From the President: The Significance of the Wright State Strike

By Rudy H. Fichtenbaum

On January 4, after nearly two years of contract negotiations, Wright State University’s board of trustees imposed its “last, best, and final offer” on faculty represented by AAUP-WSU. The ensuing twenty-day faculty strike was the second longest ever to occur at a US public university. What does this strike teach us about the state of public higher education, forty years after neoliberalism began to reshape institutions founded to serve the public good? And what lessons can the AAUP, as a national organization of academic workers, learn from it?

To understand the strike’s significance, one needs to see the roots of the financial crisis at WSU in the context of the neoliberal agenda. Faced with limited revenue increases from tuition and declining state support, universities like WSU increasingly have sought alternative revenue sources. At Wright State, the board allowed $130 million in reserves to be wasted on nonacademic initiatives over the past four years, including purchases of off-campus properties. This reckless spending not only failed to produce the promised new revenue streams; it also precipitated the current financial crisis.

Once the institution was in a financial crisis, the university’s trustees imposed a contract that would allow them to achieve locally what former Wisconsin governor Scott Walker was able to accomplish statewide through the infamous Act 10. This contract would effectively have eliminated continuing employment agreements for non-tenure-track faculty, faculty workload agreements, the fair and transparent distribution of merit pay, the right to teach in summer school, and the right to bargain over health care.

Through these imposed changes, the board was directly attacking academic freedom and shared governance. Without the protections of tenure and continuing employment agreements, the WSU board knew, faculty members would be reluctant to criticize the kind of wasteful spending that precipitated the financial crisis. Eliminating the language on summer teaching and the distribution of merit pay would have given department chairs and deans more power to force faculty to accept changes in academic programs. Losing the right to bargain over health care would have effectively meant giving up the right to bargain over compensation, for the costs of reduced health benefits could easily have exceeded future pay raises. It was clear that the board was out to break the union.

The same neoliberal agenda that created the impetus for actions taken by the board—which was aided by an incompetent administration that was ultimately responsible for the financial crisis—also provided the board with the justification for the changes it sought to impose. AAUP-WSU’s response to the imposed contract, however, exemplified the power of unity and solidarity across faculty ranks. The union (of which I am a retired member) includes tenured and tenure-track faculty as well as full-time non-tenure-track faculty, and because more than two-thirds of its members struck, enough classes were shut down to prevent the university from functioning. Furthermore, AAUP-WSU members exhibited incredible resolve, enduring extreme weather and financial hardship during three weeks on the picket lines. Finally, the support of students, the community, and the local labor movement all strengthened the union’s position and contributed to the success of the strike.

In the agreement the union and the board reached to end the strike, the union rolled back all of the elements of the imposed contract that would have undermined academic freedom and shared governance. Because of the financial challenges facing the university—many of which resulted from poor decision-making on the part of the board of trustees—the union recognized that the strike was not about money. The faculty, indeed, are taking a significant financial hit in the new contract, mainly through concessions on health-care costs and summer teaching compensation—a hit that is exacerbated by the loss of pay for the twenty days they were on strike.

Since the strike’s conclusion, the union has continued to look for ways to foster the unity and solidarity that were a source of strength during the strike. AAUP-WSU is developing a program to support colleagues who experienced financial hardship as a result of the strike, and the union is also building on its new relationships with other local labor organizations and with student groups.

The strike at WSU is part of a broader wave of strikes by educators across the country. And the tide is turning: confronted with a neoliberal agenda that seeks to divide the faculty and impose a corporate model on education, academic workers everywhere are recognizing the power of solidarity and collective action. We are one faculty.