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...