Academic Employment Relations: Shaping the Context for Social Work Research

Thursday, January 15, 2015: 1:30 PM-3:15 PM
Balconies M, Fourth Floor (New Orleans Marriott)
Cluster: Work, Family, and Family Policy
Patricia O'Brien, PhD, University of Illinois at Chicago, William Donlan, PhD, Portland State University and Howard Karger, PhD, Miami University of Ohio

New social work faculty are entering the academic field at a time of considerable upheaval in employment relations across universities and colleges. Growing numbers of campuses are witnessing the organization of faculty and other campus workers, while other campuses are seeing a decline or legal dismantling of collective bargaining. Within academic workplaces, the use of contingent, lower paid teaching staff has become increasingly debated.  The expansion of online education offers the possibility of subcontracting out teaching much as corporations have outsourced IT and customer service. Tenure protection has been weakened through post-tenure reviews. As many universities adopt a business model of operation, a large number of faculty are at risk of redundancy or being intensively performance-managed.

How faculty members and organizations at universities around the world have coped with these changes is an under-explored research area. This roundtable has been organized to provide a review of the state of labor organizing and unionism within academia, and explore the full range of implications for social work faculty research, and faculty as researchers.  


The first speaker, an associate professor of social work at a large public Midwest university, began serving on a faculty organizing committee four years ago, observing first-hand the bargaining process with administration in the two years following union certification. She will speak on the current context for faculty organizing, specifically changes in higher education leading to increasing dependence on contingent labor, and how this shift reflects larger structural issues such as a more corporatist approach to university administration. The second speaker, an associate professor of social work at a large public university in the Pacific Northwest, serves on the Executive Council and legislative committee of the campus’ AAUP collective bargaining chapter, and as vice president for political action for the statewide AAUP. He will discuss how a mobilization led by AAUP to block university administration efforts to remove contract language on shared governance, academic freedom, and tenure and promotion succeeded through collaboration with other campus unions, student government, community organizations, and state legislators.

The third speaker, chair of a social work department at a private Midwest liberal arts college, takes a somewhat broader view, examining the relevance of “business unionism” in the academic context. He reviews tradeoffs he saw made by an Australian labor union representing faculty and professional staff, in particular the union’s emphasis on pay raises and other workplace issues over faculty academic freedom and freedom to choose teaching and evaluation modalities. He will discuss a hybrid union model to address professional issues as well as the traditional workplace concerns.


This roundtable provides an opportunity for participants to deepen their understanding of the rationale behind faculty labor mobilization, the driving issues underlying it, and future trajectories for employment relations in academic settings.  The goal is to generate a discussion of the implications of such activities – both benefits and costs, as well as impacts on scholarly research by faculty across diverse research agendas.

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