Higher Education Activists Seek Advantage in Adversity

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Keynote Speaker: Melissa Harris-LacewellHigher education union activists who gathered for the annual AFT/NEA Higher Education Conference refused to feel hopeless or helpless in the face of the most dire economic circumstances in most people's living memory. About 650 participants convened in San Jose, Calif., March 26-28, to explore the theme, "Advancing Higher Education in Unpredictable Times."

The conference began and ended on a note of labor solidarity. One month ago, the AFT and NEA changed the site from San Francisco to San Jose to boycott hotels that are engaging in a take-no-prisoners battle with Unite Here workers to slash their healthcare and workload protections. "Your unions have been unwavering in their commitment to support our struggles," said Unite Here president Mike Casey in a message to conference-goers.

Near the end of the confab, faculty had an opportunity to tell a U.S. education undersecretary that the president's and the U.S. secretary of education's responses to the mass firing of teachers in Central Falls, R.I., was "unacceptable."

Framing discussions of the weekend was AFT's release of two reports, one dealing with diversity in higher education, the other with the role of part-time/adjunct faculty in educating the nation's hundreds of thousands of college students.

The diversity report offers solid recommendations, said Derryn Moten, co-chair of the Alabama State University Faculty-Staff Alliance and vice chair of the AFT Higher Education program and policy council. From focused data collection to union recruitment and retention practices, to mentoring programs and the establishment of dedicated union diversity committees, "we hope to allay union leaders' anxiety about achieving diversity in a time of economic distress."

Jennie Smith of The Faculty & Staff Fed. Comm. Coll. of PhiladelphiaThe academic staffing crisis, which finds large majorities of undergraduate students taught by undercompensated contingent faculty such as part-time/adjuncts, nontenure-track faculty and graduate employees, has been an ongoing, primary concern of AFT members. The survey shows part-time faculty are satisfied with their teaching but unhappy with working conditions. "We are a very varied lot," observed Jennie Smith of the Faculty and Staff Federation of the Community College of Philadelphia. "The survey shows we can't jump to conclusions about who contingent faculty are." The conference provided a track of workshops and plenary sessions that allowed participants to further explore strategies and solutions.

The week before the conference, Congress passed and President Obama signed the historic healthcare reform bill that, in reconciliation, also includes a significant reshaping of the federal student loan program. On hand to present more insight into the Obama administration's plans for education was Martha Kanter, U.S. undersecretary of education. In her keynote speech, she described the new financial aid measures, which increase the size of maximum Pell Grant awards and open doors of opportunity to students struggling to go to college. The Obama administration is intent on realizing its goal of more college graduates, and "everything we do is pointed toward that 2020 goal," she said.

Kanter, former chancellor of the Foothill-D'Anza Communty College District in California, was warmly received by her fellow educators in the room; many of them have worked with her. Nevertheless, they pulled no punches during the question-and-answer period, securing a promise that the administration would include more faculty and staff in discussions about national policy. And, to loud applause, AFT vice president Barbara Bowen of the Professional Staff Congress also described as unacceptable President Obama's and Education Secretary Arne Duncan's recent support of the firing of all the teachers in a Central Falls, R.I., high school.

The other keynote speaker was Melissa Harris-Lacewell, MSNBC commentator and associate professor of Politics and African-American Studies at Princeton University. The 2008 election created "a new picture in our heads of what was possible," she said. "Change occurs when there is a disruption of the normal." Now, she argued, "maybe we can think of economic crisis as an opportunity for change."

Researchers Audrey Jaeger and Paul UmbachIt was a conference that featured some of the best academic and policy minds in the nation grappling with the biggest challenges in higher education today. For example, Jane Wellman, executive director of the Delta Cost Project, discussed implications of the fact that "public funding trends are likely to be negative for the better part of the next decade." Researchers Audrey Jaeger and Paul Umbach talked about what the small number of research studies on the phenomenon of contingency show and do not show about the impact on learning. Deborah Santiago of Excelencia! in Education shared what her organization is learning about improving success of Hispanic-serving institutions.

The bad news of funding shortfalls, layoffs and furloughs, class cancellations and overenrollments was a consistent subject of comment and strategizing. Another theme of many of the conference's more than 50 workshops was student success—a pressing priority of the union in a time when colleges are emphasizing not just access—or getting students in the door, but success—getting students out the door with degrees or plans to transfer. The AFT circulated a draft of a policy statement, "Student Success and Accountability in Higher Education," and participants worked in small groups to improve it. The AFT also announced the upcoming launch of a Web site, What Should Count, that will focus on accountability and student success.

The meeting closed with a conversation between the leaders of the three higher education unions and members on the importance of expanding public investment in public higher education. Sandra Schroeder, president of AFT Washington, an AFT vice president and co-chair of the AFT Higher Education program and policy council, said investment is key: "We must find ways to get direct funding to colleges. They are floundering." She was joined by James Rice, president of the NEA National Council for Higher Education, and Gary Rhoades, general secretary of the American Association of University Professors.

California education unions have been raising the volume in their call for budget reform in the state capital. California Federation of Teachers president Marty Hittelman asked visitors to California to support his members who are marching with other labor activists through the state's Central Valley to Sacramento to draw attention to the need for tax reform. [Barbara McKenna]

March 29, 2010