09/08/2010 12:51 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Saving Universities Through the Unionization of the Untenurable

It seems that the only things in higher education making money these days are books decrying the sorry state of higher education. Almost every week, we encounter a new release calling for the end of tenure, the need to support public universities, and the failure of universities and colleges to transform in the face of economic decline and global competition. This week I received copies of Mark C. Taylor's Crisis on Campus, Martha Nussbaum's Not For Profit, and Parker Palmer's and Arthur Zajonc's The Heart of Higher Education. Perhaps universities should simply shut down and just allow the faculty to spend their time writing their institutions' obituaries.

However the death of universities and tenure has been greatly exaggerated, and if we step back from the apocalyptic language of crisis, we can formulate a more sober analysis. While it is true that the number of faculty with tenure has decreased dramatically in he last thirty years, this does not mean that tenure can and will die out completely. Moreover, while many private universities have lost a large chunk of their endowments and public universities have suffered through state de-funding, most schools are surviving by jacking up tuition and squeezing the faculty by demanding more work for less pay.

I have argued that the best way for research universities to thrive is to increase their undergraduate enrollments and to develop three types of professors: those who teach, those who do research, and those who can do both. By affirming that some researchers should not and can not teach, I have pushed for allowing these research professors to concentrate on what they do best. In fact, I believe that one of the most effective ways to improve the quality of instruction at our universities is to not force researchers into the classroom. However, this call to separate research from teaching generated much hate mail from my colleagues at the University of California. As many wrote to me, the only justification for having expensive research universities is the fact that cutting-edge research updates and keeps alive instruction. Even after I pointed out to these professors that faculty members who want to be judged and hired based on their teaching and research can opt for the researcher-teacher positions, many professors responded that it is unacceptable to even question the natural connection between research and teaching.

On the other end of the debate, I have angered some people because I have argued for giving tenure to instructors. Even though this position has recently been adopted by Cary Nelson and the American Association of University Professors, some tenured faculty members feel that tenure for teachers just takes needed resources away from research, and once again, it breaks the holy link between research and teaching. While I actually think that some instructors will gain tenure, I have also posited that the more likely possibility will be the continued trend of increasing the job security and benefits of non-tenure-track faculty. In fact, I believe that the best solution would be a massive unionization of nontenurable faculty; since, unlike tenure-track faculty, non-tenured faculty can be unionized at private and public universities, the most effective way to protect teachers and teaching at American universities is to gain job security and due process through enforceable contracts.

What I do think will happen, then, is that the number of faculty with tenure will continue to decrease but not disappear, while the number of non-tenured faculty protected through unionization will increase. This situation will replicate what we already have at the University of California, where the non-tenure-track lecturers are unionized, but the tenured professors are not. If my hypothesis is correct, we will see the UC model spread across the country, and this will set in place, nationally, the types of battles we are currently seeing in California.

One of the interesting things that I have discovered in the last few years is that since the non-tenure-track lecturers now do a large portion of the undergraduate instruction in the UC system, and our jobs are defined as teaching-centered, we have been able to form a strong coalition with students and parents to protect undergraduate education. Furthermore, because we have a contract that has to be respected by the administration, we have sometimes been able to counter many bad administrative decisions in a more effective way than the tenured professors. For instance, we have fought against the rapid increase of class sizes, and we have also resisted the move to online courses and the elimination of requirements. While we have often partnered with tenured faculty members, we have been surprised to discover that professors have lost much of their say in shared governance.

To protect undergraduate education and increase the economic viability of our institutions, nontenurable faculty have to unionize, and unions should pour their money into organizing this growth market. In parts of the country where unionization is not allowed or is virtually impossible to achieve, we must work to change the laws and find alternative models of collective organizing. Any other solution is mere rhetoric or hopeful thinking; the only way to counter the power of administrators and the decreased power of professors is to demand job security and respect for the vast majority of faculty. As the New Faculty Majority organization has made visible, non-tenure-track faculty are the majority, and they should fight for their proper power and recognition.

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