Pennsylvania Professors Dig In for a Long Fight
Chronicle of Higher Education
Pennsylvania Professors Dig In for a Long Fight
By Peter Schmidt MILLERSVILLE, PA.
As a faculty strike at Pennsylvania's 14 state-owned colleges entered its second day on Thursday, some professors and students were voicing concerns about the possible consequences of a prolonged walkout. Above, faculty members from Millersville U. picketed in nearby Lancaster, Pa., on Wednesday.
At noon Thursday, on the second day of a statewide strike by the faculty of Pennsylvania’s state college system, the mood among roughly 80 instructors and students near Millersville University’s library turns from festive to reverent. At the urging of a professor with a bullhorn, they begin singing "The Star Spangled Banner" while facing a nearby monument to former students claimed by the Civil War, on fields such as those of Gettysburg.
Like many of those that the monument honors, those picketing here have rallied behind what they portray as a noble cause — in their case, preserving the quality of higher education in their state. Underlying the celebratory mood, however, is a fear that they, too, might be in for a much longer struggle, with much more sacrifice, than initially hoped. With more than 460 faculty members here having refused to show up to teach classes on Thursday, it has become clear that most Millersville students will not be able to take classes, and most instructors won’t be collecting pay or benefits, for some time to come.
“It is a huge, huge risk for me. I have four kids.” The 14-campus Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education had faced, and avoided, potential strikes by its faculty union five times in its 33 years of existence. Many here had hoped that their system would follow the lead of two of public higher education’s other giant employers, the California State University and City University of New York systems, which recently struck bargains with faculty unions whose members had authorized strikes. Instead, with contract talks having reached an impasse late Tuesday night, the 5,500-member Association of Pennsylvania State Colleges and Universities called a strike early Wednesday and, a day later, did not appear to be poised to go back to work any time soon.
"You always assume the past is going to predict the present, which is a bad assumption to make," Kirsten Madden, an associate professor of economics, had said soon after the strike was called.
"We did not want this," chimed in Debra Vredenberg, also an associate professor of psychology.
The strike had begun Wednesday on a celebratory note, with hundreds of students marching through the campus and drivers honking their approval at the picketers. Many of those faculty members maintained a similarly upbeat tone on Thursday, but the reality of what might lie ahead seemed to be sinking in.
"It is a huge, huge risk for me. I have four kids," said Aaron M. Haines, an assistant professor of biology.
"It just feels like it is more real today," said an art professor who asked not to be quoted by name because she did not want her colleagues to see her as negative. The earlier enthusiasm, she said, feels "a little diminished."
The state higher-education system says it has offered the faculty union all it can, especially considering that the state remains on the heels of a recession and the college system has lost about 12 percent of its enrollment over the past five years.
"From our perspective, what’s made this round of negotiations much more difficult is the financial situation many of our universities are facing," Kenn Marshall, a spokesman for the university system, said in an interview Wednesday.
Focus on Quality
The statewide union and many of its members, however, accuse Frank T. Brogan, the system’s chancellor, of pushing an agenda that values cost savings over the good of their institutions, as evidenced by the system’s contract proposals calling for the state colleges to rely more heavily on online courses. Citing the fluid and, at times, secretive nature of the contract negotiations, they voice doubt in the system’s assertions that it has taken off the table proposals to have colleges rely more on instructors who lack doctorates or are off the tenure track.
Almost without exception, the picketers interviewed here insisted that they went on strike to protect educational quality, and not in response to bread-and-butter concerns.
“Many of the changes that they have proposed erode the quality of the education we are offering.” "Many of the changes that they have proposed erode the quality of the education we are offering," said Angela L. Cuthbert, a professor of geography, who held a sign saying "Education is not a business." She estimated that it would cost $1,800 a month to get her family on another health-insurance plan to replace the coverage she lost by striking, but she sees the sacrifice as one worth making on behalf of stepdaughters that she hopes to send to one of state’s colleges someday.
Michael Dillon, an assistant professor of accounting and finance, said on Wednesday that his department was already becoming too dependent on instructors who lacked doctorates. "I have nothing against them, but they are not as qualified," he said. "If you cheapen the brand of the university, employers are not going to hire your students."
Adjunct instructors here are especially worried, because the state system had offered proposals to reduce the compensation of part-time faculty members and to require full-time temporary faculty members to teach five, rather than four, classes each semester. The state system says it has withdrawn those proposals, but faculty members remain wary.
If the system cuts adjunct pay or requires more work of adjunct instructors, "either way, I lose out," said Nina L. Brown, an adjunct instructor of special education.
"Millersville currently pays their adjuncts well, compared to other institutions, and that is what attracts quality adjuncts to Millersville," said Nikole R. Kochan, an adjunct instructor of communication.
'A Tough Situation'
The university’s own administrators appear, so far, to be spared the wrath that the faculty members feel toward the state system’s leaders. Oliver Dreon, an associate professor of instructional technology, says administrators and faculty members here are trying to maintain a good relationship, mindful that "we still have to work together when this is over."
"The administration here hasn’t been against us. They haven’t been for us, but they are in a tough situation," said Aaron M. Haines, an assistant professor of biology.
“I am not doing this for me. I am doing this for the junior faculty and the faculty we have not hired yet.” At this point, at least, faculty members say they think they can handle the financial costs of a long strike, even though the union does not have a strike fund to help them pay their bills. They talk about relying on an employed spouse, picking up work elsewhere, and trying to find ways to cut costs.
"I can weather the strike, but I am not doing this for me," said Alex J. DeCaria, a professor of meteorology. "I am doing this for the junior faculty and the faculty we have not hired yet."
Students are less certain of how they will cope if the strike drags on.
Jessie A. Garrison, a sophomore from West Chester, Pa., said uncertainty about the strike’s potential impact on her studies had her stressed out. Her chief concern, she said, was that the university would make up for the lost class time by extending the semester into winter break, when she planned to work a full-time job to help pay her tuition bills.
Once the new contract is settled, Ms. Garrison said, "If I find out adjuncts are teaching most of my classes, I will switch schools. That is not what I am paying for."
"Don’t strike and cause us to miss classes!" Janeen Simmons, a junior who is majoring in meteorology, said Wednesday after the strike was announced. "We are sort of getting behind now," she said. "We still need to be educated."
Katherine Knott contributed to this report from Washington.
Peter Schmidt writes about affirmative action, academic labor, and issues related to academic freedom. Contact him at email@example.com.
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