Union Push in For-Profit Higher Ed

Instructors at the Art Institute of Seattle on Friday filed signatures with the National Labor Relations Board seeking a union election with the goal of affiliating with the American Federation of Teachers.

The move could be significant for several reasons. The major unions that organize faculty members in the United States (the AFT, the American Association of University Professors and the National Education Association) have largely stayed away from the growing for-profit sector. (The Art Institute of Seattle and other art institute campuses are owned by the Education Management Corporation, a major player in for-profit higher ed, which also operates Argosy University, Brown Mackie College, and South University.) Officials of both the AAUP and NEA said that they have no organizing drives going on in for-profit higher ed. If the AFT is successful, some labor experts believe that academic unions could find fertile ground in for-profit higher education (and plenty of academics in nonprofit higher education would like to see that happen).

Also of note are the issues that union organizers are stressing. There is little talk of wages and benefits. Rather, the campaign is being built around allegations that faculty members are not being permitted to uphold academic quality. Union organizers say that they are pressured to give (undeserved) high grades and to pass some students who should fail. These charges come at a time of increasing scrutiny of for-profit higher education and mirror themes from a much-discussed "Frontline" documentary and from advocates for tougher federal regulation of the for-profit sector, suggesting that some for-profit colleges encourage students to enroll not because they are qualified or will benefit, but for their student aid dollars. (Education Management’s two press officials did not respond to repeated e-mail, office voice mail or cell phone calls seeking their comments about the union drive or the allegations being made by the union.)

"I think this could be a test case for a whole class of institutions," said Richard Boris, director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions, at the City University of New York’s Hunter College. For-profit higher education is booming, Boris noted, but faculties are heavily part time, without protections of tenure or unions. "You have this cohort of the academic dispossessed," he said.

He added, however, that "the proprietaries have been operating independent of any real organizing effort [by unions] and it makes good sense that there be organizing there." He added that union drives at for-profit colleges would also benefit nonprofit colleges and universities. The for-profits "have been nibbling" at the student base that also considers public colleges. The for-profit colleges have a financial advantage if they don’t need to comply with union contracts or provide tenure, he said, so "it makes a lot of sense to try to level the playing field there."

While some may think it makes a lot of sense to organize the sector, it may be difficult — as the Seattle organizing drive illustrates. Many union officials say that they are regularly approached by faculty members at for-profit colleges who want to unionize, but who hesitate to sign their names to cards requesting representation or to take any public stand. The all-adjunct model used by many for-profit institutions, in which administrators have wide control over who is hired to teach, leaves many faculty members feeling that they can’t afford to take any public stand, say union organizers.

Indeed, the Seattle campaign is notably different from most such campaigns. Typically, faculty leaders of the organizing drive become its public face. Organizers create Web sites to publicize the drive and hold public events. At the Art Institute of Seattle, the campaign didn’t go public until the required signature cards were filed with the NLRB to seek an election on Friday. All of the organizing was done in one-on-one discussions. And the organizers have not been identified. AFT officials said that they were confident that they would win an election, and said that they filed cards on behalf of a super-majority of the instructors.

One of the lead organizers, an instructor at the art institute, agreed to talk about the campaign provided that his name was not used. He said that a year or so ago, a colleague started talking about organizing a union — and then promptly disappeared from course rosters.

While the organizer said he couldn’t figure out what happened to the person, he said that no one wants to be identified as leading the union effort — at least until there is an election. (While NLRB rules bar employers from firing people for exercising their right to seek to organize, legal challenges to such actions can take years, so the AFT has moved ahead with the campaign without any public voices coming from the union.) "This was all a word-of-mouth, silent campaign," said the Seattle instructor. "If you put up a structure, they have something to work against."

The "universal concerns" of faculty members, he said, are "student-related issues." He said that he and many of his colleagues feel that "the students are being treated like cattle," and that the institute’s "focus is to get the numbers in, get them on financial aid, and to get the money back to shareholders … and to do this, they want to make sure that regardless of what happens in the classroom, the student passes."

Faculty members have been going to open houses that the art institute holds to listen to what recruiters say, and the instructor said that students are being promised that the courses will be easy and will lead to good jobs. As a result, students have "weird expectations" and faculty members are caught in the middle when they try to enforce academic standards that the students aren’t prepared for. "What the faculty have said that they hate so much is that they feel that the school is stealing from the students and we are in the middle of that," he said.

The instructor said that, if the faculty members vote in a union, the chief topics for negotiations will be contract provisions that protect the right of faculty members to enforce academic standards. Doing so, he said, might cost the institute some students at the beginning, but he predicted this approach would help the institute in the end. He said that there are some "outstanding" students at the institute, and that the value of their degrees is limited by those awarded to less talented students. If standards are raised, the institute might attract more top students. "A drop would be temporary," he said.

Faculty members also want provisions that make it easier for them to work with students outside the classroom, the organizer said. Typically, he said, courses are taught in four-hour blocks of time, once a week, and many instructors who teach more than one course are assigned two of these blocks in a single day with a 30-minute break. This scheduling makes it hard to find time to advise or work with students, the instructor said. Blocks of time — and office space — before or after class times would promote a better education, he said.

Sandra Schroeder, president of the Washington State AFT, said that she viewed the campaign at the Art Institute of Seattle as "a local one," and that the AFT became involved after being approached by faculty members at the institute. "This was the work of people there," who she said showed "real courage in that they are so vulnerable" to losing their jobs for their union activities. "I think what this is really about is the quality of education, about people feeling like they are being pressured to do things that aren’t right, like passing students who haven’t performed well and graduating people who aren’t going to be able to get the jobs they think they have trained for."

Cheryl L. Leone, a professor of fashion design at the Art Institute of Philadelphia, said that she doesn’t know how instructors are treated in Seattle, but that she wasn’t surprised that the focus of the union organizing drive is on academic issues. Leone is president of the Faculty Federation of the Art Institute of Philadelphia, one of the few unions in for-profit higher education and one affiliated with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. (Leone said that when faculty members organized in the mid-’80s, the AFT turned them down so they went with AFSCME.)

Leone said that many of the issues on which her union has achieved contract gains relate directly to educational rigor and quality. Faculty members complained about being forced to enroll students in courses for which they lacked prerequisites, and so won procedures to prevent that. Faculty members were concerned that class sizes were too large to provide quality instruction and so negotiated caps. She said that, from time to time, administrators will say, "why don’t you just pass" some student or another who is being failed, and she said that union leaders will intervene, and that no such forced passing grades have taken place in recent years.
"For faculty, the negotiations have been very much about education," she said. "We don’t believe that this is just about numbers and profit, but about making sure we can provide a quality education."

While the union has won nothing resembling tenure rights, Leone said that it has been able to secure more job security and other benefits for instructors who work for specified time periods with good performance. These instructors are placed first on the list for assignments for the following semester, and can select courses before new hires, giving them greater control over their careers.

Leone said that she regularly hears from faculty members at other art institutes who want to know how to organize a union, but that many back down when they realize they face the risk of retaliation. "I’m so excited to hear this," she said of the Seattle instructors’ move for an NLRB election.

At a for-profit institution, Leone said, a union "creates shared governance" in that it assures faculty members have "a voice and the ability to stand up."

Harris N. Miller, president of the Career College Association, said that he couldn’t comment on the specifics of accusations made about Education Management, a CCA member. He said that he doesn’t have an opinion "one way or another" on whether unions would be beneficial in for-profit higher education. But as to the idea that unions are needed to assure academic quality, he said that the real measure of academic quality is to be found in outcomes, and "the only sector that focuses on outcomes is our sector."


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