Faculty and Staff Speak Out To Protect Higher Education

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Faculty, staff and graduate employees who gathered at the AFT Higher Education conference April 1-3 in Philadelphia tackled two pressing issues—attacks on public unions, and supporting student success—as part of an ambitious agenda to strengthen their institutions, even in the face of significant challenges.

The conference, "Making a Difference Every Day: Our Work, Our Union, Our Students," brought together union leaders, activists and rank-and-file members, as well as education experts, for workshops, forums and lectures exploring a wide range of topics, from state-level advocacy and federal policy work to building coalitions; from job security for contingent faculty to the contribution of professional staff to student success; and from fraud and abuse at for-profit colleges and universities to ways in which unions can increase gender, racial and ethnic diversity in the academy.

AFT president Randi Weingarten addressed one of the two main themes that dominated the weekend: attacks on unions. Referring to legislation surfacing across the country to cut necessary government programs and interfere with the collective bargaining rights of public employees, she described recent attacks on the union this way: "This is a Mack truck barreling through state after state, through everything we have worked for." But, she added, that Mack truck is providing an unprecedented opportunity. "This is a moment. We have it within our power to make it into a movement."

"We are living in a time of incredible change, a time of incredible challenge, but also a time of incredible opportunity," agreed keynote speaker Elizabeth Shuler, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO. Addressing accusations that faculty, staff and other public workers somehow contributed to the budget crisis with their demands for fair pay and benefits, she said, "It's up to us to spread the truth."

"This conference had to be different from the conferences we've had before," said AFT Washington president Sandra Schroeder, who is also an AFT vice president and chair of the AFT Higher Education program and policy council. "For us to face this, we need to have our union movement be as strong as we can make it."

Getting inspiration from adversity

The conference focused on how to do exactly that. Inspired by the leaders at the epicenter of attacks on collective bargaining, members watched footage from the rallies in Madison, and listened while Bryan Kennedy, president of AFT-Wisconsin, described the incredible work his union has done fighting Gov. Scott Walker, whom Kennedy described as "the Grinch" who stole newly won collective bargaining rights from members. Kennedy was joined by leaders from the Teaching Assistants' Association at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Milwaukee Graduate Assistants Association at UW-Milwaukee. These members, "the vanguard of our movement," as Kennedy called them, led the vibrant occupation of Wisconsin's Capitol building. Such a passionate movement, said Kennedy, demonstrates the determination that will carry the unions through this fight.

Other inspirational members were featured in "Making a Difference," an AFT video of members whose work truly changes the lives of the people they serve. AFT Higher Education's Everyday Hero, Travis Parker, whose Alpha Academy helps guide young men and encourage them to lead productive lives, was also on hand and received his award during the conference.

Steering students to success

Another theme dominating the conference was how to define, and then achieve, student success. A new policy statement kicked off the AFT's initiative to bring the strong voice of faculty and staff into policymaking around the issue of student success. The statement outlined strategies to help students succeed, and steered away from policies driven by standardized assessments and graduation rates.

In numerous workshops and presentations, a number of organizations and education experts discussed ways to bolster student success, emphasizing the importance of the faculty voice. "We are the frontline," said Ellen Schuler Mauk, president of the Faculty Association of Suffolk Community College and an AFT Higher Education PPC member. "We're seeing students every day. We know intuitively and practically what works."

But it was also noted that each stakeholder, including college administrators, government officials and students themselves, must play a part. "Student success is a shared responsibility," said Art Hochner, a PPC member and professor at Temple University. "We need to create the conditions that make it possible."

Sharing tips and advice from education experts and one another, members found many tools to take home to their locals. There were creative advocacy ideas like the one from California, where graduate workers delivered $300 worth of ramen noodles to their legislators to protest a $300 fee increase. There were tips on how to use social media in promoting union objectives, and suggestions for community interaction, such as the union-sponsored used book sale that supports a textbook fund for low-income students. Workshops generated productive exchange about everything from bullying to contingent faculty rights, student alliances, the legislative landscape, dealing with staff layoffs, managing union finances, and using cybertools for bargaining and communication.

Labor activist and author Amy Dean, who gave the annual Polishook lecture, had much to say about coalition building: Her "deep organizing" during her time as president and CEO of the South Bay AFL-CIO Labor Council created strong community-based alliances that allowed the union to shape important issues in the Silicon Valley. Dean urged members to create similar coalitions: "If the labor movement is to change its future, it must become a community-based organization as much as a workplace organization." [Virginia Myers]

April 11, 2011