Academic Labor Conference Produces Sharply Different Visions of Colleges’ Financial Future

By Peter Schmidt, Chronicle of Higher Education

The administrators and faculty representatives who gathered here Monday for an annual national conference of academic labor disagreed sharply on the question of whether they should fight or seek to adapt to trends that have put colleges and their employees under financial pressure.

Some college administrators and experts at the joint labor-management conference argued that calls for colleges to do more with steadily less represent the “new normal” in higher education, and the unions representing faculty members and other college employees would be well-advised to focus their attention on finding ways to cope with changes such declining support for public colleges from tax dollars.

“We think this is a fundamental restructuring, and we had better be prepared to deal with it,” argued Joe Glover, provost of the University of Florida, who said administrators there doubt that funds recently cut from state spending on higher education will be restored.

But several labor activists on hand argued that the economic downturn that began in 2008 is being exploited by politicians to try to steamroll college employees into accepting changes in their working conditions that are unnecessary and harmful to education, and could be stopped with enough resistance from labor and its allies.

“This is not primarily a financial issue, it is a political issue,” argued Barbara Bowen, president of the Professional Staff Congress, which represents both faculty and staff in the City University of New York system. Higher education is being subjected to reductions in tax-dollar support “inordinately, disproportionately, in state after state” because the ability of public colleges to derive funds from an alternative source—tuition—makes them “an easy target,” she said.

Dipping or Diving?

The National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions, which is based at Hunter College, titled its 39th annual conference “Academic Collective Bargaining Under Siege: Implications for a Public Good.” Among the 320 registered participants, there seemed to be little agreement Monday on how the public good could be served by current trends in higher-education finance, or which way the trend lines were headed.

Several of those who served on panels or spoke up during question-and-answer sessions were at odds over whether public tax-dollar support for higher education will rebound in the wake of the 2008 economic downturn as it did after previous recessions.

In the past, state support for higher-education zigzagged up and down, but “the money always came back,” said Jane V. Wellman, executive director of the National Association of System Heads and founding director of the Delta Project on Postsecondary Costs, Productivity, and Accountability. Although the economy has recovered somewhat, she said, state support for higher education has not rebounded as it did before.

“The zigzag pattern, I am afraid, is going to be more of a flat line down in the future,” she predicted.

Others on hand had a much different view. Among them, Lillian Taiz, president of the California Faculty Association, which represents faculty members and other employees of the California State University system, said, “I’m sorry. This is not ‘the new normal.’ It is called a recession.”

Maury Koffman, president of the Administrative Professional Association at Michigan State University, challenged the idea that higher-education remained in a state of financial crisis, citing increases in his own institution’s revenue and endowment size. “Within our own world, within our own university, we find that our institution actually still has money,” he said.

Rethinking the Problem

Tim Lane, managing director of institutional relationships for TIAA-CREF, argued that “the economy and the markets are probably more on people’s minds than they should be,” because they are keeping both state legislatures and individual faculty members from thinking about the long-term in making financial decisions.

In a talk intended to point out higher-education’s long-term trends, Ms. Wellman of the Delta cost project said state spending on health care—including health benefits for state workers—is rising so fast that it is squeezing funds for other needs. The budgetary pressures on colleges are not the result of rising faculty salaries because public colleges have held down faculty payroll costs by relying more on contingent workers, she said. But, she added, the cost of providing faculty members with benefits such as health insurance is eating up a sizable chunk of the increased revenue colleges derive by raising tuitions.

Mr. Glover of the University of Florida said colleges, to fulfill state legislatures’ demands that they do more with less, will need to find new sources of revenue and become more entrepreneurial, efficient, and accountable. The implications for collective bargaining, he said, are “a rapidly changing world view” about colleges’ mission that will require changes in labor agreements.

But Gary Rhoades, a professor of higher education at the University of Arizona and the director of the Center for the Future of Higher Education, a virtual think tank, called the idea that public colleges can handle rising enrollments without additional public support “an emperor that has no clothes.”

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