31 March 2016

You Want to Know the Really Crazy Part?

Pushing for collective bargaining concessions when the state budget is in free-fall and other public institutions are preparing to be mothballed is insane.  Right?

The back story: NTFC Local #6546, the certified union that represents non-tenure-stream (NTT) faculty on the University of Illinois flagship campus, has been trying to bargain its first contract for more than a year. Faced with yet another round of negotiations in which the university resisted moving forward, NTFC called for mediation last week, and yesterday had the second session with a mediator.  Short version: things are not looking good, and there will be a strike vote next Tuesday.

There's a part of this that's even crazier, though: it's not about the money.

If it were, we wouldn't even be in this position right now.  Shortly after NTFC was certified as a union, the university froze its wage program for NTT faculty.  Making up collective bargaining rules as they went along, they declared that they could not go ahead with the proposed wage increases while negotiations were underway and then refused to begin collective bargaining. Nearly two years later, wages remain frozen. If union members were in this for the money, the organization would have collapsed by now. It's been a long time, and whatever wage increases one might expect a contract to yield are not going to be big enough to offset the loss of planned raises these past two years--particularly since (as everyone points out) it's not clear these days where the money for anything is going to come from.

Besides, contract negotiations have not even broached the subject of wages yet.  Really.  After 29 bargaining sessions, wages remain in the list of matters still to be discussed.

It's not about the money.  It never was.

This is not a line of work that people go into if they're motivated by money.  People with the smarts and stamina to earn a Ph.D. or other terminal degree can generally find an easier path to a large salary, if that's what they're after.  People go into college level teaching and continue to do it as NTTs because they care about the subject matter they teach and want to impart it to others.  Furthermore; many NTTs pay for themselves: the tuition dollars their teaching brings in dwarves the cost of their salaries.  The university isn't going to make a additional revenue by diminishing the professional role of these faculty members.  

Don't get me wrong: NTT faculty have the same needs as everyone else.  Who couldn't use more money? If a fiscal fairy godmother suddenly brought peace and compromise to the Illinois statehouse and showered public higher education in Illinois with money, NTT faculty would cheerfully accept a salary bump.  But negotiations haven't ground to a halt because NTT faculty are greedy; they've ground to a halt because the administration refuses to make the concessions that are necessary for NTT faculty to do their jobs, regardless of what they're paid.

These faculty are not the mythic tweed-jacketed, six-figure-earning, never-darkening-the-door-of-a- classroom, retiring-on-a-bloated-pension, ivory-tower figures that haunt comment threads on higher education.  If you've been a student in at the University of Illinois, NTTs are the faculty who marked multiple drafts of your first-year-composition papers, got you through a required math course, taught you a foreign language, lectured in fields ranging from political science to computer science.  They might have worked with you on an honors project, written you recommendations, and talked with you in office hours.  If you're not sure which of the faculty you encountered during your four years here were NTTS and which were on the tenure stream, there's a reason for that: NTT faculty do much of the same teaching work as tenure-stream faculty, only for less money with less job security and fewer resources.

NTT faculty know they're not going to be tenured, and they aren't looking for equivalent salaries to tenure-stream faculty.  They do, however, want the current hazy and capricious set of hiring and promotion guidelines to be replaced by procedures that hold both themselves and the university accountable.  Annual reviews--of all things!--have been a sticking point in negotiations.  Some NTTs get them; others teach here for many years without any evaluation of their work by a superior. One would think it would be in the university's interest--as it is in the interest of most employers--to make sure employees are meeting their standards on a regular basis, particularly when (as is currently the cases) NTTs are on year-by-year contracts.  But providing this minimal quality control is not something the university wants to do. 

Note those words, "others teach here for years....," above. Even though many NTTs have committed themselves to this state and these students, and bring a wealth of institution-specific experience to their jobs, the administration is loathe to codify and regularize the hiring and retention practices that, in fact, structure much of the teaching faculty of the university. NTFC Local 6546 wants it to be the case that five years of proven, documented success on the job lead to a two-year (as opposed to one-year) contract.  It's not a lot to ask, and it would improve Illinois teaching if the faculty that departments rely on didn't have to spend part of every year preparing an exit strategy, and if retention decisions were based on quality.

The issues at stake go beyond these matters of working conditions.  As the ongoing budget crisis increases the institution's reliance on NTTs to fulfill the university's teaching mission, they want the guarantees of academic freedom and shared governance that are central to fulfilling that mission. It's not overreach: NTTs are happy to refer the question of how much academic freedom and what role in shared governance to the fellow faculty who adjudicate these matters.  NTTs are asking for a seat on the Committee on Academic Freedom within the faculty senate, and within a year of the negotiated contract they want individual departments and unit bylaws to include language that explicitly addresses NTT roles in shared governance (or lack thereof). But again, the administration is reluctant to apply the principles of good educational practice to the special case of NTT faculty: even as the budget crisis swells the numbers of NTTs doing the teaching work of the university, the administration does not want those faculty adhering to expectations that are meant to hold their teaching to the highest standards of academic excellence.

30 March 2016

Want Low-Cost, Performance-Based Higher Ed? Give It a Contract.

Here are some of the radical things that NTFC Local 6546 wants in a contract:
  • regular performance reviews
  • consistent, enforceable standards for promotion
  • multiyear contracts
  • a wage agreement
Here's what happens when non-tenure-stream faculty don't have those things:
  • employees have no idea from year to year whether they're meeting performance expectations -- or even what those expectations are
  • employees devote time and energy that could go into teaching to preparing a yearly fall-back strategy, so that if they are not rehired at the end of one academic year, they will have another job to begin in the following fall.
  • decisions on retention from year to year reflect everything BUT teaching excellence: the vagaries of enrollment patterns, the wish to employ favored graduate students, spousal accommodations (yes, I am a spouse who benefits from the current system), department politics 
  • the salaries that teaching NTTs earn bear no relation to the tuition dollars they draw, particularly relative to the salaries of tenure-stream faculty with similar teaching responsibilities.
If higher education in Illinois can only be preserved by replacing the shattered remnants of the pre-Rauner way of doing things with a "performance-based" system of funding, then supporting an agreement between the NTT union and the University administration is a step towards that bold new world of fiscal responsibility and financial stability.  An NTT contract would do what the present system does not: build accountability into the work of much of the teaching faculty and reward the ability of NTTs to fulfill the fundamental teaching mission of higher education without the high overhead of equipment like telephones, laptops, books, and internet connections (many teaching NTTs, lacking these amenities in their offices, do much of their work from home where they pay for them themselves). 

Oh, right: except that Gov. Rauner is holding the entire state budget hostage to the dream of eliminating collective bargaining. So much for NTTs leveraging their very cost-effectiveness into a better education for the taxpayers of Illinois.

The point is, when NTTs jostle and agitate for a contract agreement, they're not pulling the state deeper into the red. NTT teaching faculty already operate in the black and they want to hold their institution accountable for the instrumental role they play in upholding its mission to educate the students of Illinois (as well as the out-of-state and international students who also help to balance the books).

03 March 2016

What English Majors Don't Know

A short list of things that we can convey to our students.

1. It doesn't have to be like this.  Students who graduate without skills they can market to employers may have made bad choices, but majoring in English wasn't one of them.


 2. Few people end up working in a profession directly related to their major.

 3. Even fewer people end up doing the same thing for their entire lives. The statistic of "seven careers in a lifetime" may be mythical, but one doesn't have to search far for anecdata that people change, circumstances and values change, the relevance of particular jobs changes: it's highly unlikely that any industry-specific technical competencies that one gains in college will serve all of one's needs over a lifetime.

4.  Employers care about skills, not majors.  Majoring in English (or other "impractical" disciplines) will make you smarter in a number of ways: able to cope with complex information, comfortable with uncertainty, adept at encouraging inclusivity and diversity, talented at communicating in a variety of ways, skilled at hearing what is not said as well as what is said, experienced in framing problems and seeking out information to solve them, and, yes, good at writing.

6.  Many employers don't know that English majors (and their ilk) have the skills they're looking for. It's on us to get that message out and to help our students learn to make the case for themselves to employers.

5. Few employers care if you're good at going to school.  Granted: maintaining a high GPA is key to landing entry-level jobs at some large companies, and students who have their sights set on law school or other elite graduate study should focus on keeping their grades as high as they possibly can. Outside those specialized circumstances, students may be better served by a mediocre GPA that represents a willingness to take risks, struggle with difficult material, or explore the other kinds of intellectual opportunities that a college campus has to offer.

6. College is a great time to flounder. Students who graduate without a clear professional career path may flounder for a few years before landing in a stable and satisfying job. Students who chose narrow "practical" majors leading directly to a career may flounder once they realize that their eighteen-year-old selves lacked the knowledge to anticipate what their twenty-something selves would value. The more purposeful floundering students can do amidst the extensive resources of a college campus, the better: internships, a wide range of classes, volunteer programs, part-time jobs, student organizations, activism of various kinds, leadership roles.