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Why some UW professors want a union, and others resist one

The movement to unionize some 6,000 faculty members at the sprawling University of Washington is a daunting and complicated task. It is a fight in its very early stages, being waged now by faculty members who believe their power to influence the direction of the university has diminished in recent decades. Disillusionment with a fading voice in budget decisions, either real or perceived, has ballooned as the university grappled with the aftermath of the Great Recession.

Amid these economic struggles, union supporters argue, higher education priorities were skewed, swaying too much toward the powerful whims of the marketplace and compromising the soul of a university they love. Many faculty say that a union could help turn these tides.

State law dictates the first challenge: A faculty union must include almost everybody, from part-time lecturers occupying a low and vulnerable rung on the academic ladder to tenured full-time professors. To achieve the majority of votes needed to form a union, this mandate demands that faculty from vastly different academic disciplines forge, at the least, the perception of a common interest. The suggestion that there is something universal and powerful enough to warrant this level of cooperation strikes some as antithetical to the enormous diversity and autonomy that make the university great.

But for a burgeoning pro-union movement dubbed UW Faculty Forward, that nexus exists. It is a commitment to the principles that have historically guided public higher education — access, affordability and quality. After general declines in per-student funding for Washington’s public universities in the two decades before 2014, this group of scholars, researchers, and educators believe that those principles are under threat. A union, they say, could strengthen their influence in Olympia and help weaken the blow of what many activists consider a nationwide assault by state governments on higher ed.

Faculty and members of the administration who resist a union have begun mounting their opposition, attempting to cool what they see as a runaway movement that will threaten the independence of the faculty and damage the purple-and-gold-clad institution they too hold dear.

Amy Hagopian, an associate professor without tenure in the UW School of Public Health, is trying to explain how she gets paid. She says that the formula can change, but at any given month it might break down like this: Some 40 percent comes from a grant. There’s 30 percent from directing a Master’s of Public Health degree program, 12 percent for teaching a six-credit class, 7 percent from teaching a four-credit class to 50 students, 5 from chairing the curricula committee for her department. Another 1 or 2 percent might come for teaching seminars.

It’s as complicated as it looks.

“So this is my paycheck,” she says. “And each one has its own email burden, set of relationships, [and] set of meetings that I have to attend.”

Hagopian is one of the leading spokespeople for UW Faculty Forward, which embarked last academic year on a campaign to unionize the UW faculty. With that on top of her teaching and research responsibilities, Hagopian says, “I’m so exhausted I can barely function.”

Hagopian came to the UW as an undergraduate in 1972. She’s been with the university four decades, and this year, for the first time, she couldn’t secure a research grant. It wasn’t for lack of effort — she wrote seven proposals — but she says that the grant-giving machines like the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are drastically cutting back the money they dole out for research in her field.

The decline in research funds isn’t the only change that has come to bear on her professorship.

When she first arrived at the department, Hagopian and her colleagues were paid for work they now do for free. She provided first-year student advising as an example. She speculates that maybe 5 percent of her paycheck once came from meeting one-on-one with new students, whom she would advise on which courses to take, career possibilities and thesis projects. It’s not a massive time commitment, she says, but the three to four meetings a quarter and the constant emailing to share relevant journal articles or set up appointments means these students “consume some real estate in your mind.”

According to her, this is one of many cost-cutting measures the university has had to implement over the years to maintain productivity amid funding cuts.

The economic crisis of 2008 shook the university to its core.

When the state responded by cutting appropriations to the university by hundreds of millions, administrators, faculty, and students were forced to make tough decisions. Norm Arkans, UW’s associate vice president of media relations and communications, says enrollment also declined during the recession. To recover part of that money, the state Legislature let tuition increase dramatically over the next four years, shifting more of the burden onto students and their families. About 1000 jobs were also cut.

“But it wasn’t worse than that,” Arkans says.

His point is that for one of the largest employers in the stateit could have been. Up until 2008, state funding in actual dollars and salaries were on the rise and tuition was low, at least relative to universities similar to UW, Arkans says.

Then the recession hit, compounding the challenges for state government.

“People have short historical memories,” he says. “[In] 2008, the nation’s economy fell totally off the cliff … State revenues across the country dried up. They particularly dried up in [Washington state] because of our heavy reliance on sales tax. So there was no money coming into the state’s coffers, and the state had some really difficult and terrible choices to make. And we sympathize with the plight of the state Legislature.”

From his vantage point, Olympia “cushioned” the blow of funding cuts by increasing tuition. But UW made other cost-saving changes, too, by adjusting how certain programs ran and who taught them. According to Arkans, in some departments the university transitioned to a heavier reliance on part- and full-time lecturers, a nationwide trend that has set off worries in higher education.

Typically, contingent faculty like this are paid relatively little. They lack a strong voice in shaping curriculum content and they occupy a tenuous position in a market where expendability and what critics see as exploitation are commonplace. Arkans admits he doesn’t know the exact profile of this section of faculty — in other words, how reliant the university really is on this type of instructor — but in 2013, before the union push was underway, there “was a recognition that we needed to do something more,” he says.

So in collaboration with the faculty senate, the administration developed policies to address contract conditions of full-time lecturers, who may be among the most sought-after instructors but lack tenure. The eventual policy did not include those who are part-time, which Arkans acknowledges is an unresolved concern.

Hagopian felt the weight of the economic downfall and the long-term stresses on the university’s budget in her own sliver of the UW world. At one point, graduate degree programs in her department risked being cut. To salvage them, an ultimatum was posed: make the programs self-sustaining — that is, privatize them, as Hagopian calls it — or lose them. According to her, this meant that many programs would now fall under the banner of “Professional and Continuing Education,” where students pay the full cost of their degree without help from the state.

Amy Hagopian
Amy Hagopian

“The way we also pay for it is by completely underpaying the adjunct faculty who we hire to teach in those degree programs,” she says. “So here I am the director of this program, and I have to go to my practiced colleagues who are working day jobs in the health department and say, ‘Can I pay you $5,000 to teach a class at the UW, where you’re going to spend six hours a week in class, you’re going to spend two nights a week reading 40 pages of student papers, you’re going to come to seminars outside of class, you’re going to come to faculty meetings, you’re going to advise a first-­year student, you’re going to advise a capstone student, and this student is going to pay $50,000 in tuition for this degree.”

Hagopian says that a growing number of graduate programs campus wide operate this way.

Understanding how a union might play into all of this is not exactly intuitive. Negotiating stronger and clearer contracts, especially for vulnerable part-time adjuncts and lecturers, is certainly one impetus for the union push. Hagopian says that a union could eventually help address her complicated pay arrangement.

But there are larger motives driving the movement, and they have to do with power. The widening array of challenges that Hagopian and her colleagues face is perhaps best described as a symptom of a decades-long decline in per-student public funding, a trend that has seen some ups with the downs. According to supporters, a union would offer faculty guided relief to the economic burdens transforming the university and depriving the faculty of a meaningful voice to influence higher ed priorities in the state Legislature.

“This is the deal: If you unionize with SEIU, you have entree in Olympia,” says Hagopian, referring to Service Employees International Union, the union who faculty have partnered with.

In what some consider a sign of what a union could achieve, representatives of UW Faculty Forward and SEIU, along with students and anti-union faculty, met in mid-November with Gov. Jay Inslee to discuss his upcoming appointments to the UW Board of Regents, the governing body responsible for managing the university. The board’s current makeup worries some pro-union faculty for what they see as its heavy corporate tint. (Seven board members come largely from the business world, two from the non-profit sector.) It’s why they encouraged the governor earlier this month to select a member of their ranks as his next appointment.

The Board of Regents’ corporate nature is a reason UW Faculty Forward is painting it as one of the villains in this story. Hagopian’s difficulty securing a research grant from public sources, for example, is part of another trend in which more researchers nationally are forced to turn to private sources for funding. The shift can lead to university priorities that depend largely on market demands — what skills do students need to be ready for the marketplace — as opposed to priorities that concern students’ broader ability to contribute to civic life beyond the economy.

Robert Wood is the president of the UW chapter of the American Association of University Professors, a group that catalyzed the union push in an annual meeting last May. He says that the state Legislature has backed off from its historical commitment to public higher education, damaging the essential purpose of the university. He describes it as a movement away from the university as a public good — largely provided because many consider it a path to full participation in society — “to more of a private good.”

This is a prevalent critique in higher education circles. But the unique diagnosis and its consequences vary from institution to institution, and at the UW they are no easier to define. One way to understand this is to simply note that students now pay considerably more for their education than they once did. But the union push can also be understood as a manifestation of growing insecurity among faculty about how the university is run.

David Longanecker, president of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE) — which provides higher education research and policy analysis for 15 Western states — says that business-like practices have been imposed on universities across the country. The shift toward greater efficiency in institutions of higher ed (which have in the past been governed rather loosely, Longanecker says) has introduced a new array of forces into higher education that jeopardizes protections for faculty once central to academia.

For Wood, the creeping corporatization of the university can be felt in the shared-faculty governance system, long considered an institutional safeguard and voice for faculty. But he believes that today the effectiveness of the faculty senate has diminished, operating more like a rubber stamp than a reliable avenue for faculty-driven change.

“Who decides which buildings should be built and where we need to make strategic investments in the university is sort of just brought to the faculty, as opposed to the faculty having good influence,” Wood says.

His frustration with the faculty senate’s failure to push through a salary policy, which would provide more long-term clarity about what faculty can expect, is evidence of this. They’ve been unsuccessful, Woods says, because the administration claims there is no funding to make it work.

But, he says, “At the same time we’re building buildings across the campus.”

While state funding is a problem for universities nationally, experts say that financial stresses began in Washington state much earlier. Although the response to these challenges may suggest a growing emphasis on the needs of the marketplace (consider, as an example, increased investment in expensive resources that support STEM students), Longanecker says that broadening access to higher education has also strained universities’ finances. And it has made it harder to keep the costs of tuition as low as they were traditionally.

In the last 15 years, as the country endured two recessions, enrollment in higher education writ large expanded nearly 60 percent. But Washington state’s public purse didn’t hold pace. Despite the strong economy of the Clinton years, Olympia lagged behind the rest of the country in pumping money into higher ed.

“So Washington state lost some ground in the ’90s,” Longanecker says. “And then it hit this huge wave of demand and constraint on resources at the beginning of the new century, [which] has led to very tight times in the University of Washington.”

Financial challenges notwithstanding, the UW continued to soar in national rankings, partly because its faculty and researchers were bringing in so much funding from grants. The school’s ability to weather the last decade’s precarious economic conditions is a source of pride for many union opponents—many of whom point to this perseverance when defending their stance.

Underpinning their opposition is a fear that a union could undercut the quality of the university; a faculty-run anti-union website “UW Excellence” suggests as much. But resistance to the union push begins with a much more favorable view toward the current system of shared faculty governance.

Paul Hopkins, the co-creator of the site and chair emeritus of the Chemistry Department, says that there are many opportunities for faculty to give input and “try to nudge the ship.” Hopkins knows these channels well. He has served as a faculty senator and currently sits on the Senate Committee on Planning and Budgeting.

“Many people participate in those [channels] briefly and they come in and they see that they didn’t get their way,” he says. “Or I didn’t get my way. The truth is I rarely get my way on these things.”

But he continues to serve. Putting in the time allows him to be there at the moment when important decisions arise. Hopkins recalls that during the recession he sat at the table with the provost and other faculty members.

“We provided input,” he says. “No, we did not make the decision, but the provost listened on these things and we participated in the budgeting in the worst crisis I hope many of us see in our whole lifetime.”

Douglas Wadden, former executive vice provost and program chair in the School of Art, says that he’s seen this play out from both sides, and still believes that UW’s system of shared governance works well.

“I know what it’s like to feel that you’re not getting a full story, even though sometimes you are,” says Wadden, who has chaired various faculty committees. “It turns out [that] they don’t agree with the decision making. And if it’s going to be collaborative in true shared governance, there are going to be times when you disagree.”

He goes on, “When we sat in meetings talking about faculty salaries, missing in that conversation sometimes was where … the money [was] going to come from. So the implication that you can raise salaries, that you can transform research, that you can transform the nature of the operating funds in the absence of revenue streams, is unrealistic.”

The Capitol Dome Credit: Allyce Andrew
The Capitol Dome Credit: Allyce Andrew

There is no doubt that Olympia finds itself in a difficult spot. The Legislature is struggling to meet the state Supreme Court’s mandates for stronger financing of K-12 schools under the McCleary decision. And beyond that, the state’s constrained tax system has always made it difficult to secure the necessary revenue for higher education.

Wadden acknowledges that these are enormous challenges, but the suggestion that the union movement could address them implies the threat of strike. “I don’t see that working,” he says. He’s reluctant to imagine people like himself — who have invested decades in the institution and established strong relationships with their colleagues and students — walking away from their classroom, lab, or research grants to make a point to the state.

The former vice provost doesn’t let the state Legislature off the hook; he agrees that the university has suffered in ways that are unwarranted. But he believes that it is the business community that must step up and “restore the confidence” in the idea that higher education is a public good, rather than viewing it simply as a private gain.

Both Hopkins and Wadden stress that UW is a nationally and internationally ranked university, an accolade they largely attribute to the independence and entrepreneurial spirit of the faculty. Wadden says that faculty control many central facets of the institution’s academic enterprise, such as who is appointed to teach, what advancement is based on and what students must study to graduate. This autonomy, Wadden says, is what allows UW to maintain competitiveness among peer institutions that are vying for the best students, faculty, and staff in any given discipline. The computer science department at the UW, for example, will benchmark itself against Carnegie Mellon. According to Wadden, many of the premier institutions that the UW compares itself to aren’t unionized.

“And I think there are reasons for that,” he says. “It’s fundamentally contrary to the tremendous independence and autonomy that faculty have achieved, particularly at these premier institutions.”

It is difficult to determine whether a union would significantly disrupt this spirit, because, as union supporters are wont to say, the union is the faculty. On the other hand, it is also difficult to determine whether a union would have the effect in the state Legislature that UW Faculty Forward hopes.

Advocates often point to lessons at other unionized universities in the state when defending their case. Bill Lyne, the president of the United Faculty of Washington State, which represents the state’s four regional universities, says that along with contracts, the faculty relationship with administration has improved.

On the question of influence, Lyne says that the union was heavily involved in the last biennium’s budget debate, but he left it at that.

“The 2015 state budget marked the second straight biennium in which the state reinvested in public higher education, and we were happy to see that and happy to be a part of it,” he wrote in an email.

Whether the state Legislature will respond more favorably to a unionized UW is impossible to say. But while faculty seek what they believe to be a more effective way to compel the capital to prioritize access and affordability in higher education, the reality of Washington state politics is one of increasing resistance to a progressive agenda. Interestingly, some of the strongest support for higher education has come from the Republican-led state Senate.

Ana Mari Cauce Credit: UW
Ana Mari Cauce Credit: UW

The arguments driving both sides of the union divide are informed in part by strongly held convictions about the status and direction of a university to which many have dedicated their lives. Any path to reconciliation will surely be complicated by these passions.

Newly-appointed President Ana Mari Cauce, the first leader of UW in recent memory to rise from the faculty, has, in her first quarter at the official helm of the university, come out against unionization. Although faculty and students on either side of the debate express deep respect for the new president, the mounting union forces will likely prove a key challenge.

In an October address to the faculty senate, Cauce emphasized the importance of faculty in shaping the future of the university and stressed that she hopes the Legislature will carry on its support for the university in the coming biennium. She specifically mentioned the need for competitive faculty salaries.

Although union skeptics appreciate these gestures and argue that Cauce deserves time to respond to concerned faculty, union supporters believe this is no time to let up.

It has been years since a UW president enjoyed any kind of strong relationship with faculty. While Cauce could perhaps change that, union advocates don’t believe a more congenial atmosphere on campus can answer their larger concerns about the course of public higher education. Indeed, a union is not necessarily a be-all-end-all for Hagopian and other union supporters. This month’s meeting with the governor followed the circulation of a petition, with help from SEIU, by faculty, staff and students worried about the corporatization of the university. It garnered well over 3,000 signatures.

“We’re not waiting on a union to take on issues,” Hagopian says.

As UW Faculty Forward sees it, those who have the most capacity to create change currently occupy seats in Olympia. They intend to confront the state Legislature with a united faculty in an attempt to affect larger changes in the university and its status in the state. Whether the union movement evolves into a successful, pragmatic political force will remain unknown for some time. For now, opponents of a union should continue to welcome the debate.

If nothing else, the union push provides the university with an opportunity to discuss some of the most pressing issues facing higher education today: the plight of part-time faculty and full-timers with no job security, the consequences and benefits of a more bottom-line orientation at universities, and, perhaps most importantly, the purpose of a public university in the modern economy.

In a nation where higher education stands out of reach for many of its citizens, the latter is a concern for all.

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