As a result of the National Labor Relations Board’s latest decision, the members of the university precariat find themselves in a stronger, less-precarious position.
The decision on Case 19-RC-102521, in response to a petition by the Service Employees International Union, Local 925 seeking to represent a unit of all nontenure-eligible contingent faculty members employed by Pacific Lutheran University, affirms the right of those faculty members to form a union. This is a major victory for the growing number of contingent faculty members in American colleges and universities (now amounting to some two-thirds of all faculty in institutions of higher education in the United States).
There were two significant criteria behind the decision—one having to do with religion (the religious nature of the institution and of the employees’ role in the institution), the other with the nature of the employees’ work (whether or not they should be considered part of management).
While both criteria are important, I am most interested in the second: the grounds on which the NLRB found that Pacific Lutheran “failed to demonstrate that full-time contingent faculty members are managerial employees.”
In the famous Yeshiva University case, the NLRB found that faculty members participated in shared governance and thus were considered part of management. Therefore, they had no right to form a union. But the structure of university governance has changed since 1980. According to the latest decision,
Time appears to have confirmed the wisdom of the Court’s decision to address only the case then before it. Over the 30-plus years since Yeshiva was decided, the university model of delivering higher education has evolved considerably. As one commentator has explained:
The rise of consumerism, a growing push for accountability and declining public support for education are contributing to what many call the ‘corporatization’ of higher education. Nonprofit colleges and universities are adopting corporate models, cutting costs and seeking profit-making opportunities.
Indeed, our experience applying Yeshiva has generally shown that colleges and universities are increasingly run by administrators, which has the effect of concentrating and centering authority away from the faculty in a way that was contemplated in Yeshiva, but found not to exist at Yeshiva University itself. Such considerations are relevant to our assessment of whether the faculty constitute managerial employees.
A common manifestation of this “corporatization” of higher education that is specifically relevant to the faculty in issue here is the use of “contingent faculty,” that is, faculty who, unlike traditional faculty, have been appointed with no prospect of tenure and often no guarantee of employment beyond the academic year.
The fact is, most faculty members—both tenure-track and contingent—find themselves increasingly in the position of non-management employees, taking orders from administrators, with at best an advisory capacity with respect to most major decisions in their colleges and universities.
The latest NLRB decision recognizes that university administrators (such as the president, the provost/dean of graduate studies, the vice president for development and university relations, the vice president for finance and operations, the vice president for admission and enrollment services, the vice president of student life/dean of students, and the academic deans) are given faculty status. But that shouldn’t obscure the fact that most of the faculty, who do the bulk of teaching and research within higher education, are not administrators and do not participate in any kind of shared governance of the university.
Not in the new corporate university.