IF NEGOTIATIONS break down, the faculty on the 23 campuses of the California State University system could go on strike later this week. Any strike would be short-lived, primarily because a university is not a supermarket or an industrial factory; it is a unique and specialized institution, with its essential purposes the advancement and dissemination of knowledge. But the trend toward collective bargaining has transformed academia, whether as a positive development I remain to be convinced.
There is a much larger story beyond the first-ever vote for a systemwide CSU faculty strike. Largely unreported, it is one of the most significant developments in higher education in the last four decades or so: namely, the growing interest among professional educators in using collective bargaining to settle issues affecting their professional lives.
As a faculty member, first in the Cal State system and now at Stanford, I have always valued my independence and freedom as a professional. That is why I am apprehensive about a civil service mentality taking root in the academic community. I feel that collective bargaining has led to the loss of faculty confidence in the worth of their work as teachers and scholars. I worry that the university will be reshaped in the image of “industrial democracy” under growing pressure from faculty unions seeking to pit their power against the power of administrators, trustees and other public authorities who would be cast in the role of “employer.”
Faculty members who began their careers in the 1950s (I include myself) will remember how the university operated on the powerful force of collegial trust and the concept of “shared authority.” Although admittedly a somewhat idealized and simplistic view, the university was a community of scholars, more or less removed from the ebb and flow of social forces and drawn together to pursue intellectual inquiry and teaching.
By and large, the potential for conflict was successfully managed and reduced through persuasion and compromise rather than by organized pressure in the form of caucuses, interest groups or bloc voting.
But higher education has undergone an unfortunate metamorphosis. The modern college or university is more and more a microcosm of our society. Social unrest and political demands pressing for change permeate the campus. The “employee” role of the faculty is more pronounced, reflecting an erosion of trust and a shared sense of purpose. Collegiality has increasingly yielded to adversarial labor-management relationships and other forms of factionalism and conflict. Informal processes of accommodation and decision-making have been replaced by more conspicuous and formal administrative rules and practices, leading to a diffusion of what were once held to be common professional and academic goals.
The late sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset and political scientist Everett C. Ladd conducted a survey in 1969, and their findings underscored some other factors in faculty attitudes toward unionization:
Younger, especially untenured, faculty members are likely to be more supportive of collective bargaining; teaching at two-year colleges and nonresearch-oriented universities resembles less a profession, so faculty see less of a conflict between their status and the norms of unionism; academics in the most “intellectual” rather than the practical fields -- that is, the liberal arts as contrasted with the applied disciplines -- are more liberal or left in their political opinions and tend to favor unionism; however, academics at major centers of research and scholarship, among the most liberal, are nonetheless significantly less supportive of collective bargaining because their institutions are better suited to maintaining high scholarly standards based on principles of merit, individual accomplishment and qualitative judgment by peers.
In spite of the trend toward collective bargaining, some faculty members are conflicted about unionization. For many it represents a long-overdue collective effort to improve working conditions -- the Cal State faculty, for instance, has been without a contract for two years. But even those who have pushed hard for unionization are among the first to denounce the increasing tendencies toward centralization in statewide systems like the CSU.
As hard as this change in style has been for those faculty members imbued with ideals and habits of rational analysis, the students may be the biggest losers if a strike is called.