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Saturday, March 3, 2018

Legislative vandals want to trash South Dakota higher education

I came to Northern State in August 1979,  which was the first year for the state's colleges and universities to operate under a collective bargaining agreement.   I took the job late in the summer during a time when higher education was in a period of retrenchment and faculty jobs, particularly tenure track, were scarce.   The time was short and I had to leave Illinois in a hurry, leaving a spouse behind to sell a house.  At the time I was wrapping up some work with some other professors throughout Illinois in updating and refining matters of the state's history dealing with native Americans.  This involved much relaying of messages by telephone--there was no Internet yet.  It was relayed to me that a much-respected professor from the University of Illinois asked if Newquist knew what the hell he had done by taking a job in Aberdeen, South Dakota. I asked  my informants what he meant, and they said that he was referring to the fact that Northern State College was under censure by the American Association  of University Professors.  In addition to being a distinguished scholar of American history with a special interest in higher education, the professor was an active leader in the AAUP,   and, it turned out, was from Aberdeen.

I was referred to a report from AAUP that had placed Northern State College on its censured list and to the accounts of the efforts to lift the sanction.  The Illinois professor was on the investigative committee that recommended the censure.   I was a member of the AAUP.  The previous college I worked at did not have a faculty union, but the administration encouraged faculty to join AAUP as the professional association that had established the standards of the profession and the governance of higher education.   The college had a very effective faculty senate which conducted itself by the principles and processes laid out by the AAUP.  A censure by the AAUP is issued when personnel are treated in such a way as to threaten academic freedom and compromise the integrity of the teaching and the research of the institution.  It is a notice to members of the profession that the place is not a good place to work, and by implication that it is not a good place to send students.

In the rush to get things done after receiving an invitation for an interview at Northern,  I had not checked into whether it had any censures or demerits against it.  The information that Northern was censured came during my first weeks at Northern, and it came with other information that was unsettling.  A number of younger Ph.D.s had left the department I was hired to teach in for many reasons, but it was clear that there was some turmoil in it.  I was covering classes that three previous professors had taught.  I found out that the department had recommended another professor to be hired, but the college president overruled their choice and chose me.  The main reason was that  the previous year had been disastrous for the student-run media.  The student radio station had been closed down  and its transmission equipment sold off.  The newspaper and yearbook had staffing problems, and, therefore, production problems.  The president chose me because  I had 8 years experience as adviser to student publications,  and substantial experience as a working journalist.  

When I came on campus, both publications had students appointed as editors, but no staffs.  The fact was that student journalism had little interest on campus.   I was experiencing genuine culture shock on many fronts.  I had been working at a college where the average ACT score of entering students was 26 out 36 possible points.  At Northern, the average was 17.  At my previous institution,  I did not have to worry about recruiting students to work on publications.  The biggest task there was to find ways to employ the talents and meet the interests of the many students who wanted to write, photograph, and produce the publications.  If an editorial position became vacant,  there would be a long line of people wanting to fill it.

At Northern, the task was the opposite.  Few students or faculty and staff, for that matter,  had any interest in campus publications.  And many who expressed some interest lacked the requisite skills of literacy.  The college president thought that a campus without a vibrant student medium of discourse was at a disadvantage.  He made clear that restoring a vital student publications program was a priority with him.

So, my early years at Northern were occupied with trying to generate interest in journalistic projects and recruit students who could and would do the work.  Part of the problem is that Northern was a suitcase campus.  Most students kept their clothes packed so they could go home at every opportunity.  On weekends, the campus was almost student-free.  Students were not interested in getting much involved in campus activities.  The publications were not the only campus activity that had little participation.  

 Women, many with children, saved the student publications.  They outnumbered men on the staffs by 10 to 1.  Many were non-traditional, meaning not in the 18-22 age group, who wanted to acquire knowledge and skills in the communication arts.  They were accommodated by encouraging them to bring their children with them when they worked on the publications.  My office in the student union publications suite looked like a day care at times, but it enabled the women to do something they could not do otherwise.  

But while this was going on,  there was the matter of the AAUP censure.  During my first week on campus,  I learned that the faculty was in its first year operating under a collective bargaining agreement and was asked to join the faculty union.  I had retained my membership in the AAUP,  and the South Dakota faculty union, the Council on Higher Education (COHE), is an affiliate of the South Dakota Education Association and the NEA.  I joined COHE and soon found myself involved in matters of governance.   I urged faculty and administration to work on getting the censure removed, and AAUP sent a professor from a Minnesota university to visit the campus and coordinate an effort for the institution to put in place policies and make restitution that would correct the deficiencies .  He stayed at my house during his visit, and we along with other professors came up with a comprehensive review  of how Northern had rectified the matters at issue.  The professor reported this to AAUP.  The  one obstacle involved reparation for the faculty member who was denied due process so many years before,  That was something only the Regents could solve, and they took a dismissive attitude toward the matter.  The AAUP realized that the collective bargaining agreement was put in place,  and mandatory procedures for due process and the protection of academic freedom were operative,  so it removed the censure from the individual institutions and placed it on the Board of Regents,  which effectively put the entire South Dakota system of higher education under the censure,  However,  over time when the Regents realized that the censure was having a deleterious effect on the recruitment of faculty and students,  they took actions which enabled the removal of the censure. "Censure was lifted in 1991 when the regents adopted policies on tenure and dismissal in agreement with the Council of Higher Education (COHE), the union representing university faculty." [Associated  Press. The Rapid City Journal, 27 July 2010]

Although the censure was removed from Northern, it had brought attention to the campus from professional organizations.  A disciplinary group I belonged to which listed job openings throughout the U.S. characterized Northern as "an undesirable place to work with limited opportunities for professional achievement and growth."  The statement reflected the manner in which the  BOR and Northern administration regarded and treated its faculty.  One of COHE's major tasks was to address the status of the faculty and establish professional standards commensurate with the profession throughout the nation.

During the current legislative session, Rep. G. Mark Mickelson, Republican Speaker of the House from Sioux Falls,  introduced a bill which would have banned unions and collective bargaining in higher education.  Mickelson's own education includes Brookings High School. the University of South Dakota, and Harvard Law School.  Harvard, which is a private institution which operates under different labor laws than public ones, does not have a faculty union, although its support employees are covered by nine different unions.  When asked for his reasons for wanting to ban unions, he was reported as saying "professors weren’t willing enough to teach courses on weekends or weeknights due to terms of their contracts, prompting his frustration.“Something needs to change, these people need to be shaken up a little bit."

There is nothing in the faculty contract that addresses teaching nights or weekends.  The contract or the policies on each campus do not address when classes may be scheduled.  They do address how many classes: "Faculty unit members whose primary responsibilities are instructional will be expected to undertake an effort equivalent to that needed to deliver thirty credit hours of undergraduate instruction per academic year."  Faculty are generally willing to teach nights and weekends if the arrangements are reasonable.   Sometimes they will even do it on overload to earn more money, although we found overload is difficult to manage and affects the preparation and delivery of instruction.  Mickelson's reasoning sounds ill-informed and notional.  More likely, as Cory Heidelberger points out, it stems from the anti-worker prejudice, as applied in Wisconsin, that employees should be disenfrached from having any voice in their employment and be reduced to serf status. That is the prevailing attitude and political belief in South Dakota.

The anti-union bill was killed in the South Dakota Senate by a two vote margin of 18 to 16.  As suppressing workers is a major objective of the conservative agenda,  one can be fairly certain that the anti-worker forces will be back to try again next year.  As a former staff member of the Board of Regents told me many years ago, the South Dakota ideal for economic development and labor law would be the repeal of the 13th Amendment and the Emancipation Proclamation.

The university faculty in the state's public institutions seem unaware of the circumstances that motivated the faculty to unionize.  During my first years at Northern, more than 80 percent of the faculty were dues-paying members of the union. Nearly all the members of the Faculty Senate were union members. As attrition affected the faculty and new members were added, union membership declined.  South Dakota faculty were the lowest paid in the nation and many were frustrated that the union could not improve the economic status of the professors more markedly.  As the legislature controls the money available for paying state employees, the contract negotiations with the BOR were limited by the budget set by the governor and the legislature.  Rather than increase their activity on behalf of the union,  many faculty searched for jobs in other places and many dropped out of the union.  I am among those who quit, even though  i was a long-time officer, including state president.  When my wife, who was a radio reporter, had her hours cut as a money-saving measure, and we were both working multiple jobs, we hit a financial crisis where we had to eliminate all expenses that did not directly contribute to housing and caring for our children.  I was by no means the only faculty member who experienced this struggle.  And the problem was that as union membership declined, the dues increased for those of us who remained.  I still believed strongly in the faculty union, but had to deal with some devastating financial realities.  At the time the public school teachers in South Dakota, who were the lowest paid in the nation, were making more than many of us professors.

At the time I retired, only about 10 percent of the faculty at Northern were union members.  Still, the rest of the faculty and staff, about 13,000 in the state, are covered by a contract that protects them from arbitrary and unfair decisions and employment practices and gives them a voice in the conditions of and compensation for their profession--if they want to use it.

The Associated Press reports:

Alan Aldrich [SDSU] is state president of the Council of Higher Education, the faculty labor union. He says there's a "clear message" that if faculty want the rights to continue, they must be more active with union membership and participation.
The South Dakota university system has come a long way since it was nationally cited for a censure and professional academic associations listed it as an "undesirable place to work."  That collective bargaining agreement is what stands between the faculty and a return to ignominy.  The faculty needs to be reminded and to get to work on protecting its professional status.


Eldon Morris said...

I remember how professors from neighboring states closely watched and took courage from you guys in South Dakota during the 80s. I don't think our younger colleagues understand or care about what has happened in Wisconsin, which was once the leader in bringing democracy to the workplace. I wonder if we haven't lost that struggle.

Anonymous said...

Incredible quest there. What occurred after?
Good luck!

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States