without a secret ballot vote of the faculty

The state system withdrew these proposals prior to the strike, but it doesn’t seem a stretch to suggest these may have poisoned the well a bit.

Unfortunately, institutional decisions that embrace corporatization and market ideals have tended to place greater power in boards and senior administrators and away from faculty.

In both real and symbolic ways, faculty have become increasingly disenfranchised in the governance of colleges and universities.

I believe the strike in Pennsylvania is the beginning of a broader trend where faculty will seek unions and unions will increasingly get involved in fights over academic quality, financial decisions, and broader academic work conditions.

As proof of this, a statement from the union spokesperson framed the disagreement between faculty and the system:

“Our primary goals were to preserve quality education for our students, protect our adjuncts from exploitation, and make sure the varieties of faculty work are respected . . . We are relieved to have an agreement that preserves quality public higher education in Pennsylvania and allows our members to get back into the classroom where they belong.”

Faculty senates, tenure, and broad deference to faculty decisions has eroded. Whether you think this is a good thing or a bad thing, it is definitely a thing.

Faculty unions may be one of the best chances to reverse the long-term trend away from shared governance.

It is probably a long shot, but I think many faculty feel like faculty unionization is one of the only shots left.

Faculty are looking for ways to improve the terms of academic employment beyond salaries and benefits. They want to see administrators sharing decision-making in real and substantial ways.

In the end, faculty unionization in higher education is a symptom of broken governance.

I am not convinced unionization is broadly the answer to governance problems largely because so few faculty are in unions.

However, I do believe we’ll see faculty unions getting more involved.

Pennsylvania isn’t the first case where unions have gotten more strongly organized and exercised their power.

And it definitely won’t be the last.

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