Striking for the soul of the university

January 30, 2019

Members of the American Association of University Professors at Wright State University (AAUP-WSU) in Dayton, Ohio, went on strike on January 22 after the administration, led by President Cheryl Schrader and the Wright State Board of Trustees, unilaterally imposed a horrible contract on the faculty union on January 4.

It’s a blunt union-busting move, but so far, unity and resolve has been strong among faculty as they picket in frigid conditions just for the right to negotiate their compensation and working conditions. Sirisha Naidu is an economics professor at Wright State, a member of the executive committee of the AAUP-WSU and a strike captain. Naidu spoke with Roland Reed on the first day of the strike.

WHAT ARE the main issues facing your union that led to a strike vote, and what do you want the strike to accomplish?

THEY’VE IMPOSED a contract on us. That is one of the big things. We’ve been trying to negotiate a contract very unsuccessfully with them for the last year-and-a-half and they’ve been very resistant to negotiation. They’ve been throwing proposals on the table with a take it or leave it attitude, and that’s not a negotiation.

They’ve hired an outside lawyer, paid the lawyer about a half million, and this has never been done before because they’ve always negotiated our contract in house. They paid half a million at a time when they claim they have no money.

Striking faculty build solidarity at Wright State University
Striking faculty build solidarity at Wright State University (AAUP Wright State University)

Some of the main issues have to do with workload. They want to take away our right to negotiate over workload, which means they can increase workload at any time. If faculty have a higher workload, it means that students will not have the kind of individualized attention that they need.

It means that we are not going to be able to provide them with the kinds of assignments they need — the pedagogy will be different. We have students who pick up things easily, but also students who struggle, and who require that kind of attention.

We get a diverse bunch of students at Wright State, and we take great pride in being able to provide a good education for this diverse body of students. I don’t mean diversity just in terms of racial and economic diversity, but also diversity in terms of their being prepared for college. We’re an open enrollment university, and I think a lot of us take pride in the fact that we see our students grow and become successful.

They want to take away our right to negotiate over health care. We asked them to give us a number, and they refused to give us the number because they said they don’t have a number. Some of the other issues are that in our previous contract, we had language over how they would assess our performance — what is called merit-pay, they want to take that away.

Even though they continue to emphasize the idea that the university has no money, we don’t think it’s that. We think it’s a power game they want to break the union, and that’s why we’re taking a stand. It’s about power, and we’re going to do our best to ensure that they don’t break the union, and that we are able to continue performing and continue providing services to our students.

HOW WOULD the administration having more power change the university?

WHAT HAS happened with the corporatization of education and the neoliberalization of education is an emphasis on technical education and on STEM fields. But it’s not just that the emphasis is on STEM fields, but an emphasis on trying to train a workforce without providing them the critical perspective that they need.

Even if you’re an engineer, even if you are a scientist, even if you are a humanities graduate, or a social science graduate, you need to have a perspective that is critical.

It’s important because we want a citizenry that is able to think and is able to question, but also, even from a very instrumental perspective, we want a citizenry which can innovate and change. We don’t want to just train a workforce that is able to only perform the tasks that are needed today. We want people who are able to adapt to whatever the future offers.

We’ve had one of the Board of Trustees who has mentioned that the humanities are not important. So there’s this attack on a broad liberal arts education. There’s an attack on this idea of critical thinking. There’s an attack on the idea of education, not just of training a workforce, but of educating a citizenry.

By attacking faculty, they’re indirectly attacking the idea of what a university is and should be, and the role that it plays in a democratic society.

CAN YOU explain further the idea and consequences of the neoliberalization of higher education?

WE THINK shared governance in academic issues is very important, but we also think that professors’ working conditions are the students learning conditions. So we’re not fighting for higher raises. We haven’t had a raise in five of the last eight years [but] we’re not actually fighting for higher raises.

What we’re fighting for is the ability to hire good faculty and to retain good faculty. The contract that they’re imposing on us will not allow us to do that.

In the last year and a half, we lost 92 faculty to attrition. We lost them because they have left for other positions, and the administration has done nothing to replace them, which means that we have classes that we can no longer offer. And at the same time that we have lost 92 faculty, they have continued to hire top administrators.

Our president gets paid about $600,000. We are a public university, but we are not Ohio State University. We’re Wright State University — we’re an open-enrollment university. So we have these top administrators who get paid a lot.

We have affiliated entities, including real estate entities, and the CEOs of those entities get paid big bucks, but the very people responsible for the whole mission of the university — we’re unable to replace them.

What the top administration is telling us is that we’re not going to replace the faculty we’ve lost, but [for] the faculty who continue at Wright State, we’re going to treat them badly.

They want to take away our right to bargain our health care, workload and the right to be objectively evaluated on our performance. So they’re just going to allow for nepotism. Essentially, that’s what’s going to happen when you when you say that administrators can evaluate faculty without any set criteria.

They want to take away our ability to teach over the summer and give it to adjunct faculty. There’s nothing wrong with adjunct faculty, but also, adjunct faculty are contingent labor, and so the administration is trying to undermine unionized faculty.

Most full-time faculty are on nine-month contracts. So we do all our work in nine months, but our pay gets distributed over 12 months. So when people think we have summers off, we don’t actually have summers off — we just don’t get paid for summer.

We have at least three jobs. We teach, we do research and we do service. So a lot of us put off our research for the summer because that’s time that we have. So when we are not offered the ability to teach over the summer, first, that is additional work we’re doing, so we’re not asking for anything more, but it also means that we are a further undermining education by hiring contingent labor.

If we could, we would like to unionize contingent labor as well, because of course we need to organize all labor, whether it’s academic or non-academic labor so that they don’t pit one group against another.

But currently, Ohio state law doesn’t allow us to do that. So coming back to this idea of what their power does, it’s going to undermine this university. It’s going to undermine the learning conditions of students. It’s going to undermine the research conditions of the students.

If I’m forced to teach double the amount of classes, I’m not going to be able to do research. The research that all faculty does has a role to play in our society. That’s important, and they’re saying, “We don’t really care about it because we don’t value intellectual activity.”

Also, I think it’s very insulting when they think that a place like Wright State, and the students who come to Wright State, don’t deserve those kind of faculty. Essentially this is part of what’s happening in education generally.

If neoliberalization and the proponents of neoliberalization have their way, all of that will be concentrated in some universities. They’re saying the rest of the students don’t deserve to have faculty who are top scholars — that Dayton and Miami Valley don’t deserve that. It is very insulting.

SO IN a sense, you’re fighting for what the soul of the university is?

YES, ABSOLUTELY.

WHAT HAS been the overall mood of faculty in preparing for the strike and during the strike?

THERE’S BEEN a whole range of emotions. It started off with the idea that the administration would see reason because we’re not asking for anything beyond what’s reasonable. Then it was disbelief because they’re not being rational when they impose things on us. Then it was anger because they’re disrespecting us, and anger at the intimidation that the administration has been engaged in. They’ve been trying to intimidate faculty and students.

And, of course, sorrow that we’re not teaching today. I felt this deep sense of sorrow as I was preparing for the strike. I was preparing to not have access to any of the library resources, or my email, or my laptop where all my research is located, and not being able to go back to my class and teach. It was a moment of sorrow.

Now, we’re completely energized today. Seeing the support of all my colleagues, the community, labor allies, the students. The students organized a rally, and it was fantastic! It fills me with hope because what we also need is political education. We need political education for faculty and students. So what better way than educating ourselves on the picket line, and working as a collective body? This is politics up close and personal.

And thinking of ourselves as workers. Sometimes we don’t think of ourselves as workers, no matter our background, even if some of us come from union families. The idea that professors are also workers [is] something we forget.

We’ve had a somewhat more privileged position, and we are different from other workers, but that’s true for all industries. Every industry’s workers are different. But when you think about the relationship between capital and labor, we are labor. Even though there are hierarchies of labor, which we can get into, we are still selling our labor to the university.

FOR WORKERS who haven’t organized and who might read this, and are inspired by what you’ve said, what would you say to them?

I’VE NEVER organized a strike before. What I would say is that you need a fantastic set of people working with you. We had initial conversations since summer, and we have been having meetings regularly, we’ve been organizing for at least a year — one on one conversations, and not just 5 or 6 people.

We tried to get a whole bunch of people to speak to their colleagues because of that personal connection. We didn’t have a set steward system, and we’ve felt that. There were a lot of faculty we just didn’t know. A lot of organizing and just trying to create connections and convey information to and from the leadership.

We’ve had members who have said we’re too radical and some members who said we aren’t radical enough, and it’s important to try and reconcile that. This is relatively new for most people. How do you engage in everyday poltiics? And how do you do it on different levels? It’s been incredible. Just constant conversations and constant organizing. I know a lot more people now by just talking to my colleagues.

At some point you just have to take a stand. Maybe we’ll win maybe we won’t. I hope we do. We’ve had so much support from students and the community. And we’ve reached out to the community a lot. Labor allies have come out to support us — the DSA were here at 6:30am shoveling snow for us.

Constant communication and not being afraid to take a stand. Whether we win or lose, we’ve at least put up a good fight. Why not fight? At least I will feel happy that we fought back, and the outcome is always uncertain. There are lots of moving pieces, but we’ve fought back. We’re fighting for public education and the public good. It’s time to remind people why the public good is important.

WHAT CAN anyone reading this do to support you?

IF YOU’RE local, come support us on the picket line or volunteering at strike headquarters. It feels good that the community is supporting us. Social media is big, if people are posting things, tag AAUP-Wright State University.

This is not an isolated fight. It connects to everything else that is going on with society and the economy, and this current phase of capitalism. So, just some show of support in ways that our members feel that validation. We need that continued support. Continue the good fight.

Ben Ratliffe contributed to this article.

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