An Interview with Wayne Lanter

Wayne Lanter retired from Southwestern Illinois College and wrote a book about his 25 years of experience with union battles at one of the most important sites of faculty labor activism. Lanter’s book, Defending the Citadel, details the ups and downs of these labor fights. John K. Wilson interviewed Lanter via email for Academe Blog and Illinois Academe.

Academe Blog: You write about the personal experience of being at Southwestern Illinois College (then called Belleville Area College) when it became the first AAUP chapter to unionize in 1967. Amazingly, you unionized first, and then informed the national AAUP about this after the fact, somewhat to their surprise. Did you ever fear that the AAUP would refuse to recognize your union?

Wayne Lanter: John, the AAUP chapter at Belleville Area College (BAC) did not exactly unionize in 1967. The chapter supported a “salary committee” but the committee was board sanctioned, as was the BAC Faculty Senate. The Salary Committee members were literally individually certified or appointed by a board vote. And for the most part faculty serving on the salary committee thought of themselves not as members of a collective bargaining unit but more as a board appointed committee of quasi-administrators. The Salary Committee could have been thought of as “union” only in what is known in labor circles as “a company union.”

Most of the 1967 BAC/AAUP faculty came to the college from the local (Belleville) high school. From 1946, when the college, Belleville Township Junior College (BTJC) was founded, until 1967 the college was part of the high school district. Certain of the high school teachers taught high school and BTJC classes. At the high school each year or so a teachers’ committee sat down with the board and administration to discuss and establish salary and working conditions for the following year. And I should emphasis “discuss.” The Belleville high school practice seems mostly to have proceeded by mutual agreement rather than by bargaining–which means the teachers representing the high school faculty were actually quasi-administrators just talking things over with the board.

The 1967 BAC/AAUP did not especially like the idea of “union” applied to “higher education.” Shortly after BAC became a Class I Junior College the faculty chose the AAUP over the AFT and NEA. The choice was promoted and driven by a disdain for the AFT and NEA, which were thought of as “unions” and as having a blue collar tint. The AAUP was seen as collegiate and somewhat above and beyond the mundane machinations of high school faculties. Certainly the 1967 BAC faculty did not think of themselves or their committee as a board adversary or counter-balance. The faculty expected the committee to be treated or honored by the board as were other board appointed committees. So it seems unlikely the BAC AAUP officers in 1967 would have classified their committee as a union collective bargaining unit.

On the other hand, southwestern Illinois was especially heavily unionized, the first BAC Board of Trustees was dominated by local business men, and so many of the faculty came from union families, it is understandable that a board/Salary Committee conflict was imminent, and that the committee, for practical reasons, would in the not too distant future morph into a collective bargaining unit.

At first BAC AAUP Chapter President Genevieve Snider said she thought the BAC/AAUP chapter activity was “pretty routine.” The chapter was the only organization in the school that represented the faculty. The AAUP controlled the Faculty Senate and the Salary Committee was formed from the Faculty Senate–the two were populated by many of the same people. But the 1967 Salary Committee was close enough to a “union bargaining unit,” and had stepped sufficiently afield of traditional AAUP activities, that Snider thought she should notify the national office of the chapter’s new role. Then, too, Snider was a Navy vet and not in the habit of withholding information from her superiors.

That year Snider attended the AAUP Annual Meeting in Cleveland intending to inform the AAUP of Belleville’s operation. But because of Isreal Kugler’s speech at the meeting, exhorting the AAUP to join forces with the AFT, and the AAUP’s general disapproving attitude about unions, she reconsidered. Later, when she called the office with the news, Snider remembered the AAUP was shocked, as she said, “to put it mildly.”

After the announcement, even though a number of people in the national office were already advocating a more “union” approach for the AAUP, Snider still thought the AAUP might pull the BAC chapter charter. As it turned out the national office simply looked the other way. Even though AAUP President Clark Byse eyed the innovation with a smile and said, “I cannot say I am displeased with the development,” the AAUP did not bother to inform other AAUP members of Belleville’s innovations. The BAC chapter was not mentioned or recognize as a “bargaining unit” until 1970 when several university chapters became faculty bargaining agents. In other words the Belleville apostates were tolerated rather than acknowledged.

Of course the AAUP seemed not to have had any reason to consider unionization, at least not until 1981 when Belleville forced the first joint AFT/AAUP local/chapter merger–when the AAUP had to agree to the AFT “union” affiliation or lose the Belleville chapter. Despite the fact that we had built our programs at BAC on AAUP principles and would continue to use them, those of us who sponsored the merger were less concerned about losing the AAUP than we were interested in getting the local union support the AFT offered. During the 1980 strike on a number of occasions people stopped to ask our pickets, perfectly sincerely, “Is this a real strike? I mean, do you have a union?”

As it turned out, from 1981 on we were pleased to have both the AFT and the AAUP. It worked well. We needed both organizations.

 

Academe Blog: You were also involved in one of the first strikes by an AAUP chapter, in 1980. Do you think college faculty unions need to undertake more strikes in order to exert power, or did some of the faculty resistance you encountered (including from AAUP members) suggest that strikes are unlikely to unite the faculty?

Wayne Lanter: At this late date I would see educational strikes as tornadoes or earthquakes, a severe condition imposed on a mostly unsuspecting community. Of course you can’t win a tornado or earthquake; you simply endure them and then clean up afterwards. So it is with strikes. And though I suppose sometimes extreme events bring communities together, in a strike, as in the aftermath of natural disasters, there is also a good bit of despair and disorganization in the community. Strikes discourage and polarize, but seldom unify.

On the other hand, faculty are sometimes so beleaguered and maltreated and boards and administrations so incompetent and malevolent that the entire bargaining or agreement (governance) structure of an institution breaks down. A faculty strike may be necessary as part of the bargaining process–business by other means, to be undertaken, regardless.

Still I would think that a day-by-day sustaining-organization and integration of the bargaining unit would be the source of faculty power. I’ve noted in Defending the Citadel that most faculty would rather not be extra-institutionally political. Faculty members want to research, write and teach. That’s their job. They want most of all to be in the classroom with their expertise and with their students. And because of this, having been diverted from their primary purposes, and to withstand the wear and tear inherent in a strike, a faculty would need to be very well organized beforehand.

College and university faculty are diverse folk and individually always have their own institutional/political agenda. In 1980, at BAC, in an attempt to do away with the bargaining unit the board offered the faculty individual contracts. We were never sure how many of the faculty actually signed the contracts. Out of a hundred twelve faculty members we could account for possibly fifteen or so who signed the individual contracts. Yet we only had eighty-three strikers. Obviously some of the faculty refused to sign the contracts, but did not join the strike. The strike was a bit beyond their agenda, though they still supported the bargaining process. In fact, after the strike, several non-union non-strikers thanked me for what we had done. One said, “I really couldn’t have done what you people did. But I do appreciate it.” Some people may be sympathetic to your cause and theirs, just not actively so. In such cases I don’t think strikes will necessarily serve to unite a faculty or strengthen the union.

Interestingly enough, during the three-week 1980 strike at BAC several faculty members who had been in strikes at other schools refused to join the walkout. On the other hand, Tom Cochran the 1980 BAC AAUP Chapter president had been fired at Lockport, Illinois high school ten years earlier for striking–in 1980 he was one of the strike leaders.

In the years following the 1980 strike I served as chief faculty negotiator and on a number of occasions loyal 1980 strikers swore to me that they would never again be involved in a strike. The message was clear. Lanter if you are going to try to settle this thing, then do it at the table. Otherwise I’m not with you. Additionally, in the wake of the 1980 strike, several very good faculty members left the school. For the majority, working conditions at BAC were the cause, of which the strike and the very real possibility of a future strike were primary.

In the 1980 walkout, while a hard-core of 60% of the faculty remained loyal to the bargaining unit, others flaked off and abandoned the strike. Suspecting that we could all too easily again end up on strike in the near future, when we returned to work we wanted to reclaim or reinstate the drop-outs. We also wanted to move non-union faculty into the union. That was our job. We needed the support of the entire faculty. If we were to again use a strike as a bargaining tool, as I mentioned, we would have to be well put together beforehand. Of course with the division caused by the strike, this was not an easy task.

All of this said, I am not discouraging strikes or strikers. You do what you have to do. I would suggest that college and university faculties organize well, but I do mean organize, not merely assemble, and strike as often as necessary, when it is necessary to secure adequate salaries and other educationally sound conditions to maintain and improve the academy. But even when used for the best purposes, there is always a danger that strikes will polarize rather than unite faculties.

 

Academe Blog: Some critics have argued that the AAUP’s move to have collective bargaining units marked a long decline in the organization, causing members to resign and reducing the AAUP’s credibility as an objective arbiter of its principles. What do you think unionization did to the AAUP?

Wayne Lanter: From the beginning the AAUP has been on the right track. The problem, as I see it, is that the organization was overly endowed with ivory tower eighteenth century assumptions that just do not hold up in a modern, industrial, capitalist society. Remember, in the beginning AAUP membership was by “invitation alone.” It was a private academic club, not a full faculty organization intent on protecting scholars, or anyone else for that matter. So it was easy to have high sounding principles and to complain when the rest of the world didn’t honor them–even if no one, or only a few listened–although in some cases complaining may have had a positive effect.

And that was all good–in the beginning. But today it’s a different matter. Let’s face it, very few people in the American expanded economy (as much money as you can get your hands on in as short of a time as possible) really care about education, or sound, fair academic standards. Regardless of their PR babble, the robber barons seated on university and college boards are not much impressed by AAUP principles.

That doesn’t mean the principles are defective or wrong. I wrote in Defending the Citadel,

It’s not that the AAUP’s principles were not well thought out. They were and are–sometimes, beautifully and accurately so. And many of the rules derived from AAUP principles are substantive. But ideas alone do not bring change, and position papers require more than an authority, no matter how revered and esteemed the authority, sitting in a cluttered office somewhere, claiming that’s the way it is supposed to be.

It’s the “more” here that counts. Principles un-enforced are not principles at all. Only “arbitrators” with power to put their decisions and/or pronouncements into practice will give the principles meaning. And the AAUP, for numerous reasons, has over the years eschewed developing or courting the political/social power to enact and enforce its principles.

The same month BAC opened (August 1968) the faculty had the AAUP’s “1940 Statement of Principles” included in the BAC Board Policy Manuel. Then the 1980 board dropped it, quite arbitrarily. In 1986 I attempted to negotiate it into the BAC contract but failed. Then in 1992 we did negotiate it into the contract and the next summer bargained it, again, into the Board Policy Manual. The principle has been one of the mainstays of our existence with the Southwestern Illinois College Board. But as good as it is, we had to muscle it into position. The BAC board was not going to “do the right thing.” We had to do that.

For the AAUP’s part, when confronting the new (twenty-first century) educational executives, sanctioning, shaming and complaining are not going to work. In other words, you have to get into the every-day-of-life mix of putting the principles into action and having the strength and therefore the power to enforce them. That requires hard work and, eventually, political muscle (and brains), and unionization is just about the only avenue available for that assignment.

I’m more than familiar with the corporate/academic rap that unionization has ruined or caused all the problems in higher education. Originally colleges and universities operated without unions, even without organizations such as the AAUP. We know that people do not form unions for friendship or camaraderie. They build unions for protection, and eventually to improve their professions and their lives.

So what happened in American higher education that prompted faculties to look for protection? Well, in the early twentieth century robber barons (Mrs. Stanford heads the list) taking over, or even founding colleges and universities, took to treating university professors as Chinese laborers building railroads were treated. At the time there was no real union presence in higher education–and wouldn’t be for decades. Clearly, whatever damage was done to the academy over the years was done without a union in attendance.

On the other side, I think unionization has brought the AAUP, even if reluctantly, into the mix, and made it a much more worthy (practical) and less dreamy (idealistic) participant and opponent of those who have corporatized the academy. With unionization the AAUP has come of age, somewhat–has, so to speak, matured a bit.

And, of course, there are always people (including higher education faculty) who do not want to grow up.

 

Academe Blog: One lesson from your book is the peril of having public colleges controlled by elected officials, particularly in conservative areas, who are either incompetent or hostile to faculty. What do you think faculty should do to try to get a board of trustees who might be willing to support AAUP principles?

Wayne Lanter: Everything they can. I’m assuming “AAUP principles” means sound educational practices. Unfortunately, though boards are supposed to operate as a whole rather than as individual members, a good bit still depends on the individual board member. So what can be done to get good board members? Here I am talking about board members who are decent, fair people who want to encourage a viable educational institution.

First of all, faculties might work to draft and elect educationally sound candidates, though that is easier said than done. In two elections at BAC (1981 and 1983) in which the faculty was involved we had major difficulties finding candidates to support. Board positions require a good bit of an individual’s time and board members are not reimbursed for their service. There is no salary. So the general problem has to do with “who wants the job?” And most often the answer is simple. “Nobody.” Well, almost nobody.

Those who volunteer to run in school board elections often have something other than education in mind. They include, but are not limited to, petty politicians hoping to get their name before the public so they might later run for another perceived “higher” office, business people who want the prestige of governing a public institution (as an advertisement for their business), people with an ax to grind (here I’m thinking of the Evangelicals and the anti-tax people) or maybe just a parent who thinks his child has been mistreated by the school system.

Then, too, candidates who appear faculty-interested, once elected, often abandon their supporters and become decidedly faculty-adverse. In 1981, because we couldn’t find anyone with even a passing interest in education, we ran two candidates who were “about all we could find” or really the only people left on the list. We won the election, but almost immediately lost them. Within a few months they queued up with the then current and dangerous board with which we were afflicted. In 1983 we had better luck finding educationally interested candidates, in fact two very good candidates, but neither one was elected.

More than that, often board candidates do not want faculty support or want to appear indebted to the faculty of the school they will be overseeing. It has to do with the public’s attitude about teachers; who teachers are and what they are expected to do. One candidate, maybe the best board member BAC ever had, literally rejected our offer to campaign for her.

There’s also the problem of voter disinterest. Even though school boards may control millions of tax-dollars, and are at the center of the immediate culture of the community, very few people see them as worthy of time for a vote. Mostly those who vote in school board elections are people who are impressed with familiar names and candidates they perceive to have lots of money, or voters who have some fringe-group interest.

Maybe the best approach would be for faculty to form a liaison committee to meet with the board on a regularly basis. But that is what the Faculty Senate is supposed to do, where there is a Faculty Senate. And often boards, through their administration, simply ignore the Faculty Senate, as school presidents often ignore the faculty union. After all, boards are seldom required by law to consider what the senate has to say.

Possibly a faculty could create a board reporting committee to closely monitor board activity and hold public hearings or discussions, advertised and open to the public, on questionable or un-educational decisions the board has made. In other words turn the faculty senate public. As BAC Faculty Senate president in 1981 I suggested doing this, but couldn’t get much support from senate members who still regarded the senate as an august body of special influence with the board–though clearly it no longer was.

Once established and well publicized the Board Reporting Committee could then invite board members to the forum (board members but not administrators) to explain (discuss) what they are doing and why. Many times board members do not know, have not been told, what their administration is doing. If board members refused the invitation the committee could howl to the press and the community-at-large about an elected public official failing to honor his responsibilities. The committee could take the forum into the arena of public opinion.

Extra-educationally, in the best of syndicalist tradition the faculty might make it known that anti-educational ideas and practices will not only affect a board member’s likelihood of not being reelected, but could also seriously damage his social and financial position in the larger college community. I once had a BAC board member called before a trades and labor council to defend his anti-union activity. The council had enough smack in the board members community to impel him to appear and “discuss” the problem.

Of course these innovations and activities take a lot of time and guts, and a taste for conflict most teachers do not have. But then, maybe, such activities should become a part of twenty-first century higher education teaching assignments and responsibilities.

Again, most board members will not adopt and/or adhere to any principles but their own, if they have any at all–which at this late date are almost always taken from corporations and the market place and most often nothing more than “anything you can get away with.” If faculties want something else they will have to force the issue, and that may be limited to union negotiations and/or public opinion, which often come down to the same thing.

 

Academe Blog: To this day, community colleges have often been an afterthought for the AAUP, as they have been for a lot of higher education leaders. Do you think the AAUP is overlooking an opportunity to organize chapters and unions at community colleges, or do you think community college faculty are unlikely to find the AAUP appealing?

Wayne Lanter: I think the pendulum is swinging. As the modern community college system grew (was almost imposed) in the several states in just a few years there was a shortage of teachers. Most of the faculty appointed at the new colleges came from the local high schools. This contributed heavily to the “13th grade” mentality. Community colleges were seen as an extension of high school or as little more than a shop in a local strip-mall. I know the students at BAC in the late sixties and early seventies referred to the school as “Save-Mart Tech,” and “Belleville Animal Clinic.”

Otherwise community colleges were commonly referenced as “post-secondary” institutions, rather than colleges. In fact some writers classified community colleges as anti-university. And for good reason. Even today many, many community colleges operate more as rec-centers than they do as schools. And it’s understandable that organizations such as the AAUP, that have traditionally attached themselves to the scholars and scholarship of colleges and universities, would avoid community colleges.

However, times may be changing. The word about quality in community colleges in the United States has become alarming. Even writers for the very middle-of-the-road Chronicle of Higher Education are conceding that community colleges are bastions of corruption and educational nonfeasance. You have to imagine that some community college faculties are not pleased with this. There is a good possibility that as community colleges get a bit more history under their belts their faculties will attempt to upgrade educational standards and, thus, become more attractive to and attracted by organizations with the history and traditions of the AAUP.

On the other hand I do think the AAUP needs to get into the mix. Why leave the organization of faculty units (grad students at Georgetown, for instance) to the Service Employees International Union? It is time for the AAUP to show an active, organizing interest in CCs as part of higher education. With the advent of the college or university as a business it will become more and more important for teachers’ unions, and the AAUP is a teachers’ union, to pursue the quality issue in higher education. Teachers are for the most part quite practical people who go to work every day with something in hand hoping to see tangible results. But teachers also have ideals, and in many cases and ways these “ideals” match up with AAUP principles and guidelines. But the two can only be brought together by organizing chapters. And I do think that CC faculties will be amenable to the AAUP, at least the competent faculty will.

As I said earlier, we used AAUP principles and guidelines throughout our struggles at BAC. The AAUP can be helpful to CCs. I have believed for a long time that faculties are better served by the education unions than by industrial or service unions. So maybe the AAUP needs to initiate a CC organization program. God knows all the teachers’ unions have their collective hands full. And remember, with Wall Street and Madison Avenue on the other side, we need all the help we can get.

 

Academe Blog: In many ways, the developments that have afflicted higher education in the past generation—increased administrator control, growing use of part-timers, outsourcing, emphasis on productivity measures, and other instruments of corporatization—hit Southwestern Illinois College (SWIC) before they came to the universities. What did you learn from resisting these changes that the rest of higher education should know?

Wayne Lanter: John, I agree that American higher education has been “afflicted” in the last generation or two but I would like to add that it has been afflicted with more than “changes.” It seems to me American higher education in the late twentieth century and early twenty-first century has been “afflicted with a pernicious disorder,” a severe anti- or un-education disorder or disease. It’s called corporate management and profit.

Leo Welch, long time President of the BAC/SWIC AAUP/AFT local has said on a number of occasions that the BAC board and administration in their destructive run on the college (1974-1989) were “ahead of the curve.” And they were. And because of the vulnerability of the new college to mismanagement and a particular group of anti-tax, anti-education local politicians, the faculty at BAC found itself on the front lines of the battle.

Of course the greed disease has become an epidemic. But you can respond to the disorder in one of several ways. You can go to work to a job that has been reduced to nothing more than dispensing reasonably current information to students each day while ignoring the direction the classroom, the department and the school are going. You can nod to the Dean’s edicts, or whims (which are the same thing) embrace the administration’s extra-educational profligate habits, the board’s mindless unwillingness to address education in anything more than PR babble, then go off after class with like-minded faculty and friends to a cocktail party and talk about all the good things you did that day, and in early evening be happy to be home with your kids and your spouse.

Or you can take up the challenge. It takes two things to make a school: teachers and students. Everything else is an add-on. Teachers in public institutions are public officials, officers of the court, so to speak. It is their job, their responsibility to implement sound educational standards and practices as well as to resist bad educational policy. So if you have the pluck for it you can dig your heels in and say, “These cynical practices (nepotism-merit pay-productivity, etc.) are dishonest. We are cheating our students–and the larger society they are to be part of.” You can say, “As a public official, appointed to a position of trust, I’m not going to submit to the ‘go along to get along.’ I’m a teacher and I’m going to honor the trust I have been assigned, as best I can–even if it means getting slimed by the corporate administrators and their boards.”

Of course, if you choose the latter it will mean conflict and hardship. It will mean personal sacrifice. Money lost. Money not made. It will mean a bad class schedule, a favorite and meaningful class dropped, a dean not once in thirty years coming to you to ask what the administration might do to help you do a better job. It will mean being called in and grilled for hours over student complaints of the most mundane and innocuous kind (he makes us read too much or he made fun of my dog), as well as all the other juvenile nonsense petty bureaucrats can come up with as harassment and/or punishment.

It will mean being passed over for department financing (sabbaticals and travel), getting browbeaten for questioning administrative authority (unilateral decisions on educational/classroom matters). It will also mean being maligned by certain of your colleagues for “causing trouble” when things are, as they are always found of saying, “just fine.”

What I have learned is that it all comes down to the individual–and integrity and courage, and finding others who will honor the trust. I have learned that all kinds of people in educational institutions, mostly faculty, though there are some administrators and board members, with a well-schooled sense of integrity and personal value, when approached, will join with you.

More than that, I’ve learned that when faculty come together they have power and can get good contracts. Since public schools are enfranchised by law, faculty can only be protected from the robber barons’ corporatization of the academy by a collectively bargained contract, which is basically recourse to law that gives faculty a right to be in court. Usually boards and administrations do not want to face courtroom fights, either financially or publically.

The faculty contract is the center of it all. And sometimes even more. Sometimes a good contract will provide unexpected perks and protections. For instance, at BAC because of contract items that, beyond a respectable salary, protected tenor and academic freedom and intellectual property rights–that even dictated faculty choice in office selection–we were able to hire very good faculty. In fact one of the deans used the contract as an advertisement in a national search for faculty. And it worked.

But getting a good contract is not easy. Fortunately, many states have public employee collective bargaining statutes that at least give faculties a somewhat level field of play. And while the results from bargaining are never certain, it still seems to me to be well worth the effort. Good faculty contracts, collectively bargained union contracts, make good schools.

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