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Tim Haresign, President

Reclaim the Promise of Higher Education - 2014 AFT Higher Education Conference

The Council was well represented at the 2014 Higher Education Conference held in Baltimore, Maryland from April 11-13. Its theme was “Reclaim the Promise of Higher Education.”  It was attended by 325 AFT members and staff from across the US, including twenty-five members from five Council locals.  The sessions were both highly informative and well attended.

One of the major themes of the conference was the role of Wall Street on campus – specifically its harmful role in inflating student debit/credit card debt and in promoting online higher education.  Many shocking examples were provided showing the incestuous relationship between corporations and higher education institutes, disguised by the euphemistic term “alliances.” Particularly disturbing was the report on the campus debit card trap that U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) issued in 2012. The U.S. Department of Education is investigating its allegations of wrongdoing.  For more on this see:  http://www.uspirg.org/reports/usp/campus-debit-card-trap

Another theme was the proliferation and push for MOOCs or “Massive Open Online Courses.”  Corporations who design courses or platforms for MOOCS are aggressively pushing this option (for their profit), claiming that these new technologies address inequalities that exist in higher education.  However there is no basis for this claim.

First, there is the challenge of the digital divide. According to the 2013 Census Bureau’s report, “Computer and Internet Use in the United States,” the gap between low-income households and high-income households is wide with respect to ownership of home computers and even wider for Internet connectivity.  Fewer than half of the households with annual incomes of $25,000 or less have Internet access.

Second, the completion rate for MOOCs is 5% and student learning in fully online courses is far less than in a traditional classroom setting. Further, the learning gap between white students and minority students widens among those taking online courses. 

Lastly, MOOCs are not as cost effective as claimed. Students who pursue a course of study actually end up paying more.  The costs to develop and sustain such programs frequently increase because of the need for personnel to “design, develop, deliver, support and sustain instructional technologies – not to mention the costs of licensing software, obtaining rights to intellectual property and training faculty and staff.” 1 Thomas Edison State College in New Jersey has highly succesful accredited all on-line degree programs and was not the kind of MOOC mills that were being discussed at the conference.

For more on these issues click here.

A workshop titled Campaigning to Win provided strategies to help the labor movement succeed in the electoral arena. Speakers from Minnesota State College and University Professionals of Illinois discussed how they succeeded in creating allies to advance bills through the state legislative process.

One such strategy, which any Local within our Council could pursue, is to concentrate its political work on key candidates in its area and provide them with sizable COPE contributions.  Another strategy is to pack the room at political fundraisers to let candidates and legislators know that thr local union represents a sizable number of voters in their district.  

A politically active membership is essential to an effective public sector union.  One technique is to ask members to commit to doing three things from a list of options.  Some examples of what members can do are:

  • Yard Signs
  • Bumper Stickers
  • Talk about current political issues before department meetings.
  • Participate in phone banks
  • Proofread campaign literature
  • Run a campaign’s website, Facebook page or Twitter account
  • Write letters to the editor
  • Attend Town Hall Meetings
  • Share pages and posts in social media.
  • Commit to a $5 per pay period (the equivalent of two cups of coffee) contribution to COPE

What’s Next With the Affordable Care Act session clarified much of the misinformation that has been revolving around the final implementation of the act. It was emphasized that after 2015 large employers will be penalized for failing to offer affordable, adequate coverage to their full time employees and in subsequent years the penalties will most likely rise. For more information go to: http://www.aflcio.org/Issues/Health-Care/The-Affordable-Care-Act-Timeline

The speaker at the luncheon plenary session, Sara Goldrick-Rab, Associate Professor of Educational Policy Studies & Sociology at the University of Wisconsin, made a very compelling case for the viability of free higher education for all, an issue that was addressed in the most March 2014 VOICE.  

Council President Tim Haresign (Stockton) moderated a session titled Teacher Preparation: The Shape of Things to Come. Because federal and state governments are taking an increasingly active role in the area of teacher preparation, this session looked at some of those developments and briefly explored the question of whether they reflect the shape of things to come. There is proposed legislation in NJ on teacher preparation that the Council will monitor to ensure that it protects our members who teach in this field.

The workshop, Reclaiming the Promise of Solidarity session presented important examples of building solidarity within the labor movement and our communities,  The University of Illinois at Chicago United Faculty and the Vermont State Colleges Faculty Federation were two affiliates who presented proven strategies for bringing people from various backgrounds together in support of quality accessible public higher education.

Council Vice President Karen Siefring (Rowan) was a presenter and panelist in a session titled Elevating the Role of Professional StaffThe work of our professional staff colleagues too often seems isolated from the work of the faculty, both in the classroom and in the union. In fact, professional staff are deeply involved in student services and are poised to become powerful union activists. AFT unions need to capitalize on the unique strengths of professional staff.

There were many other useful and informative sessions held over the three days of the conference.

MSU Local 1904 President Rich Wolfson stated, “I must say that this was the best conference devoted to the issues facing higher education in recent memory. Governance, contingent faculty, non-tenured faculty, the upward spiraling costs of higher education,  for- profit universities, the Affordable Care Act and how it may affect our contracts, the digital divide…. all issues that were the subjects of workshops and lectures that were thought provoking and beneficial.”

It was a great opportunity for the officers of MSU Local 1904 to have time to talk about common issues with our sister locals from New Jersey and throughout the country. We also met with AFT Staff to talk about how AFT National can assist us in our legislative and political issues. All in all, it was a valuable way to spend the weekend learning how to better serve our members.

What I walked away with from this conference is, that in order to Reclaim the Promise of Higher Education, we have to fight back and enter the political arena like we’ve never done before,” commented MSU Local 1904 VP Jennifer Higgins.  "As one of the attendees said to me, "‘it’s depressing’ when considering how the opposition is out maneuvering and outspending progressive ideals'". While we may not have the financial means of the Koch brothers, Bill Gates and others, all is not lost. If we respond strategically, we can be effective in turning the tide and stop the corporate tidal wave that is trying to take over public higher education.

Council VP Karen Siefring observed, “I remain impressed that after 30 plus years of AFT involvement, each Higher Education Issues Conference still inspires, enlightens and motivates me. While our work may never be done, being in this struggle with such fine AFT members from around the country fills me with confidence that we continue to make a real, positive difference for those whose lives we touch.

Judith Copeland (Rowan Local 2373) noted "Building the contingent faculty movement within our unions also involves building our own narratives and story in the general media."

The Council members attending the conference were: Council President Tim Haresign (Stockton) , Council Executive Director Steve Young. From NJCU Local 1839 -  William Calathes, Queen Gibson, Debra Jenks, Caroline McHugh, Ivan Steinberg and Rubina Vohra. From MSU Local 1904 - Richard Wolfson, William Sullivan, Jennifer Higgins, David Benfield, Kenneth Brook, Michael Heller, Alexander Sperling, and Neeraj Vedwan. From Rowan Local 2373 - Karen Siefring, Charles Linderman, Judy Copeland, Gerald Hough, Robert Elsey and Amy Woodworth. From Kean Local 2187 – James Castiglione and Billie Bailey and from Thomas Edison State College Linda Soltis.

We thank them all for their time, energy and commitment. Special thanks to Jennifer Higgins & Rich Wolfson (Local 1904-MSU) and Karen Siefring (Local 2373-Rowan) for sharing their thoughts on the conference.

1The “Promises” of Online Higher Education Access/Costs/Profits, Campaign for the Future of Higher Education, p. 11