The Power of Two: Leveraging Academic Senates and Faculty Unions

The Power of Two:  Leveraging Academic Senates and Faculty Unions

Student arrests during protest against tuition increases, Nov. 17, 2011, CSU Board of Trustees meeting.
Photograph by Stefan Agregado

Teri Yamada, Professor of Asian Studies

The challenge—for government, for universities, and for unions—is to recognize that while the environment is changing and the pressures are intense, adaptations must be made in ways that ensure that short-term fixes do not compromise sound public policies, such as the right to form associations and collectively bargain. Nor can short-term fixes be allowed to compromise fundamental public priorities, including access to an affordable, high-quality college education, and prudent, long-term financial planning by the government (1).

Across this nation, the ideology of disaster capitalism sadly continues to undermine affordable access to a quality liberal arts education (2).   Like mad hatters at a tea party, the governors of Pennsylvania, Ohio, South Carolina, Alabama and Kentucky slash budgets to public education while giving tax breaks to the rich (Jaffe).  In a panic, our public higher ed administrators make decisions without faculty input, reminding my colleague from China of his past experience there:  damaging and draconian.

What strategic response is there to a management that ignores its own university policy in tough times, often while demanding civility as a form of suppressing dissent? At the campus level, we need to be more engaged in academic senates and faculty unions while recognizing the power of synergy.  Keeping senates and unions at odds or co-opting them is a strategic advantage for authoritarian management.  Both senates and unions need to maintain independent integrity.  For senates, integrity means upholding university policy, essentially  maintaining faculty control over curriculum and programs; for unions, it is the support of faculty through enforcing the collective bargaining agreement.

Acting together, academic senates and unions present a formidable force against bad decisions of authoritarian administrations.  When senates and unions fail, we see outcomes like the reactionary and disruptive reorganization of the entire public higher ed sector in Connecticut, a draconian imposition of “efficiency” and standardization (3).   The inspirational faculty unions in Ohio collaborated with their public sector union colleagues in the “We are Ohio” movement to repeal SB 5  in fall 2011(Fichtenbaum). This bill would have undermined collective bargaining for all public workers in that state (4).    Collective action—joining across lines of “perceived” difference—in a single concerted action is the power of convergence. The power of two forces combined — activist academic senates and faculty unions—would at least slow down the thoughtless dismantling of public higher education.

Two  patterns to watch out for: corporatization or restructuring through pay-for-play funding,  and  the authoritarian corporate president.

Gary Rhoades and Sheila Slaughter, among  others, have provided extensive examples of corporatization through pay-for-play funding and its consequences.   In our current era of privatization, pay-for-play deals will be even harder for executive administrators to resist.  A recent example of academic pay-for-play occurred at Florida State University  (FSU) which received a $1.5 million grant from the Charles G Koch Charitable Foundation.  The Koch grant stipulated a series of hires and programs to support the study of free enterprise economics, including a course featuring the works of Ayn Rand. It also specified the hiring of non tenure-track  instructors for ‘gateway’ courses in this new program (Jaschik). Two faculty were hired with a Koch foundation representative included on the hiring committee as stipulated by this deal.

The Koch brothers now have similar agreements with more than 150 American colleges and universities (Greenwald).  As state universities are defunded, the pressure to accept these deals becomes ever more irresistible for stressed administrators.  Some see no hope of adequate funding from the state ever again—the new normal— and  they feel irresponsible if they refuse these funds.   Although a faculty panel at FSU, consisting of four former presidents of its Academic Senate, found there was no wrong doing with the Koch deal, one wonders if the results of their investigation might have been different with a strong faculty union voice.

Florida State University currently has about half of its faculty who are members of its union United Faculty of Florida, which has been struggling to regain power in the state after being essentially dismembered by Governor Jeb Bush in 2001 (5).  We can speculate that a strong academic senate allied with a faculty union not in the process of struggling to reinstate itself may have stopped Koch’s interference in the curriculum content of the Economics Department.  The FSU faculty panel did determine that such agreements should not be done in the future.   In contrast, the FSU Student Senate introduced a resolution denouncing the university’s acceptance of big donations from foundations in exchange for their influence on departments and curriculum (Goodman).  Imagine all three aligned!  Imagine members of academic senates, students, and union leaders jointly lobbying their legislature to restore state funding or engaging in unified  media campaigns.

The second dismantling pattern is the “authoritarian corporate president,”  often the “new” president (or provost) who organizationally moves  her institution into a CEO-like, hierarchical business model by dismantling or disrupting faculty governance and the power of  the faculty union.  A good example is President Liebergott of  Emerson, who turned against the union she formerly led in order to freely transform “her” institution without the barrier of consultation (Gravois).  Most presidents have never run a successful corporation.  And even if they have corporate experience, like our former CSU Chancellor Barry Munitz, they still frequently impose flawed plans (5).   As faculty know, consultation and transparency form the core of successful change in a public university.

The authoritarian president will not appreciate his campus’s faculty union.  It should be no surprise that faculty unions across the United States are often vilified by administrators as being antithetical to shared-governance systems.  As former president of Florida University Charles E Young states: “…I believe faculty bargaining units are inimical to the growth of strong shared governance” (Smallwood).  On the contrary, I would suggest that independent faculty unions and ethical academic senates working together to support university policy through collective bargaining agreements would enhance stronger  shared governance on campuses.  Perhaps that is not the kind of shared governance Mr. Young has in mind.


1. This comment by Pamela S. Silverblatt, vice-chancellor for labor relations and chief labor negotiator at the City University of New York is one of several comments found in “Forum: The Future of Faculty Unions”

2. Disaster capitalism, coined by Naomi Klein in her book The Shock Doctrine signifies multinational corporate moves  to profit from privatization forced upon financially troubled countries by the International Monetary Fund.    See her explanation “Naomi Klein: Disaster Capitalism” on YouTube 

And it is not just here but a global phenomenon, see Compton and Weiner.

3. Comments from a colleague at Central Connecticut State University: “In January 2012 in Connecticut , a new statewide system for Higher Education under a new Board of Regents (BOR) was created for the four state universities, twelve community colleges and one state college.   In these last few months,  major initiatives springing from the “completion agenda” and its major sponsors – the Lumina Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation – have been forthcoming, and more seem on the way.   These initiatives include a new transfer and articulation policy that will homogenize academic programs across the institutions, a common GenEd core across the system based on core competencies, the making of new transfer associate degrees, a heightened emphasis on workforce development, and a new legislative initiative that nearly prohibits all forms of remediation at both the state universities and the community colleges.   Just last week, the BOR held a workshop in which McKinsey and Company presented their “Winning By Degrees” report — an appalling document that detailed a list of “best practices” from institutions with particularly high rates of productivity (measured as number of degrees per dollar spent).   Their recommendations include: increase student-faculty ratios, use more part-time faculty, reduce expenditures on all non-instructional activities, and “disaggregate instruction,” by using less “skilled labor” to grade and proctor and by using standardized course designs.”

4. The situation of faculty unions in Florida is a sad case of union busting.  In 2001 Governor Jeb Bush and the Florida legislature scrapped the statewide Board of Regents, replacing it with boards of trustees at each of the eleven campuses.  The United Faculty of Florida was told it no longer had a collective bargaining agreement since the regents no longer existed.  The faculty union had to reorganize  at each campus with membership drives starting from the ground up (Gravois).

5.  See  Matthew Stewart’s “The Mangement Myth” for a deconstruction of management ideology or hucksterism that has inflicted American corporations.

Works Cited:

Compton, Mary and Lois Weiner, ed. The Global Assault on Teaching, Teachers and Their Unions. New York: Palgrave, 2008.

Fanon. Franz. The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Penuin, 1976.

Fichtenbaum, Rudy. “Rudy Fichtenbaum Addresses SB 5 Referendum Rally Crowd” April 9, 2011.

“Forum: The Future of Faculty Unions.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. July 24, 2011

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed, New York: Continuum, 2000.

Goodman, Howard. “University Students Recoil at Koch Influence.”  Progress Florida. Feburary 2, 2012.

Gravois, John. “Florida Court Orders Restoration of Collective-Bargaining Rights to Faculty and Employee Unions.” The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Gravois, John.  “From Friend to Foe.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. July 8, 2005.

Greenwald, Robert.  “Are the Koch brothers teaching you?” Daily Kos. January 24, 2012.

Jaffe, Sarah. “5 Right-Wing Governors Gutting Schools to Fund Prisons, Tax Breaks for the Rich…And a Bible Theme Park.” AlterNet, Feb. 26, 2012.

Jaschik, Scott.  “Mixed Verdict on Koch Grant.”  Inside Higher Education. July 18, 2011.

Slaughter, Sheila and Gary Rhoades.  Academic Capitalism and the New Economy: Markets, State, and Higher Education. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2009.

Smallwood, Scott. “Union Blues in the Sunshine State.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. April 2, 2004.

Stewart, Matthew. The Management Myth: Debunking Modern Business Philosophy. New York: Norton, 2009.

One Comment on “The Power of Two: Leveraging Academic Senates and Faculty Unions”

  1. […] recent blog post by Professor of Asian Studies, Teri Yamada, takes on questions about the compatibility of faculty senates and unions. She presents a concise […]

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