Thursday, May 20, 2010

Ask the Administrator: Adjusting to a Union Shop

A newish dean at a new institution writes:

Adding to the coming in from the 'outside' pressure is the fact that the faculty have a union. When a colleague tried to begin an assessment program to meet the [agency] accrediting revisions, the faculty union point man and union pooh-poohed the measure. As of now, the assessment process consists of an open-ended "how do you assess student learning" question for each faculty member. It's my new job to get things where they need to be--identify, measure, report, use, repeat.

In [previous state] we had neither a union no shared governance. How do I balance the needs of the faculty with the needs of the institution? I don't know if you care to turn this into a column, but a word from the wise would be most appreciated.

Managing in a union environment is very different from managing in a non-union environment. (I've done both.) From this side of the desk, the clear disadvantage to a union shop is that you have a structural antagonist with material incentives to make your life difficult from time to time. Even if you're doing well, union leadership has to draw the occasional blood just to keep winning elections. This means that there's a certain level of conflict that will never go away. It's the price of admission.

Depending on your particular union and contract, you may also find yourself boxed into some very weird corners by past interpretations of stray contractual clauses or past practices. You may also find, depending on the vagaries of local history and culture, that the union leadership may be disproportionately populated by the crankiest of the cranky. (I'll admit to having been pretty lucky on this count.) If the contract is particularly complicated and/or 'mature,' you may find yourself hard-pressed to dot every 'i' in every case, just because there are so many. Sometimes you'll find contractual clauses contradicting each other, which is just a huge bundle of fun.

That said, though, I actually prefer managing in a unionized setting.

For one thing, they give you an official person to talk to when you need to get the pulse of the faculty. In a non-union shop, there's always someone, somewhere, who will claim not to have been consulted. In a union shop, if you 'impact bargain' a change with the unit, you've met your obligation. If the union isn't sufficiently representative, that's the union's problem, not yours.

Union shops also tend to have much more explicit procedures for many things, which means that you don't have to invent them all. That can be a pain, but it can also insulate you from post-hoc legal challenges. Anytime you can start a discussion with "per clause such-and-such of the contract...," you're in good shape. And I've had great luck using the contract as an excuse to avoid cutting side deals. "Gee, that's a good argument, but I can't set that precedent. If you want to bring that idea to the negotiating table, of course, you're welcome to..."

I've had good luck treating the union as a sort of colleague. I assume that both sides want to do right by the students, to stay out of needless legal trouble, and to have a fair enough working environment that people spend relatively little time on internal politics and more time actually doing what they were hired to do. When the union raises a point about a workload inequity, I take it seriously and try to resolve it quickly so that we don't lose months in unproductive conflict. The union has realized that it can get much of what it wants without going ballistic, so it doesn't go ballistic as often. I consider that a win-win.

Reading the recent dust-up in blogland about spousal hiring and salary compression, I can attest that having across-the-board raises and mechanistic determinations of starting salaries actually takes a host of issues off the table. Since nobody has discretionary money for merit raises -- what's a merit raise? what's 'discretionary money'? what are these words other people use? -- there's no discrimination in their application. Women here make what men make, which may explain why the full-time faculty here is majority female. (Most of the deans are women, too, for that matter.) When everybody gets the same raise -- or everybody gets the same big fat zero that we got this year -- you don't have to deal with accusations of infernal motive. Across-the-board raises are remarkably easy to administer. They're too low for the really terrific performers, and frankly too high for some folks who do juuust enough to not get fired, but they're easy to administer. (Predictably, that pretty much destroys any connection between "performance" and "reward," which leads to other issues.) We don't even do counteroffers, so the idea that counteroffers amount to a form of sexism -- on the theory that men are less place-bound than women -- is moot here. If you want to go, go. We pay what we pay. The whole "good girls don't negotiate" thing doesn't mean much here, either, since the negotiation that really counts is collective.

(Reading the dustups in blogland, I sometimes feel like I live on Mars. I'm in a public, teaching-intensive, unionized institution in a blue state. Context matters. The kinds of shenanigans that FSP wrote about would last about ten minutes here.)

Shared governance is a separate, though related, issue. Some colleges with unionized faculties forego faculty senates (or anything similar), on the grounds that the union already represents the faculty. I'd argue that that's a mistake. A union is supposed to deal with issues around compensation, terms and conditions of employment, due process, and equity. It is not supposed to deal with curriculum. A faculty senate or a similar venue can serve as a useful venue in which to have discussions of curriculum, outcomes assessment, and other, properly academic, issues. If you have a venue like that, I'd start there; if not, I'd suggest helping to establish one. What you absolutely cannot do is tell your accrediting agency that you can't do assessment because the union won't let you. That won't fly, and the union should have nothing to do with it. It's not a collective bargaining issue. Faculty need to be central to it, but not in that venue.

In terms of making actual headway on assessment, I'd advocate a step-by-step approach. Start with some pilot programs, and trumpet their successes to the entire campus. Be sure to address the usual anxieties that assessment programs tend to raise: workload, sub rosa performance evaluation, standardization, etc. If you don't address those anxieties, they'll likely overpower you. It will be a slow process, and you'll have to settle for half a loaf more often than not, but it needs to be done.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, especially those who've managed in union shops, what would you add (or correct)?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.