Saturday, October 31, 2015

Unionization of Fixed Term/Contingent Faculty and the Abandonment of Shared Governance--The View From the University of Chicago

(Pix © Larry Catá Backer 2015)

I have been suggesting that shared governance in the modern American university is failing. That failure is a function of fundamental changes in social expectations of universities, in the effect of the changes in the composition of university faculties (introducing a class element to labor structures), in the reactionary response of faculties unreasonably holding on to past ideals now effectively abandoned, and to university administrators eager to reject the classical model of collaborative governance in favor of the (more efficient) hierarchical corporate model of diffused governance in which accountability becomes easier to avoid.

These changes appear to move the university to the adoption of 20th century corporate factory models of administration and operation.    And the consequence of the adoption of that form will have an inevitable consequence for labor--the move toward unionization of a "deprofessionalized" cadres of knowledge workers seeking to protect their interests against exploitation by the operators of learning factories.  These effects are now quite visible among the most elite American universities.  The contingent and fixed term faculty at the University of Chicago have now begun a process that might lead to the unionization of their ranks (Maudlyne Ihejirika, University of Chicago's nontenured faculty file to unionize, Chicago Sun-Times, Oct. 29, 2015) (portions reproduced below).    

This post considers the inevitable move toward unionization and suggests that it may point to a radical change in the nature of the university and its abandonment of a collaborative for an adversarial model of governance. It suggests the way these changes may point to the need to restructure the operations and objectives of faculty governance institutions  in this new administrative and operational climate.

 (Pix © Larry Catá Backer 2015)

The burden of failure is shared by faculty and administration alike.  As the nature and operation of university administration fails, administrators increasingly view shared governance as an impediment and have sought to subvert it or avoid it when possible.  It is always useful to continue to pay homage to the forms of shared governance, but it is becoming increasingly irrelevant as an important element in university governance. Even the great source of strength that made shared governance indispensable to the modern American university--the expertise of faculty--has been dissipated or made irrelevant both by the rise of alternative centers of expertise--clustered around university administrator trade organizations (e.g., Association of American Universities, etc.)--and by increasing resort to paid outside consultants.  Together these permit administration of the university to effectively detach itself from their faculties and treat them as "labor" to be "exploited the production of "value" in the learning factory that the university now strives to become.  

Likewise faculty stubbornly cling to past models even as the nature of the university changes around them.  They appear increasingly as a  reactionary element in the operation of the university, even as the university must respond to changes in society, politics, economics and the expectations of stakeholders. They increasingly are painted, and perhaps correctly, as a source of resistance to necessary change, rather than as the vanguard that meets and responds to changing cultural climates and performance expectations within and about the academy.  This stubborn reactionary element is reflected both in the operation of faculty governance institutions, no longer capable of effectively partnering with changing administrative practices and expectations, and in the loss of coherence within faculty ranks as distinct economic classes of faculty have been embedded in the university--tenured, fixed term, contingent and adjunct faculty. And indeed, with the rise of multiple classes of faculty it may long be past time  to stop referring to faculty in the singular--rather faculty might be better understood in the plural, as faculties with distinct issues, problems, and agendas, some of which may be adverse to other classes of faculty. The ability of faculty to engage effectively in governance, and to effectively hold administrators accountable for their policy and operationalization choices, is dissipated in the formalism of faculty roles that actually serve administrative ambitions to dissipate faculty engagement. 

These challenges have consequences beyond the obvious--the growing irrelevance of the institutional role of the faculty in governance. As faculty participation in governance becomes more vestigial, and as faculty are fractured along "class" lines--grounded in employment status and terms of service--certain classes of faculty are likely to respond naturally to their emerging status. That is, as the university increasingly seeks to treat faculty as "labor" whose productivity is to be exploited to the greatest extent and at the lowest cost possible, it should come as no surprise that faculty would come to embrace their new character as "labor" rather than as partners in governance.  A natural consequence is likely a movement toward unionization and the change in the character of the relationship between faculty and administration from collaborative to adversarial--as each seeks to protect their own interests against the other.  The greatest loser in this natural progression of administration and faculty cultures will be the institution of the university itself.  But that is something that university administrators have sought--if you want to turn the university into a learning factory, you will fundamentally change the character of the relationship between knowledge producers-disseminators (faculty) and knowledge exploiters (administration) for the prosecution of value (education) to consumers (students). 

But this process will not be straightforward.  As the example from the University of Chicago makes clear--alienation and fracture will occur in stages.  It will first   Thus, while tenured faculty continue to hold on to past privilege (though a privilege increasingly eroded as the nature of university administration changes), those who feel the effects of the changes first--contract and fixed term faculty--are most likely to respond first.  And as the university increasingly adopts a 20'th century faculty model, it should come as no surprise that exploited classes of "labor" will likely respond like 20th century American labor--by unionizing. The consequence is fundamental. . . and inevitable given the apparent unchanging movement of university from a nexus point of collaborative knowledge production to an institution for the production of resources to the wage labor markets (that is, as the Chinese say, to the development of societally useful productive forces). 

But that change also changes the nature of the relationship between faculty and administration from collaborative to adversarial.  No longer involved in a joint project of education, and the production of knowledge, administration and faculty now diverge as to goals and interests. It is within this new climate that what remains of shared governance will have to be rethought and recreated.  It will have to move from a collaborative effort at governance policy formulation, to a more distant relationship grounded in the role of faculty as a site for administration accountability and monitoring--in effect the only site where administrative missteps (and value added) may be assessed.  We move from a joint enterprise to a fractured space where stakeholder interests will have to be maximized, and in the battles over those interests, perhaps those of the university itself will be furthered.  Just as the corporate model of university administration is here to stay, so is the likelihood that faculty will increasingly unionize to defend its prerogatives and interests within the learning factory.

Maudlyne Ihejirika, University of Chicago's nontenured faculty file to unionize, Chicago Sun-Times, Oct. 29, 2015
Nontenure-track faculty at the University of Chicago on Thursday filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board to unionize, the Chicago Sun-Times has learned.

They are requesting an election for a bargaining unit that would represent not only adjuncts, who work part time, but also full-timers. They would join a national movement that has sought better pay and job security for the nontenured faculty who make up the majority of the nation’s higher education workforce.

“We want a stronger voice in decisions made by the university that affect both us and our students,” said Janet Sedlar, a senior lecturer and Spanish language coordinator at the private, prestigious South Side institution.

“Without a union, the employer is free to cut benefits and pay, increase class sizes and all kinds of things at their whim, and we have no recourse,” said Sedlar, 45, of Humboldt Park, who has taught at U of C eight years.

The instructors seeking a union make up about 40 percent of U of C’s faculty.

If the NLRB approves the elections, a unit vote could come this fall, and would be a huge notch in the 2 1/2-year-old Faculty Forward movement spearheaded by the Service Employees International Union.

University of Chicago officials declined to comment.

Piggybacking on the 3-year-old Fast Food Forward/Fight for $15 movement, Faculty Forward has swept up some 10,000 nontenure-track instructors at 33 colleges nationwide who have banded around issues of work stability, wages and benefits, and enhanced working conditions.

In April, the Sun-Times reported on adjunct organizing efforts at Loyola and DePaul universities, both Catholic institutions; at U of C; and at Northwestern University in Evanston. Six months later, U of C is the first Chicago school to file a petition with the NLRB. Efforts have died at Northwestern, but continue at Loyola and DePaul. Adjunct instructors at Columbia College Chicago and Roosevelt University already are represented by unions.

And faculty at three other area schools — Concordia University Chicago in River Forest, Illinois Institute of Technology and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago — have initiated unionizing efforts, the Sun-Times has learned. Last month, a Faculty Forward symposium at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum drew dozens of faculty from 19 Chicago-area colleges.

On Faculty Forward’s agenda is a national minimum salary of $15,000 per course, including benefits, for adjuncts, who are part-time instructors contracted as needed and who now nationally comprise 70 percent of university faculty.

* * *

“I’m nontenured, but have a four-year contract and health care benefits. It does not seem right that other people in the college who are doing the same teaching in the core curriculum do not,” said Elizabeth Williamson, a U of C collegiate assistant professor of social science and Harper Schmidt Fellow.

Williamson, who has taught there four years, is among the non-tenure faculty known as post-docs — post-doctoral faculty awarded teaching fellowships. Those fellowships include job security and benefits out of reach for most of their peers.

“As a female faculty member, I’m also concerned with both the presence of women in the college and the overall diversity of the faculty,” added Williamson, 37, who lives in Hyde Park. “I’d like to see a university-wide conversation about that. I see the union as a way to foster those conversations.”

Faculty at more public institutions also are joining the movement. Efforts were initiated at the University of Minnesota last year, and at University of Washington this year.

Still, to date, 30 of the 33 colleges where Faculty Forward has taken hold are private institutions. U of C faculty have joined peers at other prestigious colleges on that list, including Boston, Georgetown, Howard, Tufts and Washington universities; and Mills College. Efforts are currently underway at Duke University and the University of Southern California.

After unionizing in 2013, faculty at Tufts in Medford, Massachusetts, last fall celebrated Faculty Forward’s first successful collective bargaining contract, heralded as a model for the burgeoning movement.

That three-year agreement includes pay bumps of up to 40 percent in some departments, with adjuncts to make at least $7,300 per course by fall 2016; those with eight-plus years of experience will make at least $8,760. Union members are now guaranteed at least one-year contracts; those with four years or more will be eligible for two-year contracts at the end of the agreement term, and those with eight-plus years, eligible for three-year contracts. And adjuncts now will get first notice of and fair consideration for full-time positions.

“We have seen the gains made by contingent faculty at Tufts and other schools that have formed unions,” said Daniel Raeburn, a U of C lecturer in creative nonfiction. “We strongly believe that creating more equitable and predictable employment conditions for non-tenure-track faculty will enhance the quality of our students’ educational experiences.”

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