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Thursday, April 17, 2014

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Who is Responsible for the University? Lessons from an Almost Strike

By Jennifer Ruth (Department of English, Portland State University)

At Portland State University, we voted to authorize a strike this spring if our collective bargaining team could not reach an agreement with the administration. Nine days before the strike would have begun, on April 6th, a tentative agreement was achieved. PSU-AAUP members voted April 15th and 16th on whether or not to ratify the agreement. The expectation is that the agreement will be ratified.

PSU has had a collective bargaining chapter since 1978 but never voted to authorize a strike before.

Why now?

The rot here is no different from that seen across the nation at countless state universities: spiking student tuition for a student body least capable of shouldering  debt; drastic decline in state funding over thirty years; gradual and now unsustainable increases in non-tenure-track and adjunct faculty over the same thirty years; more top administrators than ever before, more of whom are “outsiders” bereft of institutional history and relationships.

Surely the story here is a familiar one elsewhere as well? Surely, elsewhere, too, the once vital shared governance between an almost wholly tenure-track faculty and a set of administrators who rose from their ranks has deteriorated into what faculty term a “shit show” of open hostility and contempt from both sides. On one side is an increasingly disaffected and resentful mix of tenure-line and non-tenure-line faculty; and on the other, an administration distracted by its search for quick fixes (MOOCs!)

It doesn’t surprise me that our union decided to stake everything to force some of these issues onto the bargaining table. What surprises me is that the administration looked so baffled and so bewildered when they played and we didn’t dance. What did they think happens when a university’s budget is leveraged on a disposable workforce? Did they expect new levels of trust in, and loyalty towards, the institution?

Why here? That’s a tough question to answer since I imagine that many universities are on the cusp of the same set of events we’ve just experienced. Does it ultimately come down to the confluence of individuals involved? A union President and bargaining team with the courage to force a crisis, a set of administrators singularly unaware of, and so unprepared for, the depth of the dysfunction under their noses? An analysis that lights on individuals in their uniqueness and freedom is not one that a structuralist like me offers with great confidence but what else?

What now is the more important question. I had moments of deep frustration with the union leadership over these last months. In particular, I felt that the narrative they relied upon was one that scapegoated the two people at the very top – the President and Provost – for a rotten infrastructure that was many years in the rotting. We – the faculty, those in union leadership, many members of senate, department chairs and senior faculty—had been here much longer than had either the president or provost and my experience as chair of my department had taught me very clearly that we – tenured faculty and chairs—had done as much to create the mess as anybody else. Were we going to be able to fix things if we weren’t honest about how they’d gotten so messed up in the first place? Driving two people out of their jobs would not break down the system and rebuild it along more sustainable and ethical lines.

The reality that we were all going to have to account for ourselves—not just the President and Provost—sunk in when I attended a forum held by the union leadership in the final days of bargaining. The most dramatic testimony that night was given by someone who had been an adjunct at PSU for thirteen years. He talked about the letters of recommendation he’d written over the years. Letters of recommendation—like so much else at the university—presume a stable faculty paid the kind of salary and given the kind of professional status that allows him or her to do many numbers of things without negotiating for a “wage” in return.

So PSU hired this person term after term, paid him peanuts, and relied upon him to write letters of recommendations for a generation of students. Our president had been here six years and the provost one and a half. They didn’t even know this adjunct existed. Who did? The chair of the department he taught in. And if the tenure-track faculty in that department did not know he existed, they should have. When they asked for a course release to finish their book projects, did they ask about the adjunct who would be hired to fill their place? The fact that this person was invisible was not one person’s fault but nor do I want to invoke the phrase “broken system” here. Real people signed these contracts; real departments relied upon this labor. It is the fault of  both administrators and tenured faculty.

Calling out our own quiet complicity in the deterioration of the university and the exploitation of adjuncts is not for the faint of heart. Rebecca Schuman, whom few people would consider faint of heart, was herself deeply shocked by the vitriol that spewed forth when she suggested in a blog post that we stop hiring adjuncts. Well-meaning tenure-track faculty ask her all the time, she wrote, “but what can we do?” Here’s a thought, she said: Don’t hire someone on wages you wouldn’t accept. People were not prepared for that answer. We have become far more comfortable blaming administrators as if they alone run universities. Those of us with tenure are also responsible for what happens at our universities.

Unions like PSU-AAUP have taken the first step: they woke up our administration. “I have heard you, and I'm listening,” President Wiewel told Faculty Senate in remarks that were then forwarded to the rest of the campus community. “We should explore strengthening tenure by looking at developing a system that works for what are now fixed-term faculty,” he said. He did not mention adjuncts. But we must. It’s up to the tenured faculty to see him on “strengthening tenure” and raise him one by bringing adjuncts into the picture. If we fail to do this over the next two years, I hope the same confluence of unique and free individuals rise to the occasion again when a new contract is bargained. 


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