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Faculty Unions Versus Academic Legitimacy

Charles W. Baird

The faculty at Montana State University in Bozeman will soon vote on whether to unionize. If a majority vote yes, the school will gradually descend into academic mediocrity or worse.

The vast majority of unionized faculty in higher education are employed in government colleges and universities. This is because in 1980 the U.S. Supreme Court, in National Labor Relations Board v. Yeshiva University, ruled that faculties in private higher education are “managers” and hence are exempted from the mandatory recognition and bargaining provisions of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). Private-sector college and university administrations may choose to recognize and bargain with faculty unions, but they are not compelled to do so even if a majority of faculty members want them to. By contrast, unionization in government colleges and universities (as well as K–12 education) is controlled by individual state laws. Most states have enacted statutes, modeled on the NLRA, that force administrations in government higher education to recognize and bargain with faculty unions if a majority of faculty members vote to unionize.

Consider the worst feature of NLRA-style unionism: exclusive representation. If 50 percent plus one of the members of a faculty vote to have, say, the local National Education Association (NEA) be their representative in bargaining with their university over the terms and conditions of employment, all faculty members who were eligible to vote must accept the union’s representation whether they want it or not. Faculty who prefer another union or some non-union organization to represent them are out of luck. They are even forbidden to represent themselves. The winner of the election becomes the monopoly representative of the faculty, and there are no regularly scheduled reelections. As individuals, professors lose voice. All professors are treated exactly like all other professors. Excellence is not rewarded and often disparaged; poor performance is protected; individual autonomy vanishes; and strife replaces collegiality.

Unionists justify exclusive bargaining on the grounds that it is merely workplace democracy. Most faculty accept the legitimacy of majority rule in governmental matters. So, unionists argue, to be consistent, faculty must accept its legitimacy in the workplace. This is a silly, inapt analogy. There are three branches of American government— executive, legislative, and judicial. There is no fourth branch of government called unions. Democracy, forcing a numerical minority to submit to the will of a numerical majority, is appropriate in governmental matters but not in private matters. The sale and purchase of one’s labor is a private matter.

On legitimately governmental matters individuals cannot be allowed to go their own way. Government makes decisions that must apply to all its citizens uniformly. But on private matters individuals must be allowed to go their own way subject only to the rule that no one can infringe on the equal rights of others to do the same. In the private sphere of human interactions, mutual consent, not majority rule, is the proper decision. Individuals may choose to associate with others who are willing to associate with them to pursue some common goal, but no one should be forced into any association by any means, including majority rule. If asked, most professors would agree that coerced associations are anathema to the academy. Too many professors fail to apply this admirable principle to faculty unionism. Logical consistency and academic freedom demand that they do so.

From the time of Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum, academic freedom and scholarly creativity have been highly prized academic values. Ideally, successes and failures of individual academics are based on the values that other academics (and students) place on their work. Performance, not politics, is what counts. Of course all academic institutions fall short of the ideal. Even at the best schools, campus politics intrudes into decision-making. But when it does, most academics struggle to minimize its impact. As soon as faculty unionism intrudes, politics displaces excellence. Professors come to be treated, by their unions as well as their administrations, like assembly-line workers whose responsibility is limited to playing the roles assigned to them in so-called collective-bargaining agreements. All degrees of freedom in decision-making are swallowed by slavish adherence to “the contract.”

The union that has monopoly representation privileges over the California State University faculty is the California Faculty Association (CFA). My experience with it is a cautionary tale. When CFA campaigned to become the monopoly faculty representative, it promised it would never try to compel payment of forced dues. Soon after becoming certified as the monopoly representative, it undertook a long campaign to do precisely that. It finally succeeded in 1999 by giving sufficient electoral support to Gray Davis in the 1998 gubernatorial election to bribe him into signing such legislation—a fine example of politics as exchange.

What else hath the CFA wrought? For one thing, it established de facto tenure for many adjunct faculty even though most of them never publish anything. For another, it quashed merit pay for faculty who demonstrate outstanding professional contributions. It asserted that all faculty contributions are equally meritorious. CFA also imposed a faculty staffing rule that says in the event of any downsizing, faculty must be let go in reverse order of seniority. Expertise and the needs of students and the integrity of the academic enterprise do not matter at all.

The CFA significantly impeded the 2005–2007 effort of the College of Business and Economics (CBE) at California State University, East Bay, to maintain its accreditation by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB). In 2005 the administration hired a new dean and charged him to get the CBE ready for its reaccreditation review. It had been almost ten years since the previous review, and academic standards at the College had been allowed to decay in favor of keeping nonproducing faculty happy and quiet (that is, not filing complaints with the CFA) and boosting student enrollment. The new dean set out to remedy this decay as quickly as possible. Among other things, he tried to implement a set of incentives to get faculty to increase their research and publication activities. For example, he proposed to give faculty who published in reputable academic journals a reduced teaching load, and he proposed to give faculty who produced good research proposals financial bonuses and summer research grants to help them with their work.

The CFA, at the behest of some faculty who figured they could not compete on these grounds, intervened to impede these incentives on the grounds that they created invidious distinctions between members of the faculty. Five-year, post-tenure reviews of faculty have long been required in the California State University system. In practice they had become little more than pro forma endorsement of everyone under review. The dean attempted to strengthen these reviews as a way of reminding faculty of their academic responsibilities, particularly in research and publication. The CFA again intervened stating that “the contract” limited the post-tenure reviews to teaching performance. Notwithstanding “the contract,” AACSB considers research and publication important criteria for accreditation.

In the end, CBE was not reaccredited, but was given three years to remedy its deficiencies. Failing that, CBE accreditation will be withdrawn. In a unionized environment it is doubtful that three years will be enough time for CBE to restore its academic legitimacy.

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