To show or not to show? Professors, students ponder class attendance with strike looming
October 17, 2016 2:12 PM
Students at Clarion University didn't have to look far to see signs of the potential faculty strike. These union signs appeared at the campus library on Wednesday.
State System faculty members protest outside the inauguration of California University of Pennsylvania president Geraldine M. Jones on Friday. The faculty union -- the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties -- and the State System of Higher Education have been in contract talks for several months.
By Bill Schackner / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Isaac Gillette, 18, said he has known since arriving at Slippery Rock University in August as a freshman that faculty and management were embroiled in a contract dispute, but a walkout seemed to him a remote possibility.
Now, almost two months later — with a threatened strike a day away — the business management major from Harrison, like thousands of his peers, suddenly faces an uncomfortable choice: If his professors do not show up for class Wednesday, should he?
“Some teachers have told us that ‘I’m not going to go, so I don’t expect you to go,’” he said Monday. “But we also hear rumors that there are going to be people taking attendance. I don’t know yet. Do I go or not go?”
On Monday, continuation of weekend talks fueled campus hopes for heading off a first-ever classroom strike across Pennsylvania's 14 state-owned universities by some 5,000 professors. But as night fell, a media blackout on the talks remained, and there was no comment encouraging or otherwise from the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties or the State System of Higher Education.
A union statement at the outset of talks Friday — that APSCUF president Kenneth Mash would keep the union at the table past Sunday if progress were occurring — made word of Monday’s continuing talks potentially significant.
In that statement, the union attributed to its president a comment that “If an agreement is not in place but the teams are making progress, APSCUF will remain at the table.”
The union has set a 5 a.m. Wednesday strike deadline. Mr. Mash has said nothing short of a tentative agreement at that time will keep professors in the classroom.
Gov. Tom Wolf was monitoring the negotiations and has been in contact with both sides, said his spokesman Jeff Sheridan.
“Gov. Wolf has made clear that the higher education of our students is a top priority for him, and he has urged both sides to continue talking until they reach compromise on a final agreement,” Mr. Sheridan said.
At California University of Pennsylvania, like other campuses, strike signage is ready, lists have been drawn up to divide professors’ time on picket lines and faculty members such as Swarn Gill have taken home personal belongings from their offices. He, like his students, was unsure Monday what to expect.
“I have a test that’s scheduled for Wednesday. I talk about it like it’s going to happen,” said Mr. Gill, an associate professor of earth sciences. “But it might not.”
At Clarion University, faculty held a midday protest and march. A union official noted the complex and important issues that the union believes must be properly addressed, but nonetheless said the fact both sides were still talking was good.
“That's a positive indication, and it sort of ramps up our enthusiasm,” said Bell O’Neil, an associate professor of communication and a spokeswoman for the Clarion APSCUF chapter.
The last contract between the faculty and State System expired in July 2015. In the nearly 16 months since, both sides have accused the other of avoiding the bargaining table and of failing to negotiate seriously.
Union and management have sparred over issues including compensation, increased health insurance costs and the system’s bid to boost the number of courses that temporary faculty must teach per semester to be considered full time.
Those proposals are part of some $70 million in cost savings management is seeking, while offering salary increases that by management’s estimate total $158 million — a pay figure APSCUF contends is inflated.
Unease has grown in recent days among the system’s 105,000 students and APSCUF faculty, as well as administrators who, in the event of the system’s first-ever classroom strike, have been told to hold classes while it becomes clear what share of the union walks out.
Mr. Mash has said his union is resisting changes that would undermine academic quality. State System officials, including chancellor Frank Brogan, have a different take — that they are pursuing savings and management flexibility to navigate the 14 state-owned universities through enrollment cuts and state funding that is lower than it was nearly 20 years ago.
The 14 state-owned universities include: Bloomsburg, California, Cheyney, Clarion, East Stroudsburg, Edinboro, Indiana, Kutztown, Lock Haven, Mansfield, Millersville, Shippensburg, Slippery Rock and West Chester.
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