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EMU Faculty Strike Is A Lesson in Picking Your Battles

If you live in Washtenaw County, you know that the Eastern Michigan University faculty is on strike. The key issues include pay and healthcare costs. The EMU administration is seeking a court order to force its professors back into their classrooms. (And while all of this is taking place, the national conversation focuses on “quiet quitting.”)

Forcing professors back into the classrooms and quibbling about salary increases may not be the route to take right now. It has the vague whiff of winning a battle but losing a war. The rationale here is simple.

Students choose schools based on the institution’s faculty. That is another way of saying that never in the history of higher education has a student ever chosen a school because s/he loved and/or admired the school’s administration.

Schools run on teachers, and when you do not have teachers, you do not actually have schools. (You just have school buildings.) Need proof? How many students went to class at EMU today? Especially after the students received some matter-of-fact emails from their professors saying that the professors would not be in the classrooms; that they took their class materials offline; that students would not be responsible for assignments or homework until further notice; and that the professor would contact them to let them know when they would return to their classrooms.

The administration’s response to this was to suggest that students go to their (empty) classrooms for 15 minutes to see if the professor showed up. This – not the strike, but this – is particularly disrespectful to the students. This “if-you-build-it-they-will-come” mentality suggests that EMU’s teacherless classrooms will somehow manifest the “school” the students have paid for.

EMU faculty contract was extended twice

The EMU administration understood in 2020 that September 1, 2022, would be a day of reckoning without a signed replacement contract. The administration had two years to avoid this walkout. And that is being generous. The EMU faculty was working on the second two-year extension of a contract originally negotiated in 2015. So, the EMU administration had two years on top of two previous years on top of the five years of the original contract to make sure this did not happen.

It is not the faculty but the administration who let EMU students down. Remember, students do not enroll at a university for the administration. They come for the classes and the facilities. And it is incumbent upon the university administration to make sure classes taught by qualified instructors take place in well-maintained facilities.

Keeping teachers happy is one way to make sure classes happen. Do not accept the claptrap that teachers are somehow unable to function outside of the classroom. They can (and do) work in private industry all the time.

And private industry pays a lot more than higher education does.

A lot.

How is this a problem for community colleges? Ask Coconino Community College in Flagstaff, AZ. It has had to pump the brakes on its automotive program this semester because it cannot find anyone to teach the classes. And why not? Because those who can teach the classes can (and do) make at least 20% more fixing cars than teaching other people to fix cars. Under these circumstances, why should they take a pay cut?

Colleges face this problem when they want to hire instructors to teach classes in high-salary, high-demand fields like nursing, computer science and information technology, engineering, mathematics, and other technology oriented fields.

EMU Administration has much more to lose

The problem goes deeper than that. Universities perform about 60% of all federally funded basic research in the US. And by “universities,” I mean those professors who are walking around in circles on Washtenaw Avenue. And by basic research, I mean research that improves our understanding of everything.

This is not a theoretical problem at the community college level, either. WCC has lost many experienced, highly qualified teachers either to retirement, the private sector, or (often) both. Good teachers are hard to find and even harder to replace. As time goes by, fewer people are willing to forgo industry-rate income to teach.

But “taking care of the teachers” means managing income carefully. It means that the average institution cannot really afford to hang the franchise tag on 13 Vice Presidents. Or build a hotel or a quasi-private health club that sucks $4.5M from the General Fund. It also probably means that community colleges like WCC need to “humble themselves” and accept the conditions that come along with taking the 50% state funding match on campus construction projects. And it means that they must take care of the buildings and infrastructure on campus day in and day out to avoid the massive “neglect tax” that builds when they ignore maintenance.

Higher education administrators, understand this: today, the US higher education system has an excess capacity of more than five million seats. Some institutions will not make it. Your teachers and your facilities attract students; administration does not.

So go ahead and fight your teachers when they ask for more money; the free market will close your doors. Someone else will gladly hire your teachers, but who will hire you?

Photo Credit: Christopher Octa, via Flickr