I voted on whether or not to authorize a strike recently, but the stakes weren’t clear. Students already have enough obstacles in their path to graduation. What, exactly, I wondered, is worth erecting another one?
The union says it’s fighting for academic priorities. Ambitious administrators, we hear, are building their resumes with pet projects and fleshing out their ranks —“administrative bloat”—while starving the university of its academic meat and potatoes. The administrators themselves are saying very little, perhaps because anything said outside bargaining could be construed as violating the rule of “no bargaining off the table.”
Is the problem self-interested administrators? I’ve been at Portland State for 15 years, and the current administration — led by President Wim Wiewel and Provost Sona Andrews — is the strongest and most committed I’ve seen.
Is the problem low salaries? Yes, we want more competitive salaries, and salary compression in particular is a serious problem. Yet, as many have noted, once our benefits are factored in, our salaries place us in the lower middle, not at the bottom, of our list of comparators.
No question, we have problems. It’s just that the contract negotiations don’t seem to get at the most important ones.
Portland State has reached or passed two tipping points. Tipping point #1 is the decline in state funding over the years. The state can no longer be said to meaningfully subsidize higher education at Portland State. What was a public good has become a private one, paid for by the students through their tuition dollars. Student tuition has itself reached a point of no return. Were tuition raised further, students would simply stop coming.
Tipping point #2 is PSU’s reliance on contingent faculty. Over the same decades that state funding was declining, the student body was doubling, almost tripling. Tuition hikes allowed Portland State to tread water but not make up the state deficit. It could not afford to hire additional tenure-track faculty with teaching loads that met the demand but also allowed them to do research and service. So, like virtually all state schools across the nation, Portland State began hiring instructors with higher courseloads and without opportunity for research or tenure.
More than half of our student instruction is performed by faculty who are not on the tenure track. It is bad for the university, the students and civil society itself that so much of the professoriate essentially lack academic freedom. As far as salaries go, some of this group have the same salaries at rank as their tenure-track peers, but suffer from feeling precarious at an institution that experiences regular budget crises. Others — the adjuncts — are paid only as much as, and sometimes less than, graduate students.
Research shows that a tipping point is reached when non-tenure-track faculty outnumber tenure-track faculty. When this happens, shared governance sours. Insecure faculty believe that administrators are intentionally shutting them out of governance. Administrators respond by working harder than ever to improve transparency only to be stymied by the unprecedented levels of suspicion and resentment.
The union and the administration are fighting over contract language that does affect the full-time non-tenure-track faculty, though not the adjuncts, who bargain through a different union. What the union is asking for would make some individuals feel more secure but it would not improve the overall situation. This situation can be improved only be reversing the trend towards off-tenure-track hiring. Reversing this trend will not be easy, for both cultural and economic reasons. For one thing, hiring off the tenure track has allowed tenure-track faculty to avoid asking any number of hard questions — such as: Are we willing to rethink our jobs such that we can maintain a predominantly tenure-track faculty given our budget realities?
It is heartening to see a union displaying strength at a time when union weakness is a factor in the growth of class inequality. And collective action is needed to reverse the state-funding decreases and the contingent-faculty increases. But this strike, as currently imagined, is not that.
Jennifer Ruth is an associate professor in Portland State University's department of English.