Grad Students Get Right to Unionize

Jennifer S. Altman/Bloomberg

Grad Students Get Right to Unionize. What It Means for the Future of Higher Ed Faculty

American higher education in an institution that dates back to the years before the founding of the country. For centuries, colleges and universities have occupied a hallowed place in America’s collective heart.

But in the last half century, higher education in the U.S. has grown from an intellectual enterprise that educated a few million students a year to a big business that enrolls more than 20 million undergraduate and graduate students. In the process, colleges and universities have become behemoths, mini-cities with nearly $500 billion in revenues and nearly a $1 trillion in assets, including cash, endowments, and of course, massive physical campuses.

Colleges and universities enroll 20 million students, have $500 billion in revenues and nearly $1 trillion in assets.

That growth spurt came in large part from huge investments by the federal government and the states through direct appropriations, student aid, and research dollars. But after a golden era of growth in public support, mostly in the 1960s and 1970s, higher education had to look elsewhere for support.

By the late 1980s and then in the 1990s, tuition started to become a much bigger source of income for public universities, in particular (where 80% of American students attend), and in the first decade of the new millennium, tuition began to edge up even more as states started to get out of the business of higher education.

This new financial reality also required universities to adopt a more bare-knuckle business approach, mostly around one of their largest costs: labor. Full-time professors with tenure were replaced with part-time adjuncts who taught one or two classes and raced off campus when they were finished. Today, half of all professors at four-year colleges teach part-time as adjuncts (and the number is even higher at community colleges). Very few parents out there shelling out tens of thousands of dollars for the education of their children have any idea that most of their teachers are part-timers making a few thousand dollars a class.

Today, half of all professors at four-year colleges teach part-time as adjuncts.

It’s not just part-timers. It’s also graduate students who for paltry stipends that sometimes hover around the federal poverty level help full-time professors teach courses and assist with their research. The exploitation of labor has been accepted, somewhat reluctantly, by administrators and even some faculty members because it advanced the mission of the institution.

But now that labor is fighting back. It started with adjuncts, who have been organizing in recent years for better pay and working conditions (even such basic things as an office where they can meet with students). And this week, in a decision that will have far-reaching consequences, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that students who work as teaching and research assistance at private universities have the right to unionize (those at public colleges already had that right under their state laws).

The ruling was immediately criticized, of course, by university administrators who always seem to be on the left politically unless they are protecting their own self interests.

The current bifurcated model of the academic workforce—a mix between full-time, well-paid, tenured professors and a large group of low-paid adjuncts and graduate students—is not sustainable for the long term as tenured professors retire and institutions increasingly are measured on their student outcomes.

Recently, as part of a report on the decade ahead for higher education that I authored for the Chronicle of Higher Education, I laid out five potential scenarios for the faculty of the future at colleges and universities:

1. One Faculty for Teaching, Another for Research

A different model for unbundling the faculty role would create two distinct tracks for faculty members: one for instructors and another for researchers. The teaching-only track would be full-time and professors would be evaluated on their teaching, not their research productivity.

Standardizing and elevating the teaching-only role of faculty on campuses would eliminate the ad-hoc hiring of adjuncts that occurs now and professionalize the teaching corps by recruiting academics interested first and foremost in instruction. That in turn would provide another pathway for graduate students into academic careers and encourage graduate programs to create programs for students who want to focus on teaching at universities.

2. The Three-Member Team: Faculty, Preceptor, TA

A model is emerging that adds a third person to the teaching team—an instructor in-between the professor and the teaching assistant. These teachers, sometimes called preceptors, are experienced full-time instructors who help students make connections between what they learn in the lecture to their experience in small group sessions or in labs (in the case of science courses). The TA’s also benefit from the preceptors, who teach the graduate students how to teach undergraduates.

3. The Design-Build Approach: Faculty and an Instructional Designer

With the growth of online education in the last two decades a new player arrived on the scene: the instructional designer. Instructional designers help traditional faculty translate their face-to-face courses into virtual classes, where educational material can be presented online.

Today, the position of instructional designer is one of the hottest jobs on campuses nationwide. Membership in the Association for Educational Communications and Technology, the primary national group of institutional designers, has grown by 50 percent over the last decade, to more than 2,400.

The team approach to designing and building courses typically results in a better experience for students and reduces the workload for faculty, most of whom have little formal training in learning science and may often teach exactly the same way they were taught.

4. Scholarship for All, No Matter the Role

If the faculty role becomes divided between research and teaching, professors will need to remain engaged in some form of scholarship to remain current.

This will require colleges and universities to adopt a more comprehensive definition of research that applies to a wider range of professorial roles on campuses. For instance, faculty members in the teaching function described earlier will need to be encouraged by institutions to conduct research on effective classroom practices and learning science, and that work will need to play a role in their evaluations.

5. A Flexible Faculty Role

The four scenarios laid out above make clear that the faculty role in the future will likely change drastically from what has existed on college campuses. Flexibility will be a key attribute of anyone pursuing an academic career in the future.

In many ways, varying the role of faculty members on campus will give academics more choices about the pathways to pursue throughout their careers. Today, the faculty career is largely flat and built at one institution. Even those who become full processors perform essentially the same job they did as associate professors.

With multiple channels available for faculty, professors in the future might have more choices about the direction of their own careers.

Jeffrey Selingo is author of the new book, There Is Life After CollegeYou can follow his writing here, on Twitter @jselingo, on Facebook, and sign up for free newsletters about the future of higher education at

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