When Will Substance Finally Supplant Seniority?

In California, higher education leaders are freaking out. Well, calmly, of course and with regal bearing and presence of mind, as Chancellors and Provosts are expected to do. Governor Ahhhnold has proposed a state budget that calls for a drastic cut in the funding for higher education, about $1.3 billion dollars, to be precise. The community college system, the largest in the world, with an enrollment of 2.6 million students, would take a $500 million dollar funding hit, and the California State system, which enrolls 450,000 students, would see cuts of over $800 million. According to this article, published in the UC-San Diego Guardian, the student newspaper, CSU spokesman Paul Browning said, “We might need to cut part-time faculty.”

You think?

The California Faculty Association represents 22,000 of the faculty who teach in the CSU system, more than half of them are lecturers. Within the union, the Lecturers Council advocates on behalf of the full- and part-time lecturers. Thanks to the efforts of the union, some lecturers in the system teach under multi-year contracts. The contract calls for lay-offs to be handled by seniority and appointment type.

For instance, part-time lecturers are subject to lay-off before full-time lecturers, and within those groups, the lay-offs are done by seniority. I have been thinking about this, and have come to the conclusion that it instills the idea that one temporary faculty member is just as good as another. This may be true at an assembly plant, but it’s just not true in the classroom.

Teachers bring a much wider variety of educational qualifications, professional experience, and abilities to their jobs, than do those who work in manufacturing. We are all very well aware that there are good teachers, and bad teachers. So why on earth do faculty unions rely on “seniority” when determining who gets laid off? Because it’s fair? On the contrary, it’s a system that rewards longevity instead of competency. It’s a missed opportunity to improve the overall quality of the classroom faculty. Doesn’t it make more sense to use measured competency, education, professional accomplishments and teaching talent as the primary tools for determining who stays and who goes?

Furthermore, the system of “seniority” that is used by the California faculty union (and every other union that uses a similar system) is grossly unfair. It is a two-tiered system that mimics the inequity of the current full-time/part-time faculty system. As per the union’s contract, part-time lecturers are always laid off before full-time temporary lecturers. Why? Quite simply, these people are singled out for lay-offs based solely on the type of appointment they hold. Within the part-time lecturer group, then, layoffs and recalls are organized by “seniority.”

What this means is that a part-time lecturer with a three-year contract, Ph.D., publications, teaching awards, excellent student evals. and seven years of experience, will be laid off before a full-time temporary lecturer with a three-year contract, a lesser degree and fewer years of teaching experience.

Why are full-time temporary lecturers favored under the auspices of such union contracts? Is it because they’re smarter? Sexier? Pay higher union dues? If protecting the full-time job is the goal, why not keep the best teacher of the two and, if need be, move the part-timer into the full-time position?

Job security is important, but isn’t giving job security to the best teacher more important? This is, after all, what tenure seeks to do. Ideally, the process rewards those faculty whose work meets the quality standards set by the institution and the department in terms of teaching, scholarship and research. Why not use the same criteria with all faculty when deciding who stays and who goes?

As long as unions push for “seniority” ahead of substance, students will, potentially, continue to lose out, and so will excellent faculty members. In particular, throughout California, during these tough financial times, CSU faculty who happen to be hired on part-time versus full-time temporary contracts will always find themselves out in the cold—because of the “seniority” clauses in their contracts negotiated by their union leaders.

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