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What Should the United Faculty of Evergreen Bargain For? An open letter to a progressive union

Evergreen’s faculty union, the United Faculty of Evergreen (UFE), has begun bargaining with the administration for its next contract. The purpose of this letter is to describe one thing I hope the UFE will bargain for and one I hope it won’t.

I’ll address the one I hope it won’t bargain for first—spousal hiring.  A good argument cannot be made for preferentially hiring the spouse or partner of a faculty member who has already been hired to teach at Evergreen. Yet, the union continues to entertain this position.

Prior to the 70’s and 80’s, many colleges and universities had rules against nepotism that prohibited spouses from being hired at the same institution. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) argued, in 1971, that such rules were biased in that they were not grounded in a review of qualifications (http://www.aaup.org/report/recommendations-partner-accommodation-and-dua...). Since that time, rules for hiring have changed nationwide. Evergreen doesn’t have a rule that prevents partners from serving as faculty simultaneously. In fact, at least six couples currently teach there.

So what’s the basis for considering spousal hires? From the point of view of the spouses, it’s an issue of their shared quality of life. The primary unit of analysis is the couple, a point noted by the AAUP in its report cited above.

But a union represents its members, not couples. Each member of the couple can be a union member and the union will represent their rights as individuals. If they divorce, they can still be union members. The rights of a union member do not depend on their marital status. The rights of a spousal hire—to even be considered as a spousal hire—do.

A democratic union, representing the rights of all its members, would not put its efforts into representing the “super rights” of couples.

I hope the union bargaining will focus on how to create working conditions for teachers that lead to a stronger educational program for students. This falls squarely within the mission of United Faculty of Washington State, the parent union for the UFE, which is to promote and defend public university education because “high quality public university education transforms the lives of our students and drives Washington state’s economy.”

It’s not a new idea. In 2011, the American Federation of Teachers released a report, “Student Success in Higher Education,” outlining the roles of unions in strengthening educational programs for students.  This report on student success was the AFT’s response to national calls to increase accountability among higher education institutions. The report offers a definition of success in terms of the knowledge and skills students should develop in college. Then, based on that definition of student success, the AFT argues that faculty and professional staff need time and opportunities for “focused professional thinking, collaboration, and planning around the institution’s teaching program and assessment.”

I hope the UFE takes this up, making a strong case that faculty and professional staff at Evergreen need time and opportunities to think, collaborate and plan around our teaching program and our assessment not of students, but of that program.

Finally—though this may be outside the purview of bargaining—we can’t forget that to be transformative higher education has to be accessible to students, which means it has to be affordable. According to the Project on Student Debt, the average debt for a college graduate is $29,400. Senator Elizabeth Warren is arguing that we need to rethink our policies around student loans. In particular, she’s advocating that the federal government not make a profit on student loans, that bankruptcy provisions for student debt be reinstated, and that colleges whose students default on their loans in high numbers be penalized. All three of these moves make sense. The UFE should support them in whatever ways it can.

To my colleagues on the bargaining team, spousal hires are undemocratic. Don’t support them. Creating working conditions for teachers that lead to a stronger education program—yes please.

Emily Lardner is a member of the UFE.  She teaches at The Evergreen State College and co-directs The Washington Center for Improving Undergraduate Education, a public service of TESC.