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Ambivalence About Faculty Associations

I think of myself as a person of the left, the sort of university prof that Republicans think is poisoning the minds of the youth of America.  As part of my philosophy, I think unions are a very good thing, especially now that state workers are under such threat because of the collapse of the economy brought on by the greed of the bankers on Wall Street.

Why then have I always felt such ambivalence about faculty associations?  At least in part my negativity comes from the snobbishness—and, let us be frank, selfishness—of someone who wants to get on with his research and teaching and let others do the joe jobs. I tend to regard such associations as run by people who have opted out of the tough life at a university for the perks of the position and a little bit of grandeur. I also think that they just don’t have the real interests of the university (aka Michael Ruse) at heart.  Because of the sort of people they are, they really don’t regard research as that crucial—they rather fear it in fact. And I often wonder if when faculty associations start offering awards for teaching, this is fueled a bit by shoving it to people like me.

But the fact that I am not a very nice person does not mean either that faculty associations are on balance not a good thing or that my attitude has no anchor in reality—as has been brought home very vividly just recently down here at Florida State, where recently the faculty association has been involved in two incidents. Both were fueled by the fact that the State of Florida is basically mean, not wanting to pay for services and, if the truth be known, where the influential citizens are more concerned about end-of-life care than beginning-of-life care. The universities have been starved of funds and it shows.

So, first, about two years ago, the administration decided that one way to meet the crisis was to fire tenured faculty. It is allowed to do this under certain conditions and right now I am not into the decision of whether it was correct in taking this strategy rather than others—like overall pay cuts. The point is that the administration had the right to fire tenured faculty under certain conditions and these conditions were certainly met in Florida.  What the administration did do was ignore the agreements which allow them to dismiss units (like a department) and instead it cherry picked through the ranks. The union objected and (in my opinion correctly) the arbiter last fall ruled in favor of the union. The tenured faculty were reinstalled. This it seems to me is a good mark in favor of a union, and I say this without regard to whether the cherry-picked faculty on other independent grounds should have been those let go. A deal is a deal is a deal.

Second, more recently, our newly installed president got scared about the loss of senior faculty, given that we have had no pay raises for about five years. Apparently, his worries are grounded. Word is that in the College of Business alone nine faculty have been recruited elsewhere and the average jump in salary for them will be about $70,000.  You might question about whether faulty should be all obsessed with money, but that is the American way and one can certainly sympathize with the president on this.

So, with much fanfare, it was announced that senior faculty—full professors who had been in the rank for seven years—could compete for a salary raise. The process was, to be candid, a bit degrading—one had to prepare the equivalent of a tenure binder sans outside letters—but that was the deal. And a lot of us including me started to worry our department secretaries to find our teaching evaluations from seven years ago.  (One of my recent posts reproduced my teaching statement.)

Then it turned out that there wasn’t the cash to pay for the raises and if one tried seriously to make it a competition there weren’t the resources to do this. No one committee was ready to evaluate nearly two hundred applicants, putting in the kind of documentation requested, in the depth demanded. So suddenly new requirements appeared. In particular you had to be in the rank since 1993, and moreover you had to have been at FSU since 1993.

A number of us went ballistic. Around about 2000, the university started to recruit heavily to raise its profile above that simply as a football school, and now we high flyers were being cut out in favor of the good ole boys.  I was one objector –although, I think to my credit, as I went public so I took myself out of the competition so my objections would not be based on self interest. The response I got from one of the non-academic deans was that the older faculty had fallen behind in pay and they needed the boost. To which, as a good socialist, my response was that I thought this a good point, but then why not simply give out the cash on a need basis and don’t pretend that there is a competition for excellence?

In the end, it turned out that the president’s hands were tied, and the new rule stood. It had been negotiated with the union and—here is the point—it turns out that the union’s chief negotiator was (you guessed) a chap who qualifies and who intends to take the boost and who said to me on the phone that it was a mistake to think that this was a competition about excellence.

So you can see why I am a bit ambivalent about faculty associations. They are a bit like a trip to the dentist. We’ve got to have them, but I don’t much enjoy them.

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