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Tuesday, March 31, 2020

South Dakota strives for the bottom for its universities in its attacks on faculty

The South Dakota legislature has voted to ban state university faculty from collective bargaining, which the faculty has done for more than 40 years.  The governor signed the ban into law on Thursday, March 12.  On the same day, the legislature voted not to fund the Dakota Promise scholarships for needy students.  This all comes at a time when the universities have experienced a  slump in enrollments.  The collective bargaining ban gives prospective students some very strong reasons to go to college elsewhere.  It gives professors compelling evidence that South Dakota is not the kind of place where real professors can do their work.  In total, those laws give public notice that South Dakota is officially against education and truly educated people.  

This is not the first time that South Dakota higher education has earned a place on lists by professional organizations as a system of low academic repute at which professors are warned against working.  From 1962 through 1991, South Dakota was on the list of censured administrations by the American Association of University Professors.  Here is, in part, the 1991 report by the Association of the state's history of censure:

The 1962 Annual Meeting directed censure against the Board of Regents of Education of the State of South Dakota for having summarily dismissed, in 1958, a professor of agronomy with fifteen years of service on the faculty of South Dakota State University. The 1969 Annual Meeting voted censure on the administration of Northern State College, also under the jurisdiction of the South Dakota Board of Regents, following the summary dismissal in 1966 of a newly appointed political science professor. The 1982 Annual Meeting determined that the outgoing and incoming presidents of Northern State College had done what they could to resolve the case which led to this censure and that the responsibility henceforth rested solely with the board of regents.  [Academe, Vol. 77, No. 5 (Sep. - Oct., 1991), pp. 40-46 (7 pages) American Association of University Professors]
At the 1991 meeting of the Association, it reported that the regents had resolved the issues for which the censure was placed with the implementation of policies negotiated in the collective bargaining agreement with the faculty:

These policies, incorporated into the board's regulations, will be reflected in the 1991-93 collective bargaining agreement in force at all institutions under the jurisdiction of the board.[Academe, Vol. 77, No. 5 (Sep. - Oct., 1991), pp. 40-46 (7 pages) American Association of University Professors]
The collective bargaining agreement that effectively removed the censures and elevated the status of South Dakota higher education to be competitive with public colleges and universities throughout the nation was a faculty initiative.  When I came to South Dakota in August 1979 to join the faculty at then-Northern State College, the first collective bargaining agreement was put in force.  Professional organizations to which I belonged had listed South  Dakota public colleges as not meeting the administrative  standards expected of reputable institutions, and they advised against taking a job in them.  However, the collective bargaining agreement going into effect addressed the deficiencies, and the organizations acknowledged that the faculty was making strong efforts to correct them. 

When I came on campus, the faculty was quick to inform  new members that the system was  operating under new, enforceable standards of academic quality and integrity, due process in personnel matters, academic freedom, and responsibility to  the students.  They pointed to the collective bargaining agreement as a legal contract to which faculty members and administrations had to abide.  It meant that the system was operating with standards to which the best colleges adhered.  It was a matter of faculty pride.

The censure had become a problem for the state's universities.  During the 1970s, a doctorate degree became a requirement for faculty throughout the nation.  The nation was producing more doctorates than jobs, however, so colleges were able to fill vacant positions, but the people who filled those positions earned their degrees from reputable and competent institutions.   They saw the need to bring South Dakota institutions in line with the standards of academic administration they experienced where they earned their doctorates.  One of those standards is shared governance in which the people who do the scholarship and research and keep abreast of the advances in their fields of study have a voice in shaping the curricula and the academic standards of their institutions.  Some South Dakota faculty saw that the way to achieve these goals was to organize and engage in collective bargaining.

Over a period of years, South Dakota faculty worked at organizing for a certification election which would establish a collective bargaining organization and set up the process of negotiating an agreement under the provisions of the National Labor Relations Act.  A majority of the faculty voted to certify the Council of Higher Education as their bargaining unit, which was affiliated with the South Dakota Education Association.  An agreement was negotiated and took effect with the fall semester of 1979.

A minority of the faculty thought organizing as a union put them in the same category as labor unions, but the majority understood that they were a professional organization that negotiated a contract which gave them the freedom and the power to study and teach according to the highest standards of their profession.  

Teacher unions have little power in South Dakota.  They are prohibited from striking, which leaves them with little leverage at the bargaining table.  And the "freedom to work" laws prevent the bargaining agent from collecting fees from all bargaining unit members which pay the expenses of negotiating a contract and the other business a bargaining organization engages in.  This was not a problem in the early years of the contract, as about 80 percent of the faculty at Northern State, where I worked, were dues-paying members.  But the membership soon began to dwindle.  Older members retired.  And an ironic circumstance took a good portion of the younger members.  Once they were working under a collective bargaining agreement, their work in South Dakota became recognized as an affirmative credential.  Many younger faculty used that credential to launch searches for better jobs, and there was a significant outmigration of faculty leaving the state, which reduced the number of dues-paying union members in the state.  Their replacement faculty was not actively recruited to join the union, and membership and interest in an organization that promoted and defended professional standards declined.  Over time, the faculty union, while negotiating agreements with the Board of Regents that set the standards and conditions for faculty work, dwindled down to a 10 percent membership, according to statements made in the legislature.

The faculty has responsibility for the decline of the institutions for which they work to keep them from devolving into diploma mills that issue degrees of questionable worth. While individual faculty members may conduct courses which meet the academic standards established by faculty scholars at large, institutions now with a ban on collective bargaining in South Dakota have no formalized system of faculty participation.  Rather, the universities can return to producing degree programs which are fragmented and incoherent.  Legislators and regents like to cite the stupid banality that  educational institutions should be run like businesses.  The ban was predicated on the premise that the collegial processes enforced by the collective bargaining agreement are bothersome and need to be eliminated to give the administrations management flexibility.  In the minds of the legislators, academic integrity is a bother.

Students complain that they end up at graduation with degrees that do not obtain them jobs, but leave with a staggering debt from student loans.   Students who have degrees from selective schools get the jobs:  "The value of a college degree also varies depending on the institution bestowing it. The tiny minority of students who attend elite colleges do far better on average than those who attend nonselective ones."  South Dakota public universities are not among those designated as selective.  The task for a conscientious faculty is to offer students the opportunity to become competitive with graduates from reputable colleges and universities.  But when the faculty is demoted to the status of day laborers who do their jobs under the supervision of low-grade politicians who are bent on bringing intellectual talent under their control, not on enabling people of earned credentials and intellectual talent to do their work, the degrees they issue are of little value.

The South Dakota faculty exercised their right to collective bargain under the rules and procedures stipulated by the National Labor Relations Act.  Their motive in the collegial tradition was to have a voice in the conditions in which they worked.  A large part of that motive was to lift South Dakota higher education out of its sullied reputation for academic inferiority and provide the students who held the degrees it granted with some academic respect.  [When during my first year in South Dakota I was sent to Sioux Falls to a recruiting fair with other colleges at a high school, I recall students referring our exhibit as being from "Northern State Junior High School.]  The collective bargaining agreement was as much an effort to provide credibility to the degrees earned by students as it was to give the faculty a voice regarding their professional status and the standards in how students are educated.

The sponsors and promoters of the ban on collective bargaining protest that the ban is not an attack on the faculty.   (The ban's main sponsor has had her legislative integrity called into question.)  But when the faculty is deprived  of an important collegial process that defines its essential role in higher education--one that it worked hard to develop and enforce--what else can it be called but an attack?   The ban returns the universities to the status that earned them censure by professors.  And that status has implications for prospective professors and students.  But especially for current professors who seem to have surrendered their voice in academic affairs with an obsequious silence. That surrender raises doubt about the quality of higher education within the system.

The reason offered by the ban's sponsor for its creation is that collective bargaining takes up time and effort and the  regents and administrators need flexibility.  What it achieves is the removal of faculty as collegial participants and their designation as low-level workers whose job is to do what the bosses tell them.  And that is not the status people earn doctorate degrees to achieve.

Prospective professors need to be warned (and some disciplinary organizations are doing so) that working for a South Dakota state university is not going to enhance their professional credentials.  Rather, anyone who willingly works for a university that is run like corporation will be branded as an academic hack.

Prospective students need to be informed that the faculty who bring their disciplinary expertise to the governance of the universities will not be the ones designing their educations and that the freedom to learn and investigate has been appropriated by politicians who have no understanding of how a university is supposed to function.

For anyone who values a true higher learning, the message is simple:  avoid South Dakota state universities.  

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