An Open Letter to Governor Wolf

Faculty at the 14 PASSHE universities successfully ended their strike on Friday, October 21st, having reached a tentative agreement that preserves quality education at the universities. As we walk around town today, we are seeing elated smiles from people who haven’t felt like smiling for awhile.  We are grateful to our union and everyone who walked the line with us and grateful to our union leaders and our negotiating team. We are overwhelmed by the support our students showed us. We especially want to thank Governor Wolf for being instrumental in helping resolve this issue and for his commitment to quality education. Melissa would like to believe her letter had a magical effect, but she knows that the messages of many people being sent to someone who already knows that affordable, quality education matters were the real “magic.”

Dear Governor Wolf:

I am asking you please to do all in your power to make Chancellor Brogan and the PASSHE negotiators come back to the table and negotiate fairly a contract with APSCUF that does not undermine education in Pennsylvania, does not seek to abuse those in the faculty union with the least power and the lowest pay, and does not disrespect education or educators.

The faculty of the 14 universities of PASSHE do not want to be on strike; they were forced to strike:

  • They were forced to by a Chancellor who appears to have no idea of what goes into educating students and serving a university and who does not advocate for education, for education funding, for faculty, or for students and their families.
  • They were forced to by a Chancellor who seems to be far more intent on union busting and careerism, than on efforts to ensure affordable, quality education.
  • They were forced to by a PASSHE commitment to raise tuition on students, deny faculty benefits and salary increases similar to those negotiated with all other state unions, and yet give administrators and management in the State System raises, including the $8000 raise Chancellor Brogan took to augment his yearly salary of close to $350,000.
  • They were forced to by PASSHE negotiators—whose idea of fair bargaining was to put a last, “best” offer on the table some eight hours before a strike deadline and walk away while APSCUF negotiators waited at the table until that 5 AM deadline.

I am an associate professor of English at Clarion University. The faculty members I know care deeply about their students, gave up years of earning power to pursue expertise in their fields, and love their jobs, even though they work 50-60-hour weeks (and sometimes more). Faculty members love their jobs not because they are cushy jobs (they are not) but because they value education, and they have chosen to serve. It is because of that commitment to serve that they offered binding arbitration as a reasonable way to resolve the significant differences between APSCUF and PASSHE. PASSHE walked away from that, too.

The Chancellor and PASSHE, by publishing the economic proposals proffered in their last offer, seek to use numbers (many of which I believe are taken out of context) and half-truths to obscure why the proposal is unacceptable. They want to portray us as greedy and unreasonable; we are not.

Here are some of the issues in their last “best” proposal, as I understand it, that damage education quality and that any teacher, student, parent, or governor should object to:

PASSHE proposes a retrenchment policy that essentially undercuts tenure, potentially allowing faculty at any rank or seniority to be retrenched.

  • Part of a professor’s job is to speak truth to power and to empower students to seek the truth and recognize it when it is found. Tenure is not some special benefit given for no reason: to be the best professor I can be requires that I be allowed to exercise both freedom of speech and freedom of inquiry.
  • This retrenchment proposal would work as a gag order, one which would inhibit professors from pursuing valuable research for fear it might prove controversial; which would dilute lectures, discussions, and lesson plans and diminish the rigor and challenge of classes for fear that someone might be offended or upset by a grade; and which would create a hierarchy at universities so that shared governance disappears and professors cannot contribute critically to dialogues about university policies and issues without fear of retribution and retrenchment. Such a gag order would diminish our universities and devalue our students’ educations.
  • Furthermore, such a retrenchment plan has the potential to target our most experienced professors merely because of their salaries; the fact that those salaries have been earned by years of service, scholarship, and teaching excellence and that such professors enrich the community and the classroom because of their hard-earned expertise seems to count for nothing to the PASSHE.

The PASSHE proposal also targets our most vulnerable faculty—our adjunct professors.

For much of the negotiations, PASSHE sought to increase the number of adjunct positions at each university, while treating such faculty as second-class citizens. They are now proposing to offer adjuncts significantly smaller pay increases than other faculty. It seems clear that they want more adjuncts, with less pay and less power, and fewer tenured professors. Students are taught best by faculty members who can invest fully in their research, their service to the university, and their teaching. Temporary faculty members do not have the protection of tenure that I describe above, and a number of them have had to take a second job to augment a family income; thus, such full investment is much more difficult for them. To increase the number of adjuncts and/or weaken their earning power is to weaken a university and the education it can provide.

The last, “best” PASSHE proposal also seeks to destroy or dilute some or all of these important components of a quality education for our students: funding of professional development for professors, support for full sabbaticals, and access to university courses and degrees for professors and their families at reduced costs.

  • First, let me note that such features bring in stronger candidates for faculty positions at our universities. To remove or weaken such features will weaken our applicant pool and the quality of our students’ educations.
  • Furthermore, each of these components enriches the lives of our students by enriching the expertise and enthusiasm of our professors. For example, my sabbatical gave me time to dig deeply into scholarship in my field: the knowledge I gained and the insights I developed based on that knowledge were translated directly into my classrooms and the quality of my students’ learning. This holds true for all sabbaticals.
  • The professional development workshops and retreats I help design and run on our campus focus on helping us become better teachers who more deftly meet the needs of our particular cohort of students.
  • The professional development money I receive to travel and present at conferences, again, enriches my classroom and my students’ learning. Even more, my university has used announcements of professors’ research, presentations, and publications—made possible by that funding—as advertising to bring in students, raise the visibility of the university, and tout the quality of our institution. If it profits my university in multiple ways and benefits our student, I am uncertain why anyone would want to weaken or destroy such features.
  • I use the Library Science degree I am seeking from my university all the time in my classrooms. Information literacy is a critical skill for my students who must find jobs and be citizens in a world of constant, global (mis)information. My Clarion degree can only help my students, but it is unlikely that I will be able to complete it if funding is taken away.

I appreciate your advocacy for funding for higher education in our Commonwealth, and I hope that you continue to work on this issue so that the devastating damage that Gov. Corbett did to Pennsylvania, its students, and its teachers is redressed.

While I understand that much of the financial impact of Gov. Corbett’s ill-judged decimation of education funding is still with us, the remedies must not come at the expense of our students nor the quality and value of their educations. Nor should it come by demoralizing and treating with contempt the professionals who fulfill the primary mission and purpose of each PASSHE university—to educate and enrich the lives of Pennsylvania’s students.

Please do everything you can to compel PASSHE to bargain in good faith.

Sincerely,

Melissa K. Downes, PhD
Associate Professor of English, Clarion University
Proud APSCUF member

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5 Responses to An Open Letter to Governor Wolf

  1. Terry Smith says:

    Stay strong ! ! Fight for your rights! Educators have one the most important -hardest jobs there is !!! You should be respected & paid accordingly 💪💪💪💪

    Like

  2. drolivas says:

    Melissa’s “magic” is (are?) clarity and eloquence!!

    Liked by 1 person

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