Sunday, April 13, 2014

Assessing a strike's cost to students

In the discussions over the contract negotiations and the possible strike, one hears a lot of "what about the students?"  And it's easy for "the students" to become something like a slogan, or a shibboleth.  Nobody is ever not going to be for "the students," and everyone claims to be acting in the students' best interests.  And what's more, I think most people are sincere.  They want to do right by the students, at least in the abstract sense that one of the university's core missions--and a major reason most people have gotten involved in university work--is teaching.

At the same time and if negotiations fail, we're going to see a lot of people expressing concern for "the students" and criticizing the other side for not being concerned about "the students." Take, for example,  President's Easter's recent letter to department heads.  In that letter, Mr. Easter declined to submit to binding arbitration because, he said, he is responsible to the Board of Trustees and binding arbitration would compel the Board to accept any decision rendered.  We can therefore expect to hear criticisms lodged against Mr. Easter, implying that he feels no responsibility to the students but "only" to the Board of Trustees.

If those criticisms are lodged, I think that will be overreach.  Mr. Easter's gravest mistake in this case seems to have been not adding the obligatory "and the students" in noting his responsibility to the Board.  And it's not altogether impossible that a pro-union faculty member with an article or book queued up for publication might say, in an off-moment, that he or she has a responsibility "to my editor."  But all is fair in love and war and although this is not a "war," it is a struggle for controlling the public message, and we have to accept that sort of thing.

And of course, the struggle will go tit for tat, so I can't blame the union for criticizing the message.  If a strike does take place, the "upper administration" will bemoan its effect on the students.  And although not a member of administration ("upper" or otherwise), I, too, have also used "effect on the students" as something like a casual phrase on this blog. 

All well and good.  But what is the students' interest and how might those interests suffer in the event of a strike?  A related question that must be asked is, how might they benefit from the type of outcome the union wants?  I do believe, as I've said before, that the union seems sincere in its concern for how the students will be affected by a strike. But even the union's supporters acknowledge that a strike will impose costs and strains on the students.  It is also apparent that some faculty would like to learn more from the students about how these negotiations are affecting them.
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As we speak about the costs imposed on the students and try to learn from the students, it behooves us to keep in mind some important points about this process and what it means when we say "the costs for students."  I have a few suggestions here of what needs to be kept in mind.  I don't consider this list exhaustive, but rather a starting point point for discussion:
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The principal function of a strike is to be an inconvenience for the students.

As a tactical matter, almost the whole point of a strike is to cancel classes.  True, some other general-purpose units and units that serve the general public will also probably close, too.  And some nuts-and-bolts committee work may not get done.  But the immediate goal is to shut down classes.  Keep in mind that the two-day strike in February took place on a Tuesday and a Wednesday, probably because having it those days maximized the number of classes cancelled and the strike's visibility.  If it had taken place on a Thursday and Friday, fewer classes would have been affected.  In some programs and for some courses, Thursdays and Fridays are the days that TA's, who are not in the bargaining unit and therefore cannot legally strike for faculty, work while many of the faculty do other things.  It's not that those faculty are not working.  They might be doing committee work or grading or advising or writing or researching or peer-reviewing ot preparing other classes or doing service--these are all time consuming activities and part of their job descriptions.  But they aren't necessarily teaching those days.

And we should remember those non-teaching duties of faculty members.  Will those be subject to the strike?  Committee work and possibly some service work might.  But--and I stand to be corrected--TT faculty will not necessarily forgo their writing or their research projects during the strike time.  Neither will they likely ask any editors to postpone publication of articles they might have in line (and I'd be surprised if the editors would agree).  Nor will they cease contributing peer reviews or writing book reviews.  I don't think I'd expect them to, either, and I imagine doing so would be difficult.  And for NTT faculty, it would be a non-issue.  If NTT's are publishing or doing research, they are not necessarily being compensated or otherwise being rewarded for it (I think....there's a lot I don't know about some NTT positions).
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We need to remember that current students might not enjoy the full fruits of the purported long-term benefits of a union contract.

It is at least arguably the case that a union contract could be part of a process that in the long run benefits the students at UIC.  I have my doubts, but they are doubts, not firm and confident predictions.  But I suspect that most of these benefits are of the sort that come about after several years of being set on the right track.  I can see an argument that a contract, at least for NTT instructors, enables those instructors to have more time and resources to commit to helping the students.  A contract, especially if it secures multi-year contracts for NTT's, will give them a greater security and enable them to play a bigger role in making tings better for UIC's undergrads.

But that process will likely take several years to see the full benefit.  Nothing wrong with that per se.  Good things take time to build.  But the undergrads currently at UIC won't necessarily be the ones to benefit.  And yet the strike if it happens will come during their stay here and interrupt their classes.
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If the strike lasts long enough, scholarships and jobs might suffer.

No one wants a long strike.  But if it lasts more than a couple weeks, students will not only likely lose the benefit of the last two weeks of classes they've paid for.  They might have deadlines for scholarships or job applications that require, say, a transcript for the spring semester or official record of graduation.  Or recommendations might be due.  I understand that in at least one department, professors are trying to ease the process and do any letters before a strike.  But I don't know how general that approach is on the campus or how well the message gets to undergraduates.

I honestly don't know if this point represents a real problem or only a possibility that a rules-bound person like me tends to think of.  Perhaps employers or scholarship-granting organizations would understand or don't place the type of importance on such things that I think they might.  And I also suspect that if it is a problem, it might be limited "only" to a few situations.  But those situations will be very important for any student so affected.

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These are only things that I have thought of from the safety of my desktop computer at home.  I have not spoken with any undergraduates yet how they see this might affect them.  I also know that union supporters are taking such considerations quite seriously.  If any of them are reading this blog post, they might  wish to take note of the types of things I've said here if they haven't already.








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