23 April 2016

The Kids Are Alright

During two days of marching around the English Building at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and making a lot of noise, one felt about as awkward as Roger Daltrey looks in this promotional film for the song of my title.  Most of us had never done anything like this before.  It has all been very strange. The students seemed nonplussed, too. I suspect many of them had never seen a labor action up close. (There was a GEO strike in 2009, and an SEIU strike in 2013, but many students have arrived on campus since then). Some seemed embarrassed for us, some avoided making eye contact, but there were a lot of other reactions too.  Some smiled in amusement or amazement (it was hard to know which). Some stopped to learn more about what what going on. Some came back because they'd read the fliers we were handing out and wanted to know more. Some picked up a sign and joined us. If anyone was angry or hostile, they took those reactions elsewhere.

The student newspaper has been supportive, too.  Their coverage has been extensive and even-handed, setting this labor dispute within the context of growing nationwide concern about contingent faculty working conditions, and publishing a supportive op-ed.

The Daily Illini editorial board went so far as to publish an editorial lauding the faculty strike as an example of good civil protest, in contrast to the racist pro-Trump chalkings that roiled campus last week. Granted, it's a low bar to surpass, but it's nice to have the recognition that "The Non-Tenure Faculty Coalition has followed the proper procedures for an effective strike, while avoiding any of the common blunders that could have detracted from its cause."

That said, the student newspaper avoided taking a stand on the particular issues under dispute, saying only,
One could argue the details of the faculty’s cause for hours — this issue is complex, and without a simple solution. The union’s most prominent desire, that non-tenured faculty members receive multi-year contracts, seems reasonable. But so does Interim Chancellor Barbara Wilson’s response in Wednesday’s MassMail: that “multi-year contracts should be awarded based on performance, evaluation and merit, not centrally mandated and automatically granted.”
It's to our students' credit that many of them want to understand the issues at stake here. We handed out thousands of fliers--as striking workers usually do--but you wouldn't have known it from the trash cans or the litter on the ground afterwards. Students took the fliers and read them, talked about them, and perhaps, yes, argued. We could hear those conversations taking place as students grappled with the anomaly of their faculty choosing to walk in circles for hours, carry hand-made signs, and chant in unison.

The DI editorial board needs to know, however, that multiyear contracts are consistent with standards of "performance, evaluation, and merit."  Our present system ensures neither.  Many faculty are rehired, year after year, with no mechanism in place to ensure that they are meeting professional standards. Some departments have annual performance reviews, but many do not, and the administration has refused to put them in a contract.

Many faculty are, in effect, on multi-year contracts--it is simply the case that those contracts are parceled out year by year, with no provisions to reward the merit that leads to upwards of ten years of ongoing rehiring.  A faculty member who has demonstrated excellence with years of work at the university is just as vulnerable to a change in leadership or a downturn in the budget as someone marginally qualified who was hired two weeks before classes started to fill a sudden vacancy in the schedule.

Under the NTFC proposal for multi-year contracts, if a faculty member's performance is inadequate, and there is a system in place to evaluate and document that inadequacy, then they can be refused a second, third, fourth, or fifth one-year contract.  If an inadequate faculty member ends up getting "automatically granted" a two-year contract that has been "centrally mandated," then the problem is not a union that insisted on those provisions, its a department or unit that refused to uphold its own standards of excellence.

Under the current system, some "performance" gets "evaluation," much doesn't.  Some "merit" is rewarded with recognition, receptions, shiny nameplates on department plaques; very little of it is supported with meaningful institutional structures like stability, promotion, or raises.  Some departments get resources and backing to bring their policies in alignment with Provost's Communications 25 and 25, many don't.

If Interim Chancellor Wilson has better ideas than NTFC Local 6546 about how "performance, evaluation, and merit" can be built into the contract that we're bargaining, then it would be a very good thing if she could communicate them to the administration's negotiating team so that they can have a solid counterproposal in place in time for the April 27 mediation session.

So far the union has seen nothing.  Not a bad proposal, not a proposal we reject: nothing.  In eighteen-plus months at the bargaining table, it's been the union advocating the "performance, evaluation, and merit" that should structure the teaching University of Illinois students deserve--not the administration.

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