In class the past several weeks, students have repeatedly pried into the minds of their teachers with questions about the possibility of a faculty strike here at West Chester University. Students are wondering if the looming strike will become a reality, and how it would affect their class time, their educations, and for some, even their graduation. Students deserve answers to the questions that dictate their futures, but they also need to be informed about the issues behind the strike scare.
Currently, negotiations between PASSHE (Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education) and the APSCUF (the teachers and coaches Union for all 14 Pennsylvania state universities) are still ongoing. At the negotiating table, Mike Mattola represents the Chancellor and the PASSHE system Dr. Steve Hicks represents the 6,000 members of APSCUF. If the two sides reach an agreement and the agreement is approved between the entire faculty and the PASSHE board of governors, it then becomes a contract. However, the faculty has been working without a contract now since July of 2011, a time period that is the longest the faculty union, in its 30 year history, has ever gone. As teachers get more and more impatient with a contract agreement far from sight, the union begins to take measures to push PASSHE to negotiate seriously. Delegates from the 14 universities have already approved a strike authorization vote, so the next step is for the full body of APSCUF to vote to authorize a strike. This vote will take place at all the universities this week, beginning today, Nov. 12. However, just because a strike is authorized does not mean one will definitely be called. The faculty has voted to authorize a strike in many negotiations in the past, but so far there has not been an actual strike within the state university system. If authorized, the decision to call a strike would be up to the union’s president, Dr. Steve Hicks, and a strike could be called at any time as early as the week after Thanksgiving break. Even though the faculty have made it clear to students that they do not want to strike, the lack of agreement on key issues of the contract might just push the union to do so. According to Dr. Lisa Millhous, West Chester University’s Chapter APSCUF president and tenured associate professor of Communication Studies at West Chester University, the key issues at hand are teacher input in class size, compensation for developing online courses, healthcare and retiree benefits, and adjunct faculty salary.
Class size is a highly valued issue for students when choosing a university to attend. Higher teacher-student ratios means more one-on-one time between students and teachers and more opportunity for students to request personalized help and ask specific questions. The larger the class, the more difficult it becomes for each student to have a voice. According to Dr. Millhous, the faculty believe that as experts in their disciplines, they know best when it comes to the size of a class they can best instruct. The Chancellor is not willing to give those faculty members a say in class sizes, a position many assume will lead to larger class sizes.
Along with larger classes, the university system is seeing a shift to more and more online learning, but many fear that online teaching may lack quality. Under the current contract agreement, universities offer professors additional incentive payments for developing quality online classes, but the Chancellor would like to phase out these incentives because he believes the program has developed sufficiently and that most teachers now possess the skills to create online classes. The faculty argues that this eliminates extra funding in order to create quality videos and websites, and that it will lead to unwilling faculty being forced to create online classes when they are unqualified and uninterested. Again, faculty argue that they know best when it comes to creating a learning environment that fosters growth in their disciplines.
Of course the faculty union is concerned with the fair treatment of teachers. The union is asking that the Chancellor allow them to ask healthcare companies for open competitive bids as opposed to the current contract with Highmark that Dr. Millhous describes as non-competitive and expensive. The Chancellor refuses what sounds like a simple and honest request, leaving faculty to wonder if the current healthcare contract is because of the presence of a Highmark member on the PASSHE board of governors.
The last and possibly most prominent discrepancies over a new contract concerns the compensation for adjunct faculty, temporary faculty who may work full-time but for whom their position cannot lead to tenure. The union believes that faculty members who have taught at the university fulltime for five years should have a possibility for raises, promotions, and job protection. The Chancellor counters this request with “realignment of pay for temporary faculty to better reflect regional rates at other higher education institutions.” In other words, he wants to cut adjunct faculty pay by 35 precent, a pay cut that would result in some full time faculty members (375 at West Chester), even ones with master’s degrees receiving approximately $28,000 per year for their work, according to Dr. Millhous. In addition to the pay cut, the chancellor wants to raise the workload required for faculty to be considered full-time. The result of these proposals would allow the Chancellor to employ more temporary faculty, likely of less quality, for as cheap as possible. Students should question where this proposal will leave the quality of their educations.
All in all, Dr. Millhous argues that “the proposals the Chancellor has put on the table will destroy the system, reduce our reputation and the quality of our programs, and make in impossible to recruit quality faculty.” As is often the case in contract negotiations, both sides seem to have reached a point that they feel they cannot compromise any further and cannot see how the other side believes their position to be fair. Having reached this point and understanding the need for settlement to be reached, the faculty union offered to hand the contract over to interest arbitration. Interest arbitration is a growing alternative resolution meant to avoid strikes and suffering for all members involved. A neutral third party, the arbitrators, steps in to finish a contract. The arbitrators take all involved interests into account and make decisions based on what they believe each party would have agreed to if they were bargaining fairly. The union’s offer to the Chancellor on Sept. 25 was to continue negotiations until Nov. 9 at which point any issues not yet agreed upon would be resolved by a three person board of interest arbitrators. The Chancellor replied, “We believe it would be improper to delegate those responsibilities to a third party arbitrator who does
not have the responsibility or duty to consider the financial implications of their decisions and who is not obligated to take into account the interests of Pennsylvania taxpayers or the long-term effects of those decisions on the Commonwealth or PASSHE.”
In the same letter the Chancellor continued, “We remain committed to the negotiating process.” Despite the Chancellor’s claims, Dr. Millhous insists that “committed” is far from a true description for the Chancellor’s team of negotiators, “We started negotiating this contract two years ago. We have had difficulty getting the Chancellor’s negotiation team to commit to meeting days; when we have meetings they often show up and say they have nothing to give us. In fact, at the negotiating meeting on Nov. 2, their negotiator suggested that there might be nothing for us to talk about at the next scheduled meeting.” The Chancellor’s actions suggest that the only thing he is truly committed to is cutting costs. In the face of Governor Corbett’s proposed budget, the attention to costs is not unwarranted, and according to the Chancellor, they have achieved cost savings in negotiations with two of the other worker’s unions involved in the universities. However, the portion of the universities’ operating budget that is spent on teacher salaries and benefits has already seen a decline. Last school year, only 38.5 percent of West Chester’s operating budget went toward instructional salaries and benefits (www.nces.ed/ipeds/datacenter). In other words, $61.50 of every $100 was spent outside of the classroom. According to Dr. Millhous, “There is so much profit being made in large classes at WCU that the institution is able to put some of that money away in a bank account at the end of the year. Over the past 10 years the cash reserves at WCU have grown quite a bit.”
On Oct. 11, 100 faculty from across the system met outside PASSHE’s board of governor’s meeting to protest the Chancellor’s proposal with signs reading “Be Fair” and “Settle so we can teach,” but faculty futures are not the only ones at stake. Students can have a say by emailing the Chancellor at email@example.com to ask him to negotiate seriously and get a contract signed. Students can tell West Chester’s President Weisenstein (firstname.lastname@example.org) about the adjunct professors they have had and how greatly they have affected education at WCU. Adjunct faculty are also being celebrated at the new WCU Adjunct facebook page (http://www.facebook.com/WcuAdjuncts) where students and teachers alike can appreciate the job WCU’s adjunct faculty do. Now that election results are in, students and their parents can contact state legislators with concerns about the strike and also tell them how class sizes, online learning, and adjunct faculty have affected personal learning experiences at WCU. Lastly, students can call the school to make sure the contract has been settled with the faculty before paying their spring tuition. Like Dr. Millhous says, “One of the things faculty are trying to teach students at WCU is that you have to stand up for yourself – stand up for your ideas, stand up for your beliefs.”
Joy Wilson is a third-year student majoring in communication studies. She can be reached at JW794401@wcupa.edu.