Labor College’s Deal Questioned

At many faculty gatherings these days, one hears quips and complaints about for-profit higher education. Professors who value what they consider essential and eroding traditions — a significant tenure-track faculty and the centrality of the liberal arts, for example — resent the adjunct-heavy, career-education dominant model of higher education that is widely used in for-profit higher ed. As a result, many faculty advocates are skeptical not only about for-profit higher education, but about the growing number of alliances between nonprofit colleges and for-profit colleges. A common criticism of these partnerships is that they shift the focus away from traditional academic programs into areas that are seen as more lucrative (and that generally are more career-oriented).

So more than a few professorial eyebrows were raised by the news late Thursday that the latest nonprofit college to team up with a for-profit higher education entity was none other than the academic arm of organized labor: the National Labor College.

The college awards bachelor’s degrees and provides other specialized training to the up-and-coming leaders of the labor movement. But the deal announced Thursday seeks to greatly expand that mission. With support from the AFL-CIO, the college wants to offer online degree programs for the rank and file of working class Americans and their families — a target population of millions. While plans are still being developed, officials say that initial degree offerings could be in fields that haven’t been the college’s focus, such as business, health care and criminal justice.

To serve many more students, in fields in which the college doesn’t currently offer degrees, the National Labor College has teamed up with the Princeton Review and the Penn Foster Education Group, two for-profit entities. The former is best known for its test-prep services, and it recently moved into distance education by buying Penn Foster, which runs online college and high school programs, with a focus on areas like business, health care and criminal justice, among others.

When Inside Higher Ed published an article about the alliance, the reaction that arrived (in comments and also in e-mail and phone calls suggesting more reporting) came from faculty members who, despite no direct ties to the labor college, Princeton Review, or Penn Foster, felt betrayed. And their anger came not from any specific criticisms of the individual entities involved, but from the idea that organized labor’s college was turning to for-profits to expand.

The president of an American Federation of Teachers local posted a comment saying: "This is a sad day for the working class and a sad commentary on the state of organized labor & the institutions that allege to represent our interests."

The president of the labor college said in an interview that he and others took specific steps to make sure the new faculty members hired would be union members with outstanding working conditions. And he described the process he took to check out Penn Foster’s labor relations (which he said are excellent — although his focus was on support staff and he acknowledged not knowing about the status of faculty labor). But he also argued that Penn Foster’s role in the new partnership will be much more minimal than the announcement suggested.

Part of the reaction to the news comes from the fact that the president is William Scheuerman, who until two years ago was president of United University Professions, the faculty union of the State University of New York, and in that role was a national leader of the AFT’s higher education division. As a union leader, Scheuerman gave speeches in which he took on tight-fisted administrators, budget-cutting politicians and the likes of David Horowitz.

In that role, he argued that for-profit higher education needs extra scrutiny. In an interview with Inside Higher Ed in 2005 after a "60 Minutes" expose about for-profit higher education, Scheuerman talked of the need for tighter regulation of the industry, and described efforts to lobby Congress to increase oversight.

Of for-profit colleges, he said: "They’re in the business of turning a buck to show shareholders they’re profitable. Education is a secondary consequence. Whereas in traditional institutions of higher learning it is the goal." His concerns then were not new. In 2004, he co-wrote an article (again,while he was a faculty union president) called: "Edubusiness Comes to the Academy: The Virtual University and the Threat to Academic Labor."

In an interview Saturday, Scheuerman acknowledged that it surprised some of his friends that he moved ahead with this deal. "I had calls saying, ‘Hey. You are working with a for-profit?’ "

He insisted that the deal the National Labor College made with the for-profit entities protects academic labor and academic values. A first distinction he made is that all academic decisions will, he said, be controlled by the National Labor College, not Princeton Review or Penn Foster. The announcement issued by the college and its partners had references to the relationship, which Scheuerman acknowledged could make it sound like the other entities will do more than marketing and providing technical help. The announcement also said that while the college will be "solely responsible for the integrity and quality of the programs of the new College for Working Families," that the agreement "will bring together the skills and significant financial resources of The Princeton Review and Penn Foster in development and delivery of the College’s programs."

Scheuerman said Saturday that the main functions of the new partners will not be academic, but technical and marketing. "We need back-up support," given the expected growth of the college, he said. He said that "development and delivery" did not mean that Penn Foster was going to play a curricular or teaching role.

Asked whether Penn Foster might have more of a role, given that its academic focus is closer to the vision of the new college than is to that of the labor college, Scheuerman said that "obviously we are going to talk to Penn Foster," but that faculty would be hired by the new college, controlled by the Labor College. "We’re not going to use their faculty," he said.

The faculty who are hired, he said, will be unionized. Currently, the Newspaper Guild represents full-time, tenure-track faculty at the college and the AFT represents adjuncts. Scheuerman characterized the split on the faculty as about 50-50. (The guild’s Web site reports that it has about 20 members at the college, including librarians and archivists, while the head of the AFT unit says that it has 45 members.)

Scheuerman said he didn’t know how many of the new faculty jobs would be adjunct vs. tenure track, but he said that they would be represented by the relevant union when hired.

In selecting Penn Foster as a partner, he said that he and a few others from the college went to the company’s Scranton headquarters and, among other things, met with the United Steelworkers local that represents service staff at Penn Foster. The labor college wouldn’t have moved ahead, Scheuerman said, without verification that Penn Foster had good labor relations and that new hires for the new college could be union members. He acknowledged, though, that he did not know the arrangements under which Penn Foster hires faculty members — and professors who questioned the deal said that they didn’t know why a labor college would want to do business with an entity without first finding out how it treats faculty members on key issues such as having a tenure system, collective bargaining rights and so forth.

Tenure is largely unheard of in for-profit higher education (although many for-profit colleges offer multi-year contracts). A review of faculty job titles on Penn Foster’s Web site suggests that there is a career ladder there for faculty members, as individuals are identified as being a grader, instructor, senior instructor or department chair. The current job openings listed by the college are all described as adjunct or part-time positions.

Officials at Penn Foster declined to say whether any faculty members there have tenure. The spokeswoman said that issue could be discussed only by the academic vice president. The academic vice president in turn said that the question — even a yes or no question about whether Penn Foster has tenure — could be answered only by the CEO, who did not respond.

Greg Giebel, who teaches union administration at the labor college and is president of its adjunct union, said that he had mixed feelings about the news. Giebel said that college leaders had told the union about plans for a major expansion, and assured the union that the new faculty would be unionized. Giebel said he applauded the idea behind the college expanding its offerings for working Americans beyond the current union-focused curriculum. Further, he said that many at the college have wanted to see it find ways to build closer ties to the AFL-CIO and that the new programs seem like an "encouraging" effort in that direction.

However, Giebel said that in the administration’s discussions with the union about expansion, no mention was made of the Princeton Review and Penn Foster or of "the implications of doing it with an outside party." Giebel said he learned of the role of for-profit entities with the college’s expansion from news accounts, not from the college.

He said he assumes that the role for the outside entities will be subject to contract discussions as "it’s a change in working conditions so they need to put it on the table."

For now, Giebel said he is waiting to learn more about the deal. While not criticizing Princeton Review or Penn Foster, he said that many faculty members nationally worry about the impact of for-profit higher education so "this is something we need to address." He added that "I absolutely understand that to some, it seems like a Walmart subcontracting to a third world, non-union provider, which is a very different model than the nonprofit higher education model."

Scheuerman said that he couldn’t have briefed Giebel or other faculty members on details of the plans because the Princeton Review (and other entities with which the college had discussions) are publicly traded companies, so there would have been insider trading implications to discussing the deal in advance of its announcement. He also stressed that the final terms of the arrangements haven’t been worked out yet, and that they would reassure those who are worried. "Come back in a year," he said.


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