Union Group Stresses the Link Between Faculty Work Conditions and Student Success

April 04, 2011

With collective-bargaining rights for faculty members under attack in several states and colleges still struggling to rebound from the recession, the sense of urgency at the American Federation of Teachers' annual conference on higher-education issues here was palpable.

At the three-day national conference that ended Sunday, about 400 people affiliated with the union—faculty members, professional staff, and graduate students—gathered to discuss strategies to stave off the challenges they face. Sessions at the conference covered topics that included building alliances to achieve union goals, dealing with layoffs and furloughs, and gaining greater job security for adjuncts and other faculty members who work off the tenure track.

Another hot discussion topic: the role that faculty members and staff play in helping college students succeed. Federation officials said demonstrating how the fortunes of college students are intertwined with those of the faculty is critical, yet the national debate on how to define and measure student success has been conducted so far with little input from those who work most closely with students.

"We're being marginalized in terms of the discussion on where higher education is going," said Sandra Schroeder, chair of the federation's higher-education program and policy council. "Our working conditions are our students' learning conditions."

The focus on student success was highlighted by dual reports to be released today by the federation. "Student Success in Higher Education," which was two years in the making, urges higher-education institutions to give faculty and staff members a voice in making policies that affect curriculum development, teaching, and assessment.

The report notes what it calls shortcomings in how student success has been framed and suggests approaching the issue based on the educational goals of students, rather than simply counting how many attain a degree or a certificate. It also outlines key ways to determine college success as well as the responsibilities that various stakeholders—among them, colleges, students, and faculty members—have in making sure college students do well. Higher-education leaders, for instance, should make sure that colleges have enough financial support and that money goes first to instruction and support services, the report says.

A companion report, "Exploring Student Attitudes, Aspirations and Barriers to Success," documents the college experiences of six focus groups of high-risk students. They were in their first or second year at community colleges, technical colleges, or four-year universities. Thomas Gaskin, a tenured professor of history at Everett Community College and president of the AFT-affiliated faculty union there, said the focus on student success shows that "we're not just a union that simply looks out for the financial well-being of its members. An important part of being a professor is your commitment to student success."

Spirited Shows of Support

At times, the conference was part pep rally, with impassioned speeches from union leaders and supporters garnering standing ovations from the crowd. Randi Weingarten, president of the federation, talked about the hits that unions have taken from Republican governors lately, but urged her audience not to give up. "I know it's tough out there ... but every social movement has gone through something like this."

Attendees were reminded repeatedly of rallies and teach-ins and other events scheduled nationwide as part of a "We Are One" movement designed to bring together all unions and their allies on the days surrounding the anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King Jr. Indeed, the conference city is scheduled to be the site of a rally on Monday. At Temple University, people will gather to protest the steep higher-education budget cuts sought by Pennsylvania's governor, Tom Corbett, a Republican.

Meanwhile, Bryan Kennedy, president of AFT-Wisconsin, was recognized at the conference for the role that he played in the public outcry against the antiunion legislation in his state. Three graduate students—including one from the University of Wisconsin at Madison who was a key organizer of the long-running occupation of the State Capitol—shared the spotlight with Mr. Kennedy.

Resisting a New Tactic

Dealing with budget cuts, even steep ones, is old hat for professors and the unions that represent them. But union officials at the conference made it clear that they were concerned about recent efforts by various groups to use state open-records laws to gain access to e-mails sent by professors at public universities. Ms. Schroeder said such requests are "clearly about intimidation. This kind of an attack is a new battle for us. We're watching it."

Helping Students by Helping Instructors

At a conference session about contingent faculty members, who include part-time and full-time instructors not on the tenure track, a scholar amplified a theme raised by Ms. Schroeder: It's critical for them to have better working conditions because the success of their students depends on it, said Adrianna Kezar, an associate professor of higher education at the University of Southern California. According to her research, Ms. Kezar said, non-tenure-track faculty members—who make up the majority of the people who teach in college classrooms—could "often enhance student learning" if institutions would step up their efforts to alleviate the many things that hamper their ability to do so. Among them are last-minute class assignments; few, if any, opportunities to give input on the curricula, textbooks, or syllabi; and a lack of mentors. Ms. Kezar's research puts a different spin on the lens through which adjuncts and their performance in the classroom have typically been examined.

When negotiating at the bargaining table, "you have to make the link and reframe the issue," Ms. Kezar told the audience of mostly contingent faculty members. "The work conditions that are in place affect contingent faculty's opportunity to perform."