Saturday, March 8, 2014

The Wellness Wars at Universities Opens a Student Front

The University's administrators and its stakeholders have been engaged in a relatively one sided conversation about wellness and the state of benefits at Penn State since the summer of 2013 when, without substantial engagement, the University rolled out what proved to be quite controversial changes to its benefits programs for faculty and staff.  (The Wellness Wars Continue--A Task Force is Constituted and the Institutional Role of the Faculty is Reduced in Function).

(Pix (c) Larry Catá Backer 2014)

Penn State is not unique--most large universities have, perhaps on the theory of "benchmarking strength in numbers", have coordinated loosely (though I have no idea whether it was intentional or instrumentally managed) on similar approaches at roughly the same time. I have chronicled some of this engagement (e.g., The "Narrative Advantage": The Two Faces of Wellness Programs at Penn State and the Importance of Control Its Master Narrative; The Next Round in the Wellness Wars-- A Response From Faculty Representatives).

Now the university, again probably not unlike others, has opened a new front in its wellness wars.  This time the objects are students. Penn State, like many other public universities, is moving to substantially constrict benefits for its graduate and student assistants without any decrease in working conditions and obligations. It intends to substantially increase premiums and benefits costs to students. The move is necessary, from the university's perspective, to preserve fiscal integrity and the viability of its benefits programs (e.g., Peter Schmidt, College Leaders and Labor Organizers Spar Over Possible Graduate Student Unionization, Chronicle of Higher Education, July 24, 2012).   The move is unwelcome, from the student perspective, because of the precariousness of their existence now made harder by these moves (e.g., Sean Flynn, EDITORIAL: Grad students give more than they get, Voices, March 5, 2013). 

This move may have consequences.  Already there is a strong movement toward unionization of graduate students (Christy Thornton, Opinion: "Why NYU Grad Students Fought to Unionize," Al-Jazeera, Dec. 16, 2013).
Graduate student unionization is very much in the news these days, with the National Labor Relations Board expected to rule soon on whether graduate assistants may unionize at private universities. . . .

Currently, there are no private universities with graduate student unions. But many public universities have them, and the authors of a paper released this year surveyed similar graduate students at universities with and without unions about pay and also the student-faculty relationship. The study found unionized graduate students earn more, on average. And on various measures of student-faculty relations, the survey found either no difference or (in some cases) better relations at unionized campuses.

The paper (abstract available here [and below]) appears in ILR Review, published by Cornell University. (Scott Jaschik, Union Impact and Non-Impact, Inside Higher Education, October 2013)
Indeed, even within the CIC, a trade organization of mostly state and state assisted universities in mid-Atlantic and Midwestern regions of the United States, the issues are looming larger. "Legislation that aimed to stop University of Michigan graduate student researchers from unionizing is unconstitutional, according to a ruling Wednesday by U.S. District Judge Mark A. Goldsmith. The decision by Goldsmith, an appointee of President Barack Obama, follows a years-long struggle by the graduate student research assistants to form a collective bargaining unit. The group represents 2,200 graduate students employed by U-M professors to assist in research projects involving lab work, data analysis or some other task that is not related to teaching." (Kim Kozlowski, Federal judge strikes down state law banning unionization of graduate students, The Detroit News, Feb. 5, 2014).
Read more from original sources below.

The following may be sources for those interested in the larger issues presented by the changing relationships between universities and their graduate students reflected, in part, in benefits, and in larger part in the redefinition of their relationship within the university. As tenured faculty decrease, and fixed term (contract) faculty become th emajority, the mnove toward other low wage producers fo teaching hours will likely become a more important element in the calculus of university finances as a function of the construction and delivery of their teaching product for fee paying students.

Sean E. Rogers, Rutgers University and University of New MexicoFollow
Adrienne E. Eaton, Rutgers UniversityFollow
Paula B. Voos, Rutgers UniversityFollow

Effects of Unionization on Graduate Student Employees: Faculty--Student Relations, Academic Freedom, and Pay


In cases involving unionization of graduate student research and teaching assistants at private U.S. universities, the National Labor Relations Board has, at times, denied collective bargaining rights on the presumption that unionization would harm faculty--student relations and academic freedom. Using survey data collected from PhD students in five academic disciplines across eight public U.S. universities, the authors compare represented and non-represented graduate student employees in terms of faculty--student relations, academic freedom, and pay. Unionization does not have the presumed negative effect on student outcomes, and in some cases has a positive effect. Union-represented graduate student employees report higher levels of personal and professional support, unionized graduate student employees fare better on pay, and unionized and nonunionized students report similar perceptions of academic freedom. These findings suggest that potential harm to faculty--student relationships and academic freedom should not continue to serve as bases for the denial of collective bargaining rights to graduate student employees.


Why NYU grad students fought to unionize
by Christy Thornton @ajam December 16, 2013

An important victory over the corporatization of the university Topics:EducationNew YorkCollege

A university banner in New York City.Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images

On Dec. 11, New York University's graduate student employees voted overwhelmingly for union representation, making NYU the only private university in the country with unionized graduate workers. Teaching, research and program assistants from dozens of departments at NYU, including the history department, where I teach, participated in the two-day election, marking the culmination of an eight-year organizing effort on the part of the Graduate Student Organizing Committee/United Auto Workers Local 2110. The decisive victory — with 620 voting in favor of the union and just 10 voting against — gives the union a strong mandate as we enter contract negotiations over pay, health care costs and job stability with the university administration. That mandate represents an important victory not only for university workers across the country but also for the parents of current and future college students and for the graduate students themselves.

There has been a vast restructuring of higher education in the past few decades, as universities have come to be run increasingly like corporations, with an emphasis on their international branding and an eye to the bottom line. This restructuring has brought about many important changes — an enormous expansion in the number of highly paid executive administrators; a greater focus on revenue generation, with some colleges deciding to cut departments like history and English, which are deemed unprofitable; an increasing reliance on part-time adjunct faculty, whose meager pay and lack of benefits have driven some to public assistance; and most important for students and their families, massive increases in tuition and student debt.

At NYU a typical student in one of my classes is likely to graduate with almost 50 percent more student debt than the national average; the school has the highest total student debt in the country. The cost of attending NYU is among the highest in the country, and its financial aid remains woefully inadequate — a fact thrown into sharp relief when it was disclosed this summer that the university was footing the bill for high-priced vacation homes for its executives. After the vacation-home scandal focused national attention on the university's financial priorities, the administration announced a new fundraising campaign focused on increasing student scholarships, a step in the right direction. But the larger, underlying problem remains. The national trend toward corporate-style governance shortchanges the core mission of the university: research, teaching and learning.

This victory offers a decisive rebuke to the corporate vision of the university based on rising indebtedness, revenue generation and relentless expansion.

The graduate students' victory at NYU shows that this trend can be slowed and perhaps even reversed by demonstrating that shared governance can strengthen the university and the higher-education sector as a whole. In 2001, when the National Labor Relations Board (the federal body that regulates workplace organization) first forced NYU to recognize our union, our historic win buoyed unionization efforts of the university's clerical workers and adjunct faculty as well as similar organizing drives at other private universities across the country. But the NLRB ruling was overturned by George W. Bush administration appointees in 2004, who argued that the relationship between graduate students and their universities was primarily academic, not economic — despite the many kinds of paid labor we do. After the decision, NYU refused to continue to recognize our rights to collective representation, as part of university president John Sexton's larger strategic vision for NYU as a growth-driven, cost-cutting business. That vision has resulted in controversial expansion plans in Greenwich Village and around the world as well as in the scandalous executive-compensation packages that have caught the attention of members of Congress. Our union has stood with faculty and student organizations throughout the last few years to argue that this strategy has taken NYU far afield from our mission of education and has negatively affected not only our working conditions but also our students' learning conditions.

At NYU many graduate students receive relatively generous fellowships to study, thanks in large part to the gains we made under our last contract, which, for example, raised graduate-student stipends by 38 percent. But without a contract, those gains could be taken away at any moment. We saw this last year, when the university decided to raise health care costs by 33 percent — and without a recognized union, there was little we could do to address it. As we enter into contract negotiations, will we argue for workplace protections that ensure stability and fairness in how jobs are assigned, so administrators will not be able to cancel teaching or research assignments at the last minute without fair compensation; that recognize the family needs of our graduate workers, so we do not have to choose between caring for our children and doing our research; and that provide affordable and comprehensive health care, so we will not have to face paying for dental work rather than paying for food. What is more, having a contract will ensure that economic decisions are separated from academic ones, so our relationships with the professors who supervise us can focus on our scholarship, not our wages.

With the decision to allow us to exercise our democratic right to vote for the union, the administration has recognized what we have long argued: that our work is vital to the university and that the union makes NYU a better and more stable workplace and, because of that, a stronger university. In our upcoming contract negotiations, we will fight to improve the lives of the graduate employees who do the core work of the university — teaching and research. But the contract will do a great deal more. It will serve as an important precedent, showing that this sort of agreement can be productive for private universities across the country. Already, activists involved in similar campaigns elsewhere are looking to our victory for inspiration. One University of Chicago organizer told Al Jazeera that the NYU agreement has "put some options on the table that we haven't even been able to imagine." Our success also offers a decisive rebuke to the corporate vision of the university based on rising indebtedness, revenue generation and relentless expansion.

This victory shows that those of us working in higher education can organize collectively to change our universities — for the benefit of not just the workers but the students and parents as well.

Christy Thornton is a PhD candidate in history at New York University.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.


Peter Schmidt, College Leaders and Labor Organizers Spar Over Possible Graduate Student Unionization, Chronicle of Higher Education, July 24, 2012)

Brown University's brief argues that characterizing its graduate assistants as employees "would undermine the fundamental nature and purpose of this model of graduate education." It says such students "are admitted to a graduate program—not hired into a program," yet would likely have pay dues or fees to their union "in order to retain their student status" if the 2004 decision is reversed. It characterizes academic freedom and graduate-student unionization as irreconcilable, saying there is "no empirical research whatsoever suggesting that collective bargaining could be reconciled with the right of faculty to establish degree and curricular requirements at private institutions of higher education."

A brief filed by New York University argues that the board's decision to solicit outside advice on questions decided in the Brown case suggest that the board intends to use the New York University and Polytechnic Institute cases "as a vehicle to make sweeping changes in settled law regarding graduate students at the nation's private universities." It accuses the board of heading in such a direction "based not on any new evidence or arguments, but solely on its changed political composition," which flipped from majority-Republican to majority-Democratic when President Obama succeeded President George W. Bush.

New York University's brief also alleges that the collective-bargaining agreement in place there before 2005 led to the filing of multiple union grievances threatening its academic autonomy.

"Petitioners urge a cynical view, that the university is just another big business, that graduate students are no more than wage earners, and that using graduate student teachers and researchers is merely a cost-saving measure," argues the brief that the American Council of Education filed in conjunction with the Association of American Medical Colleges, the Association of American Universities, the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources, and the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. It argues that "the essential nature and mission of the university has not changed," and continues to depend on the university's academic freedom to make decisions on educational matters. "The academic student/teacher relationship is, and should remain, removed from the issues that our labor laws address," the brief says.

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