Tuesday, May 25, 2010


Unionizing at For-Profits

This is one of those "yeah, but" stories. The impulse is good, but the details are tricky.

Apparently, the faculty at the Art Institute of Seattle, a for-profit college, is doing an underground drive to unionize with the American Federation of Teachers. The idea, according to the IHE story, is to put in place safeguards that will allow faculty to give honest grades without fear of reprisal. (The 'fear of reprisal' part also explains the 'underground' part.)


First, it's great to see the academic unions start to make some forays into the for-profit side of higher ed, even if it's somewhat accidentally. It could theoretically curb some of the worst workplace abuses in that sector. It would also put the unionized public colleges (hi!) at less of a competitive disadvantage.

As regular readers know, I spent years in for-profit higher ed, both as faculty and as administration, and I heard periodic rumblings there about unionization. The party line there was that if the faculty voted to unionize, the company would simply shut down that campus. (It had enough campuses all over the place to make the threat credible.) The issues that riled up the faculty there were mostly around teaching load (twelve months per year, fifteen credits at a time, and only a week between semesters), though there was also some concern about grading standards. The salaries and benefits were modest but not ridiculous; the killer issue was workload, both for faculty and for administration. Extreme workloads were central to the business model.

Although I keep reading about for-profits with all-adjunct teaching corps, that wasn't how this one worked (or works, for that matter). I don't know why that myth persists.

As far as workload goes, the AFT drive strikes me as all to the good. And I like the idea of some sort of due process for terminations, even if my preferred method would be far, far, far less cumbersome than the M.C. Escher-inspired processes at my union shop.

The grading thing is another issue.

Yes, there can be pressure for grade inflation at any enrollment-driven institution, whether for-profit or not. (I've heard of it at some struggling private non-profits, too.) Depending on the form and level it takes, it can be a real problem. (The major problem was with student expectations. The 'entitlement' mentality I saw at Proprietary U was far greater than anything I've seen in the cc world.)

But at a really fundamental level, grading is an academic issue, much like curriculum or outcomes assessment, and academic issues are not properly subject to collective bargaining. We don't negotiate curriculum, and we don't negotiate grades. Nor should we.

Making grading negotiable could cut both ways, after all.

In the absence of really rigorous outcomes assessment measures, grading is largely self-generated by faculty. That makes it prone to manipulation in either direction, depending on what the incentives are at any given time and place. I knew some people at Flagship State who made a point of draconian grading in the first few weeks in order to get their class sizes down. There was nothing to stop them, even though it was -- to my mind, anyway -- a clear abuse of power. Although "teaching to the test" is rightly anathema to many, there's something to be said for a third-party standard for grading. It takes the conflict of interest out of the equation, and makes external pressure on grades difficult to sustain. A law school can say what it wants about the quality of its instruction; if only ten percent of its students pass the bar exam, it has something to answer for.

If the unionization drive at the for-profits leads to some meaningful measures of learning that avoid the conflict of interest problem, then everybody wins. But if all it does is introduce grading as a subject for collective bargaining, we could all lose. (Alternately, if it just introduces speed bumps into the process for judging faculty by pass rates -- an entirely likely possibility -- we all lose.)

Here's hoping...

"But at a really fundamental level, grading is an academic issue, much like curriculum or outcomes assessment, and academic issues are not properly subject to collective bargaining. We don't negotiate curriculum, and we don't negotiate grades. Nor should we."

Hmm. I think I see where you're coming from on this, and procedurally I get your division between "academic" issues vs. "staffing" issues. But. As an instructor, I would say that a fundamental condition of my employment is that I have academic freedom in the classroom - that I am not subject to coercion when it comes to the content that I teach or to the way that I evaluate students. Academic freedom in this context does not mean some sort of free-for-all (just as it doesn't in one's research) - rather, it means that an instructor is free to assign grades according to clear standards, policies and procedures outlined in her course documents (syllabus, assignments, rubrics). I'll go so far as to say that it makes sense for my employer (the university and its administration, sure, but also faculty governance bodies) to arrive at guidelines when it comes to grading for meeting the university's mission and for fairness of student evaluation (just as the standards of peer review make sense). And yes, all those are academic issues.

This becomes a staffing issue, as I see it, the minute an administrator (department chair, associate dean, dean, etc.) pulls me into his/her office and suggests that I should change students' grades, regardless of student performance and regardless of whether my course documents/policies are in order. You're right: we *shouldn't* negotiate grades or curriculum. Those should be the purview (within limits) of those in the classroom.
I see union contracts as defining process for various things - one of them being evaluation of the employee.

Basic fairness demands that there should be rules about how professors communicate their expectations to students and grade student work. The ability of the professor to adhere to the rules should be part of the professor’s employee evaluation. I think you would want to negotiate those rules in an academic senate type setting (if one exists at the institution) but the enforcement of the rules would be a union issue and the process for imposing penalties for breaking them would be negotiated in the contract.

If there is no senate, the union acts as the bargaining body to define those rules so that profs and students know what to expect when evaluations take place. Not the cleanest solution but one that offers protections to the students and the profs in that it guards process against the whims of the activist administrator or the ebb and flow of admissions. One thing that is missing from this is that really good students are as screwed as the prof when an admin type raises the grades of the low performing student. It makes their high grades meaningless and lowers the quality of the grads from the institution. Employers figure this out and it decreases the value of the proprietary college degree.
I can't imagine a for-profit giving up grading power; it's essential to their business model.

There will always be a tension between the inherent parasitism of the for-profit economic model and the inherent professionalism of the faculty which is one of the two exploited classes at a for-profit. Indeed, without professionalism, the for-profit model would almost certainly collapse.

A system which is designed to rob unwary students of their student loan dollars by using overtrained and desperate faculty isn't a system which is going to work in the long term. A unionized for-profit is a contradiction in terms; the institution has no capacity for production outside of exploitation.
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