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 state, it 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.