Faculty Strike in Pennsylvania Ends: Why Penn State Professors Were Absent From the Picket Lines

On October 19, faculty members at the 14 state universities that form the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) went on strike after state officials and the faculty union, the Association of State College and University Faculties (ASCUF), could not come to an agreement. The night before, talks between the two parties ceased when state officials made their last best offer to union negotiators. The next day, the faculty at all of the PASSHE campuses — along with many students — walked the picket lines, carrying signs reading off their demands. After three days, the ASCUF and state officials reached an agreement and the strike ended.

Why didn’t Pennsylvania State University’s professors join the picket lines during the PASSHE faculty strike? Penn State is not part of PASSHE. It is not a state school, but a state-related or hybrid public-private institution along with Temple, Lincoln and the University of Pittsburgh. Unlike professors at the PASSHE schools, Penn State’s faculty lacks a union, pay transparency and job security. Many professors also fear retaliation by the university administration. For these reasons, Penn State faculty did not join the picket lines in solidarity with their PASSHE counterparts.

Faculty Demands and Concessions

Organized by the ASCUF, faculty at PASSHE’s 14 campuses had been running on an expired contract for a year and four months. During the two-year period of negotiations over 250 contract issues, the sticking points between state officials and the faculty union were many: pay (especially pay equity between adjuncts and full-timers); benefits (particularly health care premiums and coverage); teaching loads for adjunct faculty (normally four courses per term, but potentially five); job security and control over course content, as well as delivery method (specifically the choice of teaching in-class, online or a hybrid of the two).

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In a comment on the Leiter Blog, Steven Hales, a philosophy faculty member at Bloomsburg University, describes the strike and underscores the faculty’s demands:

I am on strike in Pennsylvania. We have been without a contract for 477 days. As with most public institutions of higher education in the US, our funding has been repeatedly and consistently cut by the state legislature. I believe that most Americans no longer consider higher ed to be a public good, but a private one, and therefore something to be purchased solely with private funds. In any case, the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE), which includes 14 universities, has repeatedly refused to negotiate in good faith. For example, the last three contract negotiations they just drag their heels for the first year after the old contract expires because they think that year is a “gimme” — no raises for anyone. The union has stood strong against theexploitation of adjuncts, with strict caps on the percentage of classes that can be taught by adjuncts, and by including them in the bargaining unit to be paid the same union wages as everyone else. The state naturally wants to pay adjuncts less than regular faculty. They also want significant hikes in health insurance premiums, deductibles, and out-of-pocket coinsurance. All of that will eat up the raises they are prepared to give.

What is unique about the PASSHE strike is that part-time or adjunct faculty are included in the union with full-time, tenure-track and tenured faculty, and the failure of the initial negotiations was a direct result of the bargaining unit’s refusal to give up on pressing its adjunct members’ demands for more pay and reasonable teaching loads.

Hales continues:

You might think that none of these items on its own is a deal breaker. However, what I have seen is our death by a thousand cuts. Every contract is just a little bit weaker. It is no joke to say that inmany fields that salaries we can offer fail to attract any applicants. Audiology and Speech Pathology counts a successful search as one that has a single applicant. Yes, the situation is different in philosophy. For us it is a buyer’s market. That is definitely not true across the university. We have to offer competitive packages to attract and retain good faculty. The stateeither doesn’t understand that or doesn’t care. Yet if we continue to accept contracts that are not terrible but just a little worse than the last one, then there won’t be much of a university for theyounger brothers and sisters of our current students to attend.

Hales worried that by repeatedly making concessions to the state and weakening the union’s contract demands it will eventually erode the PASSHE universities’ capacity to recruit and retain high quality faculty talent. He was also concerned that without quality faculty PASSHE would no longer be able to effectively educate successive generations of university students. To end the strike, the faculty union would eventually concede to state demands for higher employee health care premiums, but preserve its salary demands (including adjunct pay equity).

Two Systems, One Underfunded Mess

While Pennsylvania prides itself on having two systems of higher education — one entirely public (PASSHE) and the other based on a hybrid public-private model (the Commonwealth) — together, they have generated a mess of budget shortfalls and funding dilemmas.

In the 2011 government report titled “Moving the Commonwealth Forward,” the authors explain the problematic funding situation for Pennsylvania’s state-related higher education institutions:

The state-related universities have only two sources to fund their annual operating budgets: tuition and Commonwealth appropriations. Other revenue sources, such as endowments, are restricted funds normally limited to specified purposes directed by donors that cannot be used for operating budgets. In the wake of flat Commonwealth funding over the course of the last ten years, tuition costs have increased significantly due to the continued increased costs (utilities, security and insurance rates, health care and related benefits, as well as an anticipated spike funding for thestate retirement system for Penn State, combined with escalating price increases for technology and library holdings required by research universities).

The 14 PASSHE institutions have also suffered severe budget shortfalls because the statelegislature reduces funding in every budget. Similar to their state-related counterparts, the only answer to these funding dilemmas is to either increase tuition or lay off faculty, beginning with themost vulnerable: adjunct or part-time instructors.

Anti-Unionism, Pay Secrecy, Unethical Activity and Retaliation at Penn State

Penn State has long been a bastion for anti-unionism. Except for the maintenance staff (who are organized by the Teamsters), none of Penn State’s thousands of staff, faculty or graduate assistants are unionized. Most union campaigns are swiftly extinguished by the university administration’s anti-union messaging and strong-arm threats. Even the late Joe Paterno argued that a union would divide the “Penn State family.” Job security is precarious for adjuncts, full-time lecturers, tenure-track faculty and tenured faculty. Without a union, even tenured faculty must secure the services of an attorney in order to protect themselves from harassment, retaliation or termination by university administrators.

Despite promises that Penn State would commit itself to transparency and ethics in the wake of theSandusky scandal, the institutional leaders have made little progress. Unlike the PASSHE institutions, Penn State is still exempt from the Open Records Law. Rather than welcoming greater transparency, administrators have maintained a veil of secrecy. For instance, they have preserved pay secrecy among the portfolio of human resources policies. Except for the top-most earners at Penn State, pay is still not a matter of public record, unlike it is for PASSHE employees. Consequently, employees must negotiate individually for their salaries, largely unaware of what their fellows earn. Pay secrecy can also hide evidence of pay discrimination. In my own study of pay secrecy at Penn State, I found that no Penn State employees surveyed strongly agreed that Penn State’s policy of pay secrecy was compatible with an ethical organizational culture.

Still recoiling from the aftermath of the Sandusky scandal, Penn State commissioned the Ethics Resource Center to conduct a values and culture survey of its employees and students in 2013. For 24 days in October and November of the same year, 14,655 members of the Penn State community participated in the survey, the results of which are recorded in the final report. A majority of therespondents expressed pride in Penn State, agreeing that the institution has a “strong and engaging culture.” Nonetheless, an alarming number of survey-takers (58 percent) observed unethical conduct and few (26 percent) reported it. Faculty (59 percent) and staff (48 percent) were most likely to observe unethical activity. Among staff, the most frequently observed form of unethical behavior was bullying (35 percent). Many observers (59 percent) did not report the unethical activity because of fear of retaliation.

Retaliation by university administration is a major concern for faculty and staff at Penn State. Mike McQueary, the Penn State graduate assistant and later assistant football coach, is suing the University for retaliating against him after he reported Jerry Sandusky’s rape of a child in the PennState locker room showers. I described my own experience of being denied future teaching opportunities after reporting my suspicions of widespread student cheating in Penn State World Campus’s online courses. Acknowledging Penn State employees’ fear of retaliation, the university’s ethics and compliance office has ushered in some safeguards, such as the creation of an anonymous ethics reporting hotline. Still, employee concern persists that any signs of disloyalty to the university will be met with retaliation, reflecting the insipid culture of silence and secrecy at Penn State.

Where Were the Penn State Professors?

Given what we know about the university’s penchant for retaliating against its own faculty and staff, it is unsurprising that Penn State’s professors did not join the PASSHE faculty strike. Showing solidarity with their state university counterparts by walking the picket line would have been a risky (and potentially costly) affair for any professor.

Fear of harassment, bullying, marginalization and even termination by the university hangs like a dark cloud over every dissident Penn State employee’s head. Former Penn State graduate student and adjunct instructor (turned education journalist) Kristin Rawls concurs: “I have always been a person who speaks out. But no academic institution before Penn State ever marginalized me for it.”

I have been a Penn State professor for the past seven years. Lacking a faculty union, we have little job protection besides the limited assistance we get from the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and what legal representation we can afford if we have to individually fight the university in a tenure-removal or wrongful termination case.

What is most impressive about the PASSHE strike is that the tenured, tenure-track and full-time faculty decided to stand up for the most vulnerable in the ASCUF bargaining unit: the part-timers or adjunct faculty. They were willing to risk their own jobs for those who are ordinarily treated as the underclass of the academic world. For the cause of justice for adjuncts, we should all stand insolidarity with Pennsylvania’s professors.