Bob Lehrman, a former White House aide and an adjunct professor of communications at American University, wrote a thoughtful op-ed on faculty unionization in the Washington Post on Friday.
Lehrman calls himself a “hobbyist” adjunct, yet supports unionization efforts. He argues that faculty unions could especially assist careerist adjuncts who are striving to obtain full-time employment. Lehrman certainly makes some persuasive arguments for the advantages of collective bargaining in higher education in general.
However, Lehrman does not discuss how the proposed faculty union at American University would address the potentially competing interests of tenured faculty, tenure-track faculty, full-time instructors, part-time adjunct instructors, visiting professors, postdoctoral instructors, and graduate teaching assistants. Nor does Lehrman discuss the gross disparities between the situations of faculty in different divisions and colleges of universities. Professors in the Humanities and the Sciences, for example, are simply not compensated at the same level as professors of Law, Medicine, Business, or Engineering.
Realistic discussion of the differing statuses, situations, salaries, and responsibilities of all university faculty members is desperately needed in debates over collective bargaining. If there is to be collective bargaining, which groups of teacher/researchers will constitute the collective?
The historical processes of the development of universities, the principles of academic freedom, the standards of scholarly performance, the concepts of faculty governance, and the demands of public education all create complexities in adopting unionization and/or professionalization models of collective representation in higher education. These issues need to be discussed in the continuing debate on faculty unionization nationwide.
Graduate students and teacher certification students in the Department of History at Northern Illinois University will want to follow the continuing developments on faculty unionization and professionalization issues, since they will encounter these issues in their future teaching and research careers in secondary and higher education.
I appreciate being called “thoughtful” which was what I tried to do. Every one of the issues you mentioned are worth thoughtful discussion, too. Sorting out the competing interests in a university and figuring out how one union could possibly represent them all is certainly one; fulltime teachers and adjuncts compete for the same slice of the pie, after all. I see some bloggers arguing that adjuncts need their own union. Maybe. but the point I’m certain about — in addition to the one about benefitting students — is that adjuncts, like auto workers, and machinists, are in no position to bargain for anything on a campus without a muscular union to do it for them.
Bob Lehrman: Thank you for your comment and for writing your original op-ed. I created my post with a link to your op-ed precisely because I feel that your piece is important reading for my graduate students and teacher certification students.
I very much appreciate your perspective on the advantages of unionization for adjuncts and for their students (especially through provisions for sustained employment and teaching improvement). I am troubled by the astounding growth in the number of non-tenure track faculty nationwide and by the disempowered positions of adjunct faculty at many universities. Even tenured and tenure-track faculty members feel increasingly disempowered and beleaguered, especially at public universities where state legislation and budget cutting is threatening higher education.
I hope that professors, regardless of their contract status, can find ways of furthering educational priorities and promoting common faculty needs. I appreciate your valuable contribution to this discussion.