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  • Campus Clout, Statewide StrengthImproving Shared Governance through Unionization
  • Bill Lyne (bio)

In 2002, the Washington State Legislature passed legislation allowing faculty at four-year state universities to unionize. The administration at my university, Western Washington University, took a dim view of the idea of a unionized faculty and launched an energetic, if fairly bumbling, campaign to convince faculty not to vote for the union. In one of their messages, they ominously suggested that by unionizing we would be moving from an academic and collegial shared governance model to a corporate and confrontational labor-management model.

This proved to be genuinely clarifying. As faculty senate president at the time, I knew better than anyone that the model we were operating under was governance of some sort, but it was definitely not shared. We had the usual array of committees, subcommittees, task forces, and endless meetings. We made recommendations that were routinely ignored and were advisory to deans and vice provosts who never hesitated to do whatever they wanted. All real decisions, especially those concerning budget and the deployment of resources, were made behind closed administrative doors and delivered to faculty as foregone conclusions. Faculty who found themselves subjected to arbitrary and capricious decisions by administrators had access only to a grievance process that ended at the president’s door. As senate president, I would meet with the provost every two weeks, and I usually arrived with a list of the ten ways that various deans had recently violated the faculty handbook. He would chuckle and say something along the lines of deans will be deans and that would be that.

So the administration’s invoking “shared governance” versus “labor management” gave us the opportunity to perform some public relations judo and point out that what we currently had did not even rise to a labor-management model and could more appropriately be described as a parent-child model. We argued that if we wanted to return to a genuine arrangement [End Page 558] of academic shared governance, unionization was our best bet. Only with the legal obligation to come to a bargaining table and negotiate in good faith with us over wages, benefits, and working conditions would the administration begin to share any of the real responsibility for managing and determining the direction of the institution.

During the organizing campaign, the administration repeatedly tried to personalize our argument, insisting that they were decent people who had our best interests at heart and that unionizing would be an insult and a breach of trust. We responded that the problem was structural, not personal. I had had dinner with our president and played golf with the provost and could confirm that they were both gracious, charming, and fun people, but that did not change the fact that their jobs gave them perspectives, pressures, and imperatives that were very different from, and often at odds with, those of the faculty. With boards of trustees composed primarily of political appointees from mostly corporate backgrounds and ever-shrinking state budgets, public university administrators have been forced to become more concerned with money, politics, and public relations than they are with academic quality or academic freedom. They live with a constant imperative to do more with less and to adopt so-called business models that emphasize training over education and are often antithetical to the interests of students and faculty. In such an environment, it is easy enough for the business of administration to begin to eclipse the primary educational mission of the university and for administrators and administrative functions to begin to multiply. Individual deans will have three or four administrative assistants, while large departments limp along with one. Tenure-track faculty lines wash away while teams of assessment specialists and assistant associate vice provosts proliferate. And these folks will relentlessly preach the gospel of “data-driven decision making” right up until you present them with the data on administrative growth and the relationship between administrative salaries and faculty salaries.

Again, this situation is not the result of administrators being bad people, but because they are people under a variety of pressures with a lot of local power and no real obligation to be accountable...


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