‘In the Same Boat’: Labor-Conference Speakers Call for Unity in Bid to Shape Higher-Education Policy

By Audrey Williams June, Chronicle of Higher Education

At an annual labor conference here, one message was clear: Faculty members, union leaders, and administrators share a common plight more than ever these days and need to work together to help shape public policy and public perception about higher education—or get prepared to deal with the consequences.

Indeed, with accountability issues like college-completion rates, student-success measures, and faculty productivity under increased scrutiny, amid a backdrop of decreasing public support for higher education, a cooperative intervention by people in the trenches is long overdue, said more than one speaker at the conference, which is sponsored by the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions. The center, housed at City University of New York’s Hunter College, serves as a clearinghouse for those who study or practice collective bargaining in colleges and universities.

“We need to get beyond ourselves, even at the bargaining table,” said Gary Rhoades, general secretary of the American Association of University Professors, who spoke on a panel during the meeting’s opening session. “We are players, not just victims.”

The conference, which is being held at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center and continues on Tuesday, drew about 300 people, many of whom seemed more willing than ever to look for common ground in the wider public debate, despite sitting on opposite sides of the bargaining table on local issues.

“There’s a lot more awareness that we’re all in the same boat and the boat might be sinking,” said Greg Mulcahy, president of the Minnesota State College Faculty, which represents faculty at the 25 two-year colleges in the Minnesota State College and Universities system. “So we better get together and do something about it.”

Pressures of Productivity

A hint of how some professors feel shut out of conversations about the future of higher education surfaced during a session with Jamie Merisotis, president and chief executive of the Lumina Foundation for Education. He faced a skeptical audience as he answered questions about the foundation’s push for 60 percent of Americans to hold a postsecondary degree or certificate. It’s a goal the foundation says is achievable with a focus on what it calls the “21st-century student,” a group that includes immigrants, part-time distance learners, and GED students.

But some faculty members spoke out against how the foundation plans to achieve its goal and said that Lumina hasn’t tapped them for their knowledge about how such a plan would play out in the real world.

“The use of the word productivity has translated to ‘Let’s put 10 more students in your writing class,'” said one woman during a question-and-answer period following Mr. Merisotis’s remarks. “Something that simplistic kills student success.”

Mr. Merisotis tried to quell misgivings about the foundation’s efforts by saying the plan wasn’t a done deal but instead “a marker out there for people to discuss. This is how we view things and if this isn’t the view that you bring, then we want to hear it.”

Tales From the Trenches

One session in particular spoke to the conference theme, “Together at the Table: Moving the Academy Forward Through Collective Bargaining.” An administrator and a labor leader from Rider University discussed how the union and the institution have worked together over the years. The university’s union was formed in 1973 and has thrived since then — despite a Supreme Court ruling more than 30 years ago that said administrators could refuse to recognize collective-bargaining units at private colleges like Rider.

James Castagnera, associate provost and associate counsel for academic affairs at Rider, gives the union the credit for its longevity.

“The union was strong, it had powerful leadership, and it had great support among the faculty,” he said. “It has persisted for that reason.

At first, the relationship between the two parties was “pretty adversarial,” but over the years that changed, said Jeffrey R. Halpern, contract administrator and chief grievance officer of the Rider union, which is affiliated with the AAUP. Now, administrators and the union have agreed on a common set of values, he said, even though they are likely to disagree on how to achieve them.

“When I talk to colleagues at other places where the relationship between the faculty union and the administration is toxic, I discover a complete lack of, ‘We’re in this together,'” Mr. Halpern said.

Common Cause

At a session on how tensions can produce solutions during collective bargaining, Barbara Bowen, president of the Professional Staff Congress, the union at the City University of New York, said that having a prior working relationship with administrators can pay off “when sometimes you’re really at odds” during negotiations.

Ms. Bowen and Pamela S. Silverblatt, vice chancellor for labor relations at CUNY, discussed how they eventually came to agreement on the university’s first-ever paid parental-leave benefit for full-time faculty and professional staff members. Negotiations for the eight-week benefit weren’t always smooth. Still, they said, there are some instances when dissension between union leaders and administrators literally doesn’t pay.

Ms. Silverblatt said it is critical to present a united front when approaching lawmakers for resources, even when differences abound back home.

To be sure, lawmakers appear to be one of the biggest sources of consternation for labor leaders and administrators who are having to navigate their way through a shifting higher-education landscape.

“I don’t want to agree to a new normal,” said James H. McCormick, chancellor of Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, which includes seven state universities in addition to the 25 two-year colleges. “”I know that we’re in hard times … but I don’t think America can survive if this is the new normal.” Mr. McCormick said that for Minnesota—and the nation—to have “world-class workers” to compete with other countries, higher-education investment is a must.

Among the sessions on tap for today: a look at budgets, diversity, and collective bargaining in the California State University system; the future of organizing postdoctoral fellows; and whether higher education’s reliance on contingent faculty is sustainable.

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