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As Public Funding of Universities Dwindles, Faculty Are Unionizing

Non-tenure-track university faculty are joining unions to challenge pro-business educational priorities.

There has been a hollowing out of the work force, with university administration opting for a cheaper faculty. (Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

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When newly installed University of Washington (UW) President Ana Mari Cauce and Interim Provost Jerry Baldasty got wind that the UW faculty was collecting signatures on union cards, they quickly sent a series of memos and emails to the 6,000 people eligible to vote. Their missives trumpeted their opposition to collective bargaining and denounced the Service Employees International Union’s (SEIU) effort to organize on campus.

“When I started teaching at UW, about half of the faculty was tenure track. Now, 14 years later, it is down to 30 percent.”

“Having a union bargain for all of the faculty on matters including evaluation, salary policy, promotion and tenure would sideline the Faculty Senate, diminish the faculty voice, and eclipse the collaborative approach we have worked on for generations,” they wrote on October 22, 2015. “Union representation would fundamentally alter the relationship between the UW administration and faculty, creating a dynamic not unlike that of a manufacturing company.” An administration-created, anti-union website,, further slams the idea of collective bargaining and smears the union as little more than a money-grubbing dues collector.

Moon-Ho Jung, an associate professor of history on UW’s Seattle campus, notes that the arguments about shared governance – which are framed as if faculty and administration collaborate on all university policies – are deeply flawed. “The Faculty Senate is purely advisory,” he said, with little clout on hiring or the academic direction of the institution. In fact, Jung believes that a union is needed for just this reason. “When I started teaching at UW in 2001, about half of the faculty was tenure track. Now, 14 years later, it is down to 30 percent,” he added.

Howard Bunsis, chair of the American Association of University Professors‘ Bargaining Congress, says that the reduction in tenure-track hiring is the number one driver of unionization campaigns among part-time adjuncts and non-tenure-track full-timers, campaigns that have led to successful unionization on 42 campuses since January 2013. Among the newly organized, thanks to support from the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and the SEIU Faculty Forward campaign, are Dominican University of California, Georgetown University, Howard University, Ithaca College, Mills College, Northeastern University, Otis College of Art and Design, the San Francisco Art Institute, the University of Chicago, the University of Illinois-Chicago, Whittier College and Wright State University.

Growth of Adjunct and Contingent Labor on Campus

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, since 1993, the number of part-time faculty on college campuses has grown 104 percent, from 369,800 to 752,700. Nationwide, three-quarters of college courses are now taught by part-time teachers who typically earn $3,000 per class, at least 60 percent less than their full-time, tenured peers. Most receive no benefits and typically have to juggle numerous jobs to make ends meet. As has been well documented, this is a travesty for students since harried adjunct professors are often unavailable for out-of-classroom conversations or informal advising sessions. Worse, part-timers usually have no idea about graduation requirements or what is necessary to complete a particular major.

But as bad as this is, the AAUP’s Bunsis told Truthout that hiring shifts are not the only reason faculty are seeking union protections. College and university governing boards, he said, are increasingly made up of people from the private sector who have no clue about what it means to teach. This is especially problematic in public institutions, he added.

“We’ve seen many people from corporate America, with no background in education and with no public-sector credentials, get appointed to these boards. They see every department as a profit center. Of course, this goes against the concept of public higher education as a public benefit, but these appointees think the goal of the board is to reduce or eliminate any programs that are not self-supporting. Many times there is no academic voice in the room at all. As a result, decisions that would favor the academic mission are not being made,” Bunsis said.

Instead, he added, governing boards increasingly support the construction of new athletic facilities and prioritize funding for profit-making athletic ventures over maintenance of classrooms and libraries, or providing the kinds of academic supports that students need. At the University of Minnesota (UMN), for example, the administration shelled out $24,298 to enable the women’s basketball coach and her staff to attend a conference in Tampa, Florida, and gave a six-figure golden parachute to the retiring athletic director.

Meanwhile, tuition at UMN and elsewhere has gone up – nationwide, The New York Times reports, the average tuition in 2014 was $9,139 per year at public, four-year colleges and $31,231 at private universities – while the wages of instructional staff have stagnated.

Small wonder that a unionization campaign is presently underway at UMN to challenge administrative priorities and bring its 2,900 faculty members into the SEIU.

That said, the reality is that most US colleges – but especially those that are public – are scrambling for funds, but public programs have been hit the hardest. This is because each year since the early 1980s, state contributions to public higher education have been reduced – a fact of life in every state except North Dakota and Wyoming. More incredible – and outrageous – the American Council on Education predicts that if current trends hold, by 2059 state funding for colleges and universities will be reduced to zero.

The upshot is that South Carolina’s expenditures for higher education have shrunk 66.8 percent since 1980. In Rhode Island, spending has been slashed 62.1 percent; Virginia cut funds by 53.6 percent and Vermont, by 51.3 percent during the same 35-year period.

“There has been a hollowing out of the work force, with administration opting for a cheaper faculty.”

Everywhere you look, says Barbara Bowen, president of the 25,000-member Professional Staff Congress of the City University of New York (CUNY) – a union I belong to – “public universities that used to be state supported are today just state located.” She points out that CUNY presently receives 53 percent of its operating revenue from the state and city – reflecting a cut of $1.5 billion to both CUNY and SUNY, the State University of New York system, since 2008 – with approximately 46 percent of the operating budget coming from the tuition paid by CUNY’s 539,000 students.

“There has been a hollowing out of the work force,” Bowen added, “with administration opting for a cheaper faculty. There has also been an increasing centralization of power. This has led to the removal of decision-making that for a century-and-a-half was driven by faculty but is now driven by administrators.”

Bowen further connects the dots and emphasizes that the use of part-time over full-time teachers has made it easier for administrators to control decision-making since underpaid adjuncts rarely have time to attend meetings or join committees.

On top of this, financial pressures have pushed universities and individual scholars to solicit outside funding. “There is now a greater reliance on outside grants,” Bowen said, “but grants always have strings. When outside commercial forces enter the academy, something that is most common in the sciences, you have to ask how it impacts the curriculum and whether it affects who is admitted.”


The AAUP reports that in 2011 alone, the Charles Koch Foundation donated money to 187 colleges and universities across the United States.

Florida State University (FSU) was one of the foundation’s earliest grantees. A $6.6 million award, to be paid over five years, from 2008 to 2013, began with $1.5 million, which was paid after an agreement between the foundation and the FSU economics department was hammered out. The contract stipulated that five faculty would be hired to teach “The Value of Free Enterprise,” with oversight by an advisory board chosen by the Kochs. The AAUP notes that the board not only gave the foundation authority on hiring, but also allowed it to “review the work of the professors to make sure it complied with the objectives and purposes of the foundation.” Although many on campus argued that this was a gross infringement of academic freedom, the administration seemingly had no qualms about accepting the donation.

And FSU was not the only college to accept Koch dollars. During the 2014-15 year, the notoriously conservative libertarians funded sports programs on 15 campuses – and subjected fans to commercials touting Koch Industries’ many endeavors – among them Oklahoma State, the University of Arkansas, Southern Methodist University and the University of Houston.

In addition, the Kochs have worked in tandem with other like-minded companies to influence what is taught. Branch Banking & Trust, for one, has donated $3.5 million to West Virginia University; $3 million to the University of North Carolina; $2.75 million to Duke; and $1 million to Virginia Tech with an explicit goal: to fund classes that teach “the moral foundation of capitalism” and create a “national model for rigorous and imaginative analysis of the intersection between capitalism-based business organizing and the public good.”

Taxing the Rich to Fund Higher Education

Although faculty at UW have been encouraged to apply for grants and other outside funding, it was the loss of state money, says Amy Hagopian, associate professor in health services at the University of Washington, which led to the current unionization bid on campus. “Although the state is just one source of money for the university, the contribution has gone down to 5 percent and while we survived drastic cuts during the recession, we’re not in good shape. Tuition has gone up dramatically, especially for grad students, and a master’s in public health now costs $50,000. My students will be saddled with thousands of dollars of debt for years and I have to look them in the eye at graduation and know that UW has deprived them of buying a home or, perhaps, having children.”

Part of the problem, she added, rests with the state’s failure to tax the wealthy. “Some of the richest people on the planet live in Washington, and while some of them do write checks, they do this to keep the state from creating an equitable taxation system.”

“I really believe this is our last chance to save the university.”

Hagopian says that changing this, while simultaneously organizing a union at UW, will undoubtedly be “a long, hard slog.” At the same time, she says that the work is imperative, not only because success will lead to improved working conditions for faculty and better learning outcomes for students, but also because it is the only way to save public higher education. She is heartened, she says, that even before enough union cards have been collected to call for an election, SEIU Faculty Forward called a meeting with the governor to ask that new appointments to the State Board of Regents come from faculty, rather than corporate ranks.

“I really believe this is our last chance to save the university,” she said. “If we succeed in bringing the union in, it will take all conversations about employment matters from the Faculty Senate so that they’ll be able to concentrate on other things, including racism on campus and the curriculum.”

Hagopian is no stranger to organizing and she and her colleagues understand that they’re up against some mighty foes – including a highly paid law firm that is advising the administration on anti-union messaging. Still, they are optimistic. Similar tactics – including a slick anti-union website that is virtually identical to the one Cauce and Baldasty at UW had created – failed to derail the campaign to bring a union to Ithaca College and faculty there are presently in the throes of negotiating their first contract.

But they are aware that setbacks are possible. One of the most egregious occurred at Rider University, a small, private school in New Jersey. Despite settling a three-year contract in 2014, the faculty consented to givebacks just one year later. Jeffrey Halpern, associate professor of anthropology, says that when the university hired a new president in August 2015, one of his first acts was to beat the drum of fiscal austerity. Enrollment was down and the reserve fund had shrunk because monies had been used to pay for the renovation of several buildings and construct new dorms, a theater and additional classrooms.

Earlier this fall, the administration announced plans to cut 14 departments and lay off staff. In response, the union agreed to forego wage increases for two years. “We decided, as a union, to be the adults in the room,” Halpern said. “We acted to protect the majors and stop the layoffs. But we gave up things that are even more problematic. Under our existing agreement, we had a formula to determine how the university would fill positions when full-timers retired or left. Given the growing use of contingent labor, we instituted a trigger that no more than 30 percent of a department could be filled with part-timers and we gave that up. At the moment, there are a lot of retirements and we’re seeing very few full-time hires.”

Nonetheless, it is at public universities that the battle lines are drawn most starkly. “Throughout the country things are reaching a boiling point,” Professional Staff Congress president Barbara Bowen said. “All over the US, faculty are organizing against the attacks on our profession. The intensity of the effort comes from the connection faculty and staff have for the students we teach. If states do not invest in public, two- and four-year colleges and universities, they are cutting off the chance that working-class and poor residents of their state will live more prosperous lives. We simply cannot allow that to happen.”

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