The Great Divide: Faculty Unions vs. Academic Legitimacy

Many people think of unions as a fading phenomenon. In the private sector workforce, that’s true. Unions, however, are growing fast in public education – both in K-12 and at the college level. As a recently retired professor who has directly experienced the effects of faculty unionization, I would like to explain why this trend is a troubling one.

The vast majority of unionized faculty in higher education are employed in government colleges and universities. Most states have enacted statutes that force administrations in public colleges and universities to recognize and bargain with faculty unions if a majority of faculty members vote to unionize.

(There are very few unions in private colleges and universities. That’s because in 1980 the Supreme Court ruled in National Labor Relation Board v. Yeshiva University that faculty members in private higher education are “managers” and hence exempt from the mandatory recognition and bargaining provisions of the National Labor Relations Act).

Unfortunately, those pro-union state laws usually include one of the worst features of federal labor law: exclusive representation. Thus, if fifty percent plus one of the members of a faculty vote to have (for example) the National Education Association (NEA) be their representative in bargaining over the terms and conditions of employment, all of the faculty members who were eligible to vote must accept the NEA’s representation whether they want it or not.

Professors who prefer another union, some non-union organization, or no organization at all to represent them are out of luck. They are forbidden to represent themselves. The winner of the election becomes the monopoly representative of the faculty, and there are no regularly scheduled reelections. As a result of the union monopoly, individual professors lose voice. With a union in place, excellence is not rewarded, poor performance is protected, individual autonomy vanishes, and strife replaces collegiality.

Unionists justify exclusive bargaining on the grounds that it is merely workplace democracy. Since we accept the legitimacy of majority rule in governmental matters, unionists argue that to be consistent, we must also accept its legitimacy in the workplace.

That is a silly, inapt analogy. Democracy, forcing all to submit to the will of the majority, is appropriate in governmental matters but not in private ones. The sale and purchase of labor is a private matter.
In the private sphere, mutual consent among individuals is the proper approach to decisions, not majority rule. People may choose to associate with others who want to associate with them to pursue common goals, but no one should be forced to associate with others. If asked, most professors would agree that coerced associations are anathema to the academy, but unfortunately they fail to apply this principle to faculty unionism.

From the time of Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum, academic freedom and scholarly creativity have been highly prized academic values. As soon as faculty unionism intrudes, however, politics begins to displace excellence. Professors come to be treated, by their unions as well as their administrations, like assembly line workers whose responsibility is limited to playing the roles assigned to them under collective bargaining agreements. Freedom in decision-making is swallowed by slavish adherence to “the contract.”

The union that has monopoly representation privileges over the California State University faculty is the California Faculty Association (CFA). My experience with it while I served on the faculty at Cal State – East Bay is a cautionary tale.

To begin with, when CFA campaigned to become the monopoly faculty representative, it promised that it would never try to impose forced dues payments on the faculty. Soon after becoming certified as the monopoly representative, it undertook a campaign to do precisely that. It succeeded in 1999 by giving sufficient electoral support to Governor Gray Davis in the 1998 election to bribe him into signing such legislation.

CFA’s impact, however, was much greater than just compelling all professors in the system to pay money to it. Through its monopoly collective bargaining position, it established de facto tenure for many adjunct faculty even though most of them never publish anything. The union quashed merit pay for faculty who demonstrate outstanding professional contributions, asserting that all faculty contributions are equally meritorious. CFA also imposed a staffing rule that says in the event of any downsizing, faculty must be let go in reverse order of seniority. Expertise, the needs of students, and the integrity of the academic enterprise do not matter at all.

Furthermore, the university is still reeling from CFA interference with academic governance in a way that damaged the business school’s accreditation.

In 2005, a new dean was hired by the College of Business and Economics (CBE) and charged by the administration to get CBE ready for its re-accreditation review by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB). It had been almost ten years since the previous review. Academic standards had decayed in favor of boosting student enrollment and keeping non-producing faculty happy and quiet. The administration preferred to let problems slide rather than risk the headaches caused by faculty complaints with the CFA.

The new dean set out to remedy this situation as quickly as possible. He tried to implement a set of incentives to get faculty to increase their research and publication activities. For example, he proposed to give faculty who published in reputable academic journals a reduced teaching load, and to give faculty who produced good research proposals financial bonuses and summer research grants to help them with their work. The CFA, however, blocked the incentives on the grounds that they created invidious distinctions between faculty members. Such rewards for excellence undermine the solidarity that unions always seek.

Five-year, post-tenure reviews of faculty have long been required in the California State University system. In practice, they had become little more than pro forma endorsement of everyone. The dean attempted to strengthen these reviews as a way of reminding faculty of their academic responsibilities in research and publication. The CFA again intervened, stating that “the contract” limited the post-tenure reviews to teaching performance.

Notwithstanding “the contract,” AACSB considers research and publication an important criterion for accreditation. In the end, the CBE was not reaccredited. It was put on probation and given three years to remedy all of the deficiencies the visitation team uncovered. If it fails to correct these deficiencies, CBE’s accreditation will be withdrawn – a terrible blow to the school’s reputation. But in the unionized environment, it is doubtful that three years will be enough time for CBE to restore its academic legitimacy.

Universities that succumb to faculty unionization gradually lose sight of academic excellence and achievement. Professors have job protection and collect their paychecks, but too many will gradually descend into academic mediocrity. Union actions and demands often get in the way of educational changes that need to be made.

States that resist the demand for faculty collective bargaining in their colleges and universities are playing it smart.

Charles W. Baird is professor of economics, emeritus at California State University, East Bay. His specialty is the law and economics of labor relations.