Labor & Work-Life Issues

Faculty Strike Throws Pennsylvania’s State-Owned Colleges Into ‘Organized Chaos’

October 20, 2016

Matt Rourke, AP Images
Charles V. Shorten (left), a professor in the department of health, and Brent W. Thompson, an associate professor of nursing, were among the faculty members picketing at West Chester U. on Wednesday. The campus is one of 14 in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, whose faculty union began a strike Wednesday morning.
It finally happened.

The last five times that the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education and its faculty union tried to hash out a new collective-bargaining agreement, the union had voted to authorize a strike. Once it set a strike date. But in each of those instances, the two sides managed to come to an agreement.

This time they weren’t so lucky. After months of negotiations failed to result in a new agreement, the union rejected the system officials’ final offer and declared a strike early Wednesday.

The 14-campus system has had years to hone its strike-contingency plans, but those plans have never before been tested.
 Now university leaders across the 14-campus system are scrambling to execute their strike-contingency plans, which include a wide range of activities to keep the system’s roughly 110,000 students engaged. The campuses remain open, and students have been encouraged to go to class just in case their professors decided not to strike. But no one knows how long the strike will last or what the long-term implications will be.

A spokesman for the university system, Kenn Marshall, said that after the near-misses of years past, the universities have "gotten pretty good at preparing" for strikes. The test now is how well those contingency plans will work.

Across the system on Wednesday, some students joined faculty members at the picket lines. Others went to class and checked in. Kathryn Morton, communications director for the union, the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties, said the union would not fine or punish members who crossed picket lines.

Brian Swatt, a sophomore studying political science at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, went to all his classes Wednesday. He waited for his professors for the customary 15 minutes to see if they’d show up. They didn’t, so he left. He described the scene at his university as "organized chaos," with faculty members holding protests at various spots outside of campus.

Mr. Swatt, who is the student-body president at the university, said he’s trying to keep up with his course work. "I’m hoping that the strike doesn’t extend for so long," he said.

At Millersville University, the faculty walkout began on an upbeat note, with about 70 picketers at each of three locations on campus. Hundreds of students gathered in a campus courtyard to show their support for the strike, and a group carrying horns and drums entertained picketers with rollicking Dixieland jazz.

John M. Anderson, the university’s president, said in a written statement that the campus and its various facilities, including dining halls, would remain open. "Participation in the strike is an individual faculty member’s decision," he said, "so students should report to scheduled classes unless the university indicates otherwise."

But the students who showed up for their classes generally found no one on hand to teach them. Of the more than two dozen Millersville students interviewed by The Chronicle on Wednesday, not one reported having an instructor show up for class. Students were subsequently advised, beginning Thursday, to check a strike-update page on the university’s website to see which faculty members’ classes were canceled until further notice.

Some students at the picket line, meanwhile, expressed frustration that the university system had left the bargaining table. "We are paying a lot of money to be here, and they are not really trying to allow us to go back to classes," said Lauren Ledder, a freshman. "They are not trying to end the strike early, and they are not listening to the teachers’ concerns."

By midafternoon, about 40 faculty members and students remained on a sidewalk alongside George Street, the campus’s main thoroughfare. The picketers held signs with slogans such as "Our Students Deserve a Quality Education." Supporters brought the picketers water and boxes of doughnuts and pizza. So many passing drivers honked their horns in solidarity that it became difficult to hold a conversation.

The strikers had their detractors, though. "Just be glad you have a job!" yelled a bearded man who hauled landscaping equipment on a trailer hitched to his white pickup. "Back to work! Back to work!"

‘It’s a Crisis’

H. Fred Walker, the president of Edinboro University, called the faculty strike "an unprecedented event" that puts the whole campus community in an awkward situation. At an informational session about the strike, clips of which were posted online by the university’s student-run TV station, Mr. Walker said that he doesn’t have a say in the negotiations, which are occurring at the system level.

"My job as the president of one of these 14 specific campuses, along with all the other presidents," he said, "is largely to pick up the pieces and keep this community together and moving forward."

The university has planned two weeks worth of programming designed to engage students. Events Wednesday included a session on higher-education finance, which was taught by Guilbert Brown, the vice president for finance and administration. A dinner with administrators, rock-climbing lessons, and a pumpkin-pie-eating contest were also planned for students.

“We're really hopeful that there will be negotiations. We've got our fingers crossed.”
"It’s not a perfect situation," Mr. Walker said. "It’s a crisis. We can’t predict all of the nuances of how it will or will not play itself out; for that I apologize. But I can’t fix it by myself."

At West Chester University, the strike has coincided with annual homecoming celebrations, so students have a wealth of options to keep themselves occupied. In addition, the university is showing free movies throughout the day, and the residential-life office is holding events that include a video-game party and a Halloween-movie marathon.

A West Chester spokeswoman, Nancy Gainer, said the university is taking the strike day by day and encouraging students to keep studying.

"We’re really hopeful that there will be negotiations," she said. "We’ve got our fingers crossed."

Faculty members have gone over a year without a new contract. Further meetings between the state system and the union, which represents 5,500 faculty members, have not been scheduled. Kenneth Mash, the union president, spent the day picketing in Harrisburg, Pa., outside the state system’s administrative building. He said he would like to return to the negotiating table.

"This is a big loser for the students," he said. "I’ve challenged anyone to explain to me how it makes any sense that we are not talking at this point."

Mr. Marshall, of the state system, said the university officials want to restart the talks, too. "We need to get this resolved for our students’ sake and for our faculty and our university’s sake," he said.

Katherine Knott reported from Washington, and Peter Schmidt reported from Millersville, Pa.

Peter Schmidt writes about affirmative action, academic labor, and issues related to academic freedom. Contact him at peter.schmidt@chronicle.com.