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America’s next union battlefield may be on campus

The union representing faculty in the Connecticut State University System protests a proposed increase in teaching loads on the campus of Southern Connecticut State. (Yunuen Bonaparte for The Hechinger Report)
9 min

On paper, Asia Leeds had the perfect career. As an assistant professor at Spelman College in Atlanta, she could focus on her passion of studying Afro-Latin American culture.

In reality, she felt like she was doing at least seven jobs — teaching, research, writing, applying for grants, advising students, running a minor, serving on committees — while getting paid for one.

The stereotype of the highly paid professor who delivers an occasional lecture and spends the rest of the time reading books “is an idea that for 90 percent of people doesn’t exist,” Leeds said. “It’s this fantasy you’re sold because it was what your professors were doing when you went to college.”

Now, not long after they were recognized for helping keep their universities and colleges running during the pandemic, faculty are coming under new pressure to prove their value while dealing with attacks on job security, demands for greater productivity and criticism over what and how they teach.

They’re also squaring off to fight back. A planned affiliation of two labor unions promises to expand their bargaining positions by uniting full-time professors with part-time adjunct instructors, graduate assistants and others.

In a significant move largely unnoticed outside of academia, the governing councils of the Association of American University Professors and the American Federation of Teachers this month agreed to a formal affiliation that would unite nearly 316,000 academic employees.

If it’s approved by the memberships of both unions, the deal promises to accelerate labor organizing on campuses.

“Organizing is expensive, and we haven’t had the capacity to organize as much as we wanted to,” said Irene Mulvey, president of the AAUP. “AFT has muscle and reach. This agreement is going to be a game-changer.”

It’s part of an under-the-radar but dramatic escalation in labor activism among university faculty at a time of steadily increasing challenges.

Howard University faculty call off strike after reaching tentative labor deal

University and college administrators, governing boards, state legislators and governors say they’re trying to improve the efficiency of higher education at a time of limited resources and sharply declining enrollment.

Faculty say they’re defending the quality of the educations that students, families and taxpayers are paying for.

About 120 new faculty union chapters have won recognition since 2013, with more than 36,000 members, according to the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College.

That includes 65 at private, nonprofit institutions, where faculty have historically been slower to unionize. Over the past 10 years, the number of faculty union chapters at private, nonprofit colleges has shot up by more than 80 percent.

“Faculty are organizing chapters in places that have not had chapters in many years, or ever,” said William Herbert, the center’s executive director.

He compared the mood among faculty to that of society more broadly: “The level of tension is high.”

Much of the momentum has been among the growing ranks of part-time adjunct faculty and graduate research and teaching assistants, whose union agitation resulted in significant concessions during the pandemic, when their comparatively low-cost labor was badly needed. Now they will for the first time team up broadly with full-time faculty colleagues, some of whom previously eyed them warily as potential competition.

Already, more than 500 full-time faculty and students at Howard University have come out in support of part-time adjuncts and non-tenure-track faculty — represented by the Service Employees International Union — who reached a tentative settlement this month of a dispute over pay and job security, just in time to avert a strike.

Half of part-time faculty across the country earn less than $3,500 per course, or around $28,000 a year for a typical teaching load, according to an AFT survey — about the federal poverty level for a family of four. Fewer than half have employer-provided health insurance.

Full-time faculty are also angry, though over other issues. Fewer than 40 percent strongly agree that they are treated with respect, a Gallup survey found. They’re increasingly being shut out of presidential searches, for instance, according to an AAUP report. That may seem like a small offense, but faculty see it as a first step toward weakening their role in sharing oversight of the universities and colleges where they work.

Some are quitting. Leeds left her Spelman job to work in sales for a technology company, for instance. The pandemic, she said, “took the last bit of energy I had.”

The fact that many others are planning to stay and fight is in part because their options for moving elsewhere inside academia have narrowed. The number of available faculty jobs is at a historic low because of hiring freezes, program cuts and enrollment declines, the American Historical Association reports; for every job advertised in the 2019-20 academic year, it said, a median of 82 and as many as 419 candidates applied — and that was before the coronavirus.

But what’s most alarming full-time faculty are threats to tenure, the form of indefinite appointment they enjoy that is meant to protect them from encroachments on their academic freedom but also serves as an important guarantee of job security.

“Those two trends, coming from inside and outside — you can see the allure of, ‘Collectively can we organize to start fighting back?’” said Scott Schneider, a partner at the law firm Husch Blackwell who counsels higher education clients.

A proposal introduced by South Carolina legislators would have abolished tenure altogether for new hires in that state’s public universities and required full-time faculty to teach at least two undergraduate courses each semester; it’s been withdrawn but is expected to be reintroduced next year. Iowa lawmakers have proposed abolishing tenure at Iowa State University and the universities of Iowa and Northern Iowa.

Under a proposal in Hawaii’s state senate, newly hired faculty without teaching responsibilities would no longer be eligible for tenure. Florida’s legislature has passed a bill requiring tenured faculty at public universities to undergo performance reviews every five years. The University of Missouri System has adopted a rule allowing the salaries of tenured faculty to be unilaterally reduced for reasons including low productivity.

The University System of Georgia made a policy change in October under which tenured faculty considered underproductive and not sufficiently contributing to student success could be fired without the usual dismissal hearing before a committee of their colleagues. And Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) in February proposed ending tenure for new faculty and revoking it for existing faculty if they teach critical race theory.

College faculty are fighting back against state bills on critical race theory

Faculty are also facing more immediate threats, including mergers and job losses. More than 60 percent of colleges and universities reduced their number of full-time faculty last year, and around the same proportion froze or reduced pay, the AAUP says.

Those faculty who are left are seeing their workloads rise.

Determined though they are to preserve their authority over what happens on their campuses, and to safeguard policies that protect their jobs, faculty may have a challenge winning over an important audience: students, families and taxpayers.

Only about a third of Americans think higher education is fine the way it is, while fewer than half believe that four-year universities are run efficiently, a survey by the think tank New America found. Only about 1 in 4 college graduates strongly agree that they had a professor who cared about them, according to a separate poll by Gallup.

Few other workers have job guarantees akin to tenure. And even after freezes and reductions, full professors at doctoral-granting institutions earn an average of $159,919, the AAUP says — nearly four times what the Census Bureau says is the median pay of Americans who work full time.

Taxpayers and parents “just see a place where students are going into massive amounts of debt and possibly having trouble enrolling in the classes they need,” said Rebecca Kolins Givan, an associate professor of labor studies and president of the union at Rutgers University, where the AAUP and AFT have already combined.

But “the disconnect between what they’re paying and what they’re getting is not about faculty productivity,” she said. “It’s about other university spending priorities.”

University and college faculty spend years getting doctoral degrees and working their way up the ranks. Measuring their productivity is hard, and risks reducing rather than improving educational quality, Mulvey said.

“If you’re going to start bean-counting, faculty may be reluctant to try an ambitious risk-taking research program that may not lead to results for a few years because they’ll be judged as unproductive. Or faculty might self-censor in the classroom, worried they might get complaints from students or parents, and their evaluations will be lower.”

Adam Sowards is another who isn’t sticking around to find out. Sowards is leaving his tenured full professorship in history at the University of Idaho at the end of this semester; he’ll be following his spouse, who has a new job, even though Sowards doesn’t.

“In an ideal form, being a professor is the greatest job ever,” he said. “But the gap between that and the reality has just gotten too wide.”

This story about faculty unions was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger higher education newsletter.