BY HANK REICHMAN
Faculty members at Pennsylvania’s 14 state-owned universities went on strike today after bargaining to prevent the first classroom walkout in the system’s 34 years collapsed.
The Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties (APSCUF) announced shortly after 5 a.m. that a strike could not be averted after five consecutive days of bargaining broke off when, shortly after 9 p.m. last night, negotiators for the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) walked out of the talks.
Kenneth Mash, APSCUF president, said the union waited for management to return and tried to reach out once again to no avail. “At 11:35 p.m., we made a last attempt to negotiate through back channels,” he said. “We waited until 5 a.m. We are headed to the picket lines, but even on the picket lines, our phones will be on, should the State System decide it doesn’t want to abandon its students. They’ll know where to find me. I’ll be outside the chancellor’s office at the Dixon Center on the picket line.”
APSCUF represents about 5,500 faculty and coaches at the State System universities: Bloomsburg, California, Cheyney, Clarion, East Stroudsburg, Edinboro, Indiana, Kutztown, Lock Haven, Mansfield, Millersville, Shippensburg, Slippery Rock, and West Chester Universities of Pennsylvania. The system has about 105,000 students.
The national AAUP this morning expressed solidarity with our Pennsylvania colleagues via Twitter:
Previously AAUP’s Pennsylvania Conference adopted the following resolution:
Whereas the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education plays a vital role in the higher education system in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania;
Whereas the administration of Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education has created a fictive fiscal crisis to justify cuts in their core educational mission;
Therefore, be it resolved that the PA AAUP expresses solidarity with faculty at Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education and their representatives, APSCUF, in their fight for quality education in Pennsylvania.
APSCUF’s contract with the state system expired in July 2015. Negotiations broke down over health insurance costs and salary increases as well as PASSHE’s efforts to divide tenure-track and contingent faculty. “We don’t appreciate their tactics to divide us by tier,” said Rachel LeMay, a psychologist at West Chester’s counseling center. “We stand together.”
APSCUF has said it offered millions in concessions, including higher insurance costs for its members, but the State System wanted more. Mash said as the strike loomed that the union had offered $50 million in concessions. “There was a limit to where we were willing to go,” he said.
This morning the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette surveyed some of the activity on PASSHE campuses:
▪ At California University of Pennsylvania, dozens of faculty were gearing up to staff one of four access points to campus.
At one of them, Sixth Street near the dorms and the Natali Student Union, APSCUF member Swarn Gill spoke by phone as he and five others marched just before sunrise.
He held up a sign, he said, that on one side read “Solidarity” and on the other: “Faculty working conditions are student learning conditions.”
“There are several students at one of our other access points,” said Mr. Gil, an associate professor of earth sciences. “Those students brought water and snacks for the faculty, which was nice.”
He called the experience “a little unusual” but he also said he held out hope for a resolution since it appeared labor and management had made some progress during talks in Harrisburg Tuesday night.
▪ At Indiana University of Pennsylvania, biggest of the state-owned campuses in Western Pennsylvania, faculty member David Chambers used his Subaru Legacy shortly before 7 a.m. to help distribute faculty to some 28 picket points being set up around the sprawling campus.
“At the moment, I’m too busy to be worried,” said Mr. Chambers, an associate professor of political science, as he pulled his car into a parking lot.
He said some 735 APSCUF members at IUP are expected to take a position on the picket lines this morning around campus.
“From the start, I thought the chances were 70-30 that we would go on strike,” he said. “I think this chancellor wanted to see it happen, so here we are.
“I’m disappointed, but not surprised,” he added.
▪ At Edinboro University, faculty member Jim Wertz was among those stationed at Meadville Street near the school’s main entrance. He said about 200 faculty backed by 100 or so students turned out after word of the strike spread.
“The students actually beat us here this morning,” he said.
“It’s been so tense on campus for so many weeks now with faculty uncertainty about the strike, uncertainty about the contract negotiations,” said Mr. Wertz, associate professor of journalism and public relations and director of Edinboro’s honors program. “At least now, we know where we’re at.”
▪ At Clarion University, emails from the APSCUF chapter there went out to faculty using their off-campus email addresses, alerting them to the job action. Members were mobilizing a strike plan prepared several weeks ago in case talks failed.
“We plan on going to the picket lines at 7:30 a.m. That was part of the plan,” said Bell O’Neil, spokeswoman for the Clarion APSCUF chapter and an associate professor of communication. “We will be picketing through 7:30 tonight.”
Pickets were established at four main points at Clarion: in front of Greenville Avenue near the Tippin Gymnasium; at the Wood Street campus gates; in front of Still Hall, the business classroom building and on Wilson Avenue near the Gemmell student union, she said. . . .
▪ At West Chester University, the largest in the system with about 17,000 students, some students expressed support for the faculty and were planning a walkout for later today.
Victoria Tischio, a full-time tenured English professor at West Chester, says some 500 of the university’s about 950 professors had signed up for the walkout. About 77 percent of the university’s professors are full-time union members.
Picketers are carrying signs and chanting “2, 4, 6, 8 why don’t you negotiate?”
The labor dispute — and now the strike — is playing out across a system already struggling with enrollment losses exceeding 30 percent since 2010 on some campuses and appropriations from the Commonwealth that have historically lagged that of nearly all other states and is as low as it was in 1999
Since its peak six years ago of nearly 120,000 students, the system has lost roughly 12 percent of its enrollment, an amount as large as its second largest university.
Student support for the faculty has been growing as the strike deadline approached. Many have signed this online petition:
As students at the 14 universities of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, we demand that Chancellor Frank Brogan, the Board of Governors, and the leaders of our universities put the quality of our education first.
We stand with our faculty to demand a high quality university system that will give us the power to achieve and thrive. PASSHE’s proposals for faculty, which it claims would make our universities more “nimble and flexible,” would do the opposite. These proposals include increasing the use of temporary faculty, cutting funding from faculty research and professional development, shifting students to online classes, allowing university presidents to transfer faculty to different departments, and cutting faculty salaries by as much as 20%. These measures would prevent us from getting the education that we deserve—and that we’re paying for with our tuition.
We demand that PASSHE reverse these measures and negotiate a fair contract with faculty and coaches. Our faculty are the foundation of the PASSHE system. They work hard every day to support us, in and out of the classroom. As PASSHE Students and Faculty United, we will continue fighting for fair treatment and for the future of higher education in Pennsylvania.
Here’s what some students at Cheyney University had to say:
And watch this video from Shippensburg:
On Monday, students at Bloomsburg University staged a sit-in to support the faculty. “The main reason we’re doing this is because we want people to understand that it’s not just affecting the professors or the faculty, it affects the students as well,” said Trevor Resue, Bloomsburg University sophomore.
In September, The Rocket, student newspaper at Slippery Rock, published an editorial in support of faculty, which read in part:
One grievance that members of APSCUF noted was the proposal to increase the amount of temporary or adjunct professors instead of full-time, tenured faculty. This trend is important, and it is at the center of the institutional mistreatment of adjunct professors which extends decades. Last year, The Atlantic published a piece titled “There is No Excuse for How Universities Treat Adjuncts,” arguing that although students pay a large amount of money to attend college, not enough of that money goes toward faculty salary. This article is supported by alarming data. 31% of part-time faculty live close to or below the federal poverty line. In perspective, ⅔ of professors are non-tenured, and half of them only work part-time. Limiting the amount of teaching hours, furthermore, means that universities avoid covering the insurance costs required to employ full-time faculty. What were formerly considered long-term teaching positions have essential been reverted to gigs. From security to insurance to salary, the quality of life for many professors has decreased.
Although adjunct or contractor work is useful for unskilled labor positions such as driving services and manual labor, college professors are culturally, economically and socially indispensable as teachers and professional developers. Per “No Excuse,” contingent workers are less satisfied with their jobs and receive less money and benefits than their full-time counterparts. Applied to the context of higher education, these disadvantages can play a direct role in the classroom: adjuncts may not have offices to hold office hours for needy students; if a professor must work another job to subsist financially, he or she has less time to grade student work and create lesson plans; if an adjunct is generally unhappy in the classroom because he or she is not being fairly compensated for his or her quality of work, rapport with students decreases and education suffers; if a professor does not have a long-term commitment to a university, there is little opportunity to build a network within the community. If the quality of a professor’s work is not adequately compensated, his or her quality of work will subsequently decrease — decreasing the overall quality of higher education.
Unfortunately, for many protests to be effective, bystanders need to be affected. For students, this means that striking professors could cancel class or be replaced. Understandably, these consequences would make students unhappy in the short-term. However, short-term discomfort on the behalf of college students could yield long-term security for future students and faculty if it means that more faculty members will be justly compensated.
In a statement, Governor Tom Wolf, a Democrat, was critical of both sides. “I am extremely disappointed in the failure of PASSHE and APSCUF to reach an agreement,” he said. “The resulting strike is detrimental to the system and will have far-reaching effects for years to come.
“The shortsightedness on both sides is counter to my efforts on behalf of the system and hurts the dedicated professors and university staff, and students and their families who are paying tuition to these universities.
“Everyone’s top priority should be the students and their families who are counting on an agreement,” said Mr. Wolf. “I urge both sides to return to the table immediately and continue negotiations until an agreement is reached.”
He said the state in a little under two years had boosted funding to the State System by $30 million, a 7.5 percent increase over 2014-15, “in order to begin restoring the harmful cuts made under the previous administration.”
But Marc Stier, director of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, a nonpartisan research group, said, “Given the importance of PASSHE universities not just to students and faculty members but to all of us in Pennsylvania, it is important that the labor dispute be settled quickly and fairly and in a way that protects academic programs so vital to the state. But the long term prospects for higher education in our state won’t be secure unless political leaders reverse the decline in funding for higher education and our future.”
And APSCUF President Mash responded with this Tweet: