Senate Bill 5: No union, no committee work?

On the day that the Ohio Senate passed Senate Bill 5, I also received notification from the AAUP that one or more of my colleagues in the English Department at Kent State nominated me to serve as a departmental representative to the union. I had not sought a nomination, but our department is comparatively small. I eventually decided—with advice from my colleagues—that to devote myself to scholarship and teaching at this early stage of my career was more crucial than public service. When early career faculty members are distracted from research and teaching, they risk torpedoing their career. So we keep our nose to the grindstone.

One of the most hated provisions of Senate Bill 5 may have a bright side, because I doubt that the members who wrote the bill have a clear sense of the duties of a member of a university faculty, though this 8 March article in the Chronicle of Higher Education suggests that I may be wrong in my original inference. The Senate Bill includes the following provision, which seeks to define the duties that would classify one as management-level employee and thus not eligible to be represented by the union.

“Management level employee” means an individual who formulates policy on behalf of the public employer, who responsibly directs the implementation of policy, or who may reasonably be required on behalf of the public employer to assist in the preparation for the conduct of collective negotiations, administer collectively negotiated agreements, or have a major role in personnel administration. [….] With respect to members of a faculty of a state institution of higher education, any faculty who, individually or through a faculty senate or like organization, participate in the governance of the institution, are involved in personnel decisions, selection or review of administrators, planning and use of physical resources, budget preparation, and determination of educational policies related to admissions, curriculum, subject matter, and methods of instruction and research are management level employees.
(Section 4117.08 K)

Since I serve on departmental committees, one of which is the Graduate Literature Program Subcommittee (GLP-SC), some of my responsibilities including reviewing applications to the KSU doctoral and master’s programs in English literature and to assess or refine programmatic requirement for the degrees. Because members of the committee contribute to decisions related to “admissions” and “curriculum,” by the logic of Senate Bill 5 I have become a “management level employee.” I suppose one could quibble about the meaning of a “like organization,” but I would think a departmental committee is a “like organization.” This leads to a strange quandary. If Senate Bill 5 becomes law, could faculty members remain in the union if they did not serve on committees?

I should inform members of the legislature that a major task of faculty on GLP-SC is to read some 40 or so graduate applications, which consist of 2-page applicant statements, 3 letters of recommendation 20-page writing sample, transcripts, GRE scores. The work is tedious in general but has its rewards. Faculty members do the tedious as “service” even while they enjoy the moments of encountering promising young scholars. The decision of the committee is better than the opinion of a single administrator because different members of the committee bring different expertise. Academic disciplines are broad. Because each member of committee contributes a portion of their expertise, the committee can do a better job of ranking candidates than a single administrator. Sometimes the opinions of committee members are widely divergent, and we have meetings to discuss (that’s fun too).

Members of the university faculty generally do not relish committee work. By reputation, we would prefer to reside in the ivory tower, doing obscure research tasks, like this, instead of teaching or service tasks. Because such work as “admissions, curriculum, subject matter, and methods of instruction and research” is spread over the membership of committees with rotating membership, the department has a relatively flat administrative staff. Were the state to micro-manage union membership (or worse, to legally prescribe rotating membership according to whether a service-related task was defined as management-level work) I suspect it would subtly undermine a system that generally achieves the goal of responding to changes in the profession and changes in the public expectation for university education with an ordered process. It defies common sense that the legislature would want to be in the business of micromanaging the job description of a university professor.

Do remember that tenured and tenure-track faculty receive little recognition or reward for committee work, because promotion is based mostly on research and teaching. Our faculty peers (again on committees) evaluate us almost exclusively on the basis of the quality of our research (how it is received the field) and our teaching. If you work in the private sector, as I did for about a decade, you know what happens to the little jobs that need to be done, that have no reward associated with doing them, and that can be blamed on others if not done. But in fact, the union strongly encourages the consideration of such service as an essential part of our work. A self-interested faculty member, who knows that research is the most ready path to professional success, would be dumb to devote significant time to committee work. After Senate Bill 5, one would have to border on near idiocy—or suffer from enlightened altruism—to devote one’s self to committee work.

Could an unintended effect of Senate Bill 5 be the end of committee work for faculty members? I doubt it, because the actual purpose is to redefine faculty into management such that faculty could be ordered to fulfill administrative duties. Rather than contributing on the basis of shared interest and dedication to departmental or school governance, committees will probably be appointed, doing committee work as a duty. I can honestly think of no more powerful way to reduce the quality of committee work than by making it compulsory. The naive ask, what would committees possibly do? In addition to the above, hire faculty (though not so much in recent years), alter major requirements to reflect changes in a field or budget, review and approve courses proposed by faculty, request purchases of research books and journals, to name a few.

For example, in a week or two I have to meet to discuss allocations for library purchases for titles related to research in English. Why? Because the library anticipates budget cuts in coming fiscal year, the department’s allocation for library purchases needs to be trimmed. It’s committee work. Does anyone really believe that the university would be better served if an administrator (instead of a faculty committee) made these decision? Should an administrator decide which books to purchase? Or should I and the committee of other members of the faculty make the decision based on their own specialty fields? I’d have a difficult time telling you which books are worth purchasing in linguistics, another part of English department. For nineteenth-century American literature, I can do OK.

For example, in response to state budget cuts, our department (in work by another committee) recently reduced the number of prerequisites for many course, in order to attract students from other disciplines to take our courses for electives. How does department decide which courses could drop pre-requisites? Committee work. Faculty members who had actually taught the courses were much better able to judge which courses could handle open enrollment and which build on previously required courses. And in fact, the decision to change requirements was an administration-driven change. The administration, faced with its own demands trimming budgets, was quite able, with financial incentives and disincentives, to compel the department to re-think its prerequisite requirements.

The members of the Ohio legislature should know that universities are political environments. My department is scheming to attract undergraduates to take our courses, when many might be equally as interested in philosophy or history or journalism or another field. Academics, like other people, respond to incentives and disincentives. When committee work becomes compulsory rather than by service, the public can count on less thorough and conscientious work. There’s a difference between doing the minimum that needs to be done and doing what’s right—did you read each bill in its entirety before you voted on it?—and it is regrettable that the Ohio Senate would systematically encourage the former over the latter in pursuit of its Machiavellian interest in neutering public employee unions. But if the neutered AAUP survives legislative horsetrading, might being a union member become a way to avoid committee work?

The members of the faculty that I know do their best to be conscientious in all of their duties—even committee work. So I doubt that it would suffer considerably. But think about it, members of the legislature, should Senate Bill 5 provide a genuine incentive for lower-quality work on committees composed of the university faculty? But turning faculty into managers, you’re likely to lower the quality of the managerial work that we’re already doing. As you’re political beings, I trust you can figure out whether that’s wise.

This post updated to reflect my decision to decline a nomination to my department’s AAUP representative ballot and to link to a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, which identifies the source of the Senate language cited above with the Inter-University Council. I had never heard of it before reading this article, but they look a lot like “committee work" for university presidents.

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