May 2014 Advocate – Higher education conference


National conference looks at wide range of issues around collective bargaining in higher education

by Monica Malamud, Cañada, AFT 1493 Secretary

I attended the 41st Annual Conference organized by the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions, held at Hunter College, City University of New York (CUNY), April 6 – 8. A few weeks earlier, I had attended the Annual Convention of the California Federation of Teachers (CFT).  I always find the CFT Convention interesting and informative, especially because it focuses on topics that are relevant in California, and I can learn from the experience and expertise of my union colleagues around the state.  Remarkably, it’s for precisely the opposite reasons that I find the Conference at CUNY so interesting: as a national conference, it offers a more varied perspective on some of the hot topics with which we are dealing in California, and, since it is a labor-management conference, it gives me the opportunity to hear the employer’s view on topics that I find valuable as a member of our Local’s negotiating team.

Nationwide problem: Preponderance of contingent faculty

Currently in community colleges across the U.S., 70% of faculty headcount is part-time.  While at first sight this is not the case in public and private 4-year institutions and research universities, if one adds graduate student assistants who perform and are paid for typical faculty functions such as teaching and research (TAs and RAs) to the part-timer count, then the non-tenured instructors make up 60% of the teaching staff.  And in some for-profit institutions, 96-99% of the faculty is employed on a part-time basis, and in four-year for profit colleges only 0.2% of the faculty were tenured or on tenure-track in 2007.  In short, the over-reliance of part-timers is nowadays pervasive in all sectors of higher education in the country.

In a plenary session titled “Achieving successful results in higher education through collective bargaining”, a university President talked about how their faculty contract fostered a “responsive and flexible workplace culture”.  CUNY’s faculty union president countered that such flexibility was accomplished through lack of job security for part-time instructors, and argued that educational institutions’ responsiveness to budget cuts should not be considered as a measure of success.  Not only do part-time instructors lack job security; when compared to full-time faculty, part-timers in general have fewer benefits and less academic freedom as well.

Colleges and universities continue to fill teaching positions with part-timers instead of full-timers because this translates into “savings”.  But the disinvestment in higher education also manifests itself in the hiring of fewer professors overall.  Ultimately, the “savings” to the institution end up costing students more money when they cannot graduate in a timely manner.  In a 2012-2013 study, a research group was charged with identifying bottleneck courses in the CSU system which were preventing students from completing degree requirements.  The study found that there were bottleneck courses in all areas, 60% of these courses were in upper division, and one third of student demand was not being met in these bottleneck courses, therefore negatively impacting students’ time to graduate.  The study found that the reasons for bottleneck courses were:

  • not enough funding to hire faculty
  • not enough tenured or tenure-track faculty or qualified part-timers to teach courses

The lack of sufficient funding in higher education means that fewer students are able to make steady progress towards their academic goals, or, worse still, they give up and drop out without obtaining a post-secondary degree.

Researchers from the Delphi Project on The Changing Faculty and Student Success, at the University of Southern California, identified the following concerns stemming from the current composition of the professoriate and the growing emphasis on non-academic tasks for tenured professors:

  • Impact on student learning
  • Erosion of tenure and academic freedom
  • Decrease of tenured faculty focus on teaching, as they are overwhelmed with administrative or service-type work
  • Unattractive nature of the profession turns scholars away from academia

Warning about MOOCs at San Jose State

The San Jose State University pilot with MOOCs in Spring and Summer 2013 was the topic of one panel.  The Vice Chair of the CSU Academic Senate and the Associate Vice Chancellor of the CSU System warned attendees about the pitfalls of their experience with Udacity; for example, development was just one week ahead of delivery, and while SJSU instructors provided the content for MOOCs, Udacity employees designed tests.  The Vice President of Academic Technology at SJSU, however, seemed quite pleased with the MOOC experience overall.  When the session moderator asked her if she considered the 23.8% pass rate in Spring and the 29.8% pass rate in Summer for an entry level Math course “success”, the administrator responded: “I’ve been teaching long enough to know that any student passing is ‘success’”.  I hope nobody in our district shares her opinion.

In other sessions which focused on online education, some presenters noted that there are still too few contracts that have special provisions, despite the proliferation of online courses in recent years, while others contended that perhaps special provisions were not all that necessary, since online education is, after all, education.  Additionally, while some believed that online education would dominate in the future, others cautioned about this type of prediction, noting that radio and television were also forecast to revolutionize education, and this did not materialize.  Several presenters considered online course materials as simply a “tool”, or a new type of textbook or delivery method, not as a new paradigm for education.

Many online education issues and questions

Whether online education is fundamentally different from face-to-face education, or whether it is just a delivery method and not education per se, what I was able to conclude after attending a variety of sessions on the topic, is that there are many issues that deserve careful consideration, some of which also merit special contract language:

  • Intellectual property:  Who owns online curriculum, content and materials?  Should a university or a professor have a copyright or a license to an online course? 
  • Teaching privileges:  Who gets to teach an online course?  Only the creator of such course?  Anybody in the department?  Should there be a right of first refusal?  Should every professor be able to teach online?
  • Training:  Does the institution need to provide training?  If so, who can receive such training?  Are attendees paid?
  • Platform: Who decides what platform to use?  Can the institution mandate the use of a platform?
  • Support:  What’s the extent of support provided by the institution to online instructors?  
  • Development:  Does the institution pay for development of an online course?  If so, do professors receive money or reassigned time?  Does payment for development of an online course impact property rights?
  • Updating: Who is responsible for updating online courses—only the original designer, the institution, any professor who teaches the course?
  • Student access and affordability: Is an online course really accessible to all students?  What if a student does not have a computer with the appropriate specifications and Internet access—could there be legal implications?
  • ADA compliance: While online education may make access easier for certain individuals with disabilities, it may also create a barrier for individuals with other types of disabilities.  How can ADA compliance be assured?
  • Student success: Why does pass rate in online courses tend to be lower than in face-to-face courses?
  • Achievement gap:  While on average, pass rates are lower in online courses than in face-to-face courses, the pass rates are even worse for students in remedial courses and those from lower socio-economic background.  Is it OK to increase online education at the expense of face-to-face education when it limits the access and/or success of underprepared and poor students and widens the achievement gap?
  • Student authentication: Is there a means for assuring that the student who earns credit for a course is actually the one participating in the online class?
  • Instructor evaluation: What does it mean to “observe” an online class?  Who is qualified to evaluate a professor who teaches online?
  • Leaves and absences: How are they computed, especially in the case of professors who teach a mix of online and face-to-face courses?  What are the implications for disability and workers’ compensation?

Overall, the Conference was an excellent event which afforded me the opportunity to learn more about current issues in higher education today and their implications for our work.