This morning I went over to West Chester University to check out the second day of the strike there. No one enjoys or wants a strike. I know higher education from both sides, at four different institutions, as a faculty member and administrator for about equal lengths of time till I retired. I spoke with several faculty members (which include librarians) in the picket lines that ring the main campus.
The mood was quite upbeat. The strikers felt they were making their point and appreciated the strong support in evidence from students, who were circulating to offer coffee or water to the picketers or joining them with signs. Students were also lightening the atmosphere by performing music at the corner of High St. and University Ave. “Faculty working conditions are student learning conditions,” one sign there proclaimed.
Here are some perceptions I heard of the issues at stake.
1) Support for higher education. There was concern that the state’s contribution to the State System of Higher Education has been slipping. One can blame not only administrative priorities but also the often tortuous budget process in Harrisburg (talk to your state senator or representative about that).
2) Top leadership. I heard from several that the Chancellor is not interested enough in faculty welfare or student outcomes. “I think it’s really unconscionable that this Chancellor has not advocated for students,” one professor told me. The Chancellor apparently claims that faculty work only 17 hours a week, counting only in-class and office time and ignoring preparation time, reading homework and exams, email and phone contact with students outside of office hours, and so on. I can tell you, being either a faculty member of an administrator is much more than a 40 hour a week job.
3) Adjuncts. These are teachers who have no long-term contract and are pretty much at the call of the administration semester by semester. They are union members (or otherwise pay the “fair share” from their paychecks), just like the permanent faculty, but don’t enjoy the same rate of pay or benefits. The State system’s proposal to have adjuncts teach a 5th class has now come off the negotiating table. No one, in my experience, can teach that many classes and maintain the standards that students deserve. “Permanent” faculty now teach 4 + 4 (i.e., 8 classes a year), which is already quite high where research and governance participation are expected. Assigning more classes to adjuncts would further reduce the ratio of permanent faculty.
4) Pay and health insurance. These did not seem to be at the top of the faculty list, even though pay may rise just enough to offset unwelcome increases in health costs to faculty. I heard opposition to planned cuts for faculty development, though, and also criticism of the System’s attempt to divide faculty by giving different health plans to future and current faculty after they retire. As I witnessed long ago during a faculty strike at Boston University, “divide and conquer” is a usual management technique.
5) Class size. I heard concern that the number of students per class will continue to rise until it pushes the fire code limit, which in many classrooms is 40 (except that the new Business School can go higher). Obviously, the more students, the less interaction time per student in class and the more pressure on faculty not to assign time-intensive work like term papers and essay-type exams.
6) Distance education. The System is said to be pushing distance education (i.e., not in class but via a screen) as “more efficient.” From what I saw, faculty aren’t against some uses of distance ed but feel that if substituted for a real classroom experience, it’s one more threat to academic quality. One professor feared that students might be forced to take distance education courses, whether they wanted or not.
At the end I spoke with Ed Lordan, spokesperson for the WCU APSCUF union. He sees the strike as going well, with solid faculty involvement and lots of student support. After 15 fruitless months of negotiation and without a contract, he said, this strike has to solve the pending issues; this effort is not short-term, but will benefit students 10 and 20 years from now.
APSCUF – lots more problems the faculty union sees in the State system’s position
State System of Higher Education – their view of the negotiations and strike
WCU web site strike info