Working to the Rule in the Academy

Working to the Rule in the Academy

Working to the Rule in the Academy

A look at the working to the rule method of protest in academics.

The May 2013 issue of the NEA Higher Education Advocate featured "Working to the Rule in Maine" by Ronald J. Mosley, Jr. In his article, Mosley notes that the last time the faculty in Maine's public higher education received a raise was four years ago. He also adds that the faculty have been working two years without a contract and that mediation and negotiation with the administration have failed. Oddly enough, this situation is not the result of a financial crisis: there have been three consecutive years of the highest annual surpluses in Maine history.  Mosley's claims match those of my father, who just retired from the system this month.

As Mosley points out in his article, faculty have traditionally voluntarily engaged in service activities and often do so beyond what is actually expected (or contracted). While it might be tempting to some to dismiss this service as valueless,  faculty often contribute a great deal to their school and the community. In terms of schools, faculty often engage in service that is essential to the operation of the university and to the students, yet is not compensated. To use a concrete example, I am currently contracted at 20% to teach one summer class. That is all my Assignment of Responsibility (AOR) specifies. As such, I have no contractual obligation to do anything beyond that class. However, students still need advising in the summer and I have administrative tasks that need to be completed, such as serving on a critical accreditation committee and handling the various matters required to run the philosophy & religion program. In terms of the community, faculty also provide services to the professional and general community. To use one concrete example, I serve as an (unpaid) referee for professional journals and engage in other (unpaid) community service activities. These extra services, then are often rather important.

In normal conditions (although what is normal now seems to be rather abnormal) faculty willingly engage in such extra efforts "for the good of the_____" (insert "students", "school", "community" and so on as needed). There is also the fact that in better times, faculty are treated with some degree of respect and are reasonably well compensated and thus morale (and generosity) can be good.

However, as Mosley points out, conditions are not normal (or there is a "new normal"): while the cost of living increases yearly, there are few (or no) raises to even match this increase-thus faculty are effectively paid less each year.  There is also the fact that faculty are expected to do more each year. While Mosley does not mention this, the new obsession with assessment has added to faculty workloads and there seems to be a general trend in shifting more administrative burdens to faculty (while, bizarrely, the number of administrators and their salaries increase).  For example, I served on nine committees and ran a program review last year-all on top of my usual duties. As a final point, there is also the feeling that faculty are less (or not) respected. Such things rob faculty of motivation and income and this is certainly not good for the faculty, the schools or the students.

In response to the situation in Maine, Mosley has proposed that the faculty work to the rule. By this he means that the faculty should conscientiously complete the requirements of their contracts, but do not go beyond them. He does note that each faculty member should decide whether s/he will go beyond what is contracted. After all, students depend directly and indirectly on much of the "free" work done by faculty and many faculty members will want to work beyond the rule to avoid hurting the students. I suspect that some administrators count on this and perhaps cynically hold students "hostage" to get faculty to do uncompensated work. After all, most faculty will not refuse to advise students in the summer even if the summer contract includes no assigned advising duties.

Not surprisingly, I agree with Mosley (and not just because we are both Mainers). As a general rule, a contract is a contract and thus defines the obligations of the parties involved. While it might be nice of one or both parties to go beyond the contract, this is obviously not obligatory for either party. That is, just as the university is not obligated to drop some extra cash in my account just because it would be "for the good of Mike", I am not obligated to put in extra hours "for the good of ___" when it is not in my AOR.

The usual counter to this view is that there are things that need to be done (such as advising or meeting the requirements for accreditation) that go beyond what is spelled out in the AOR/contract. The rational counter to this is that things that need to be done should be added to the AOR/contract  and properly compensated. After all, if something is important enough to be done it would seem to be important enough to actually pay someone to do. If it is not important enough to pay someone to do it, then it would seem to be not worth doing.

As another point, it is worth reversing the situation. If a faculty member shirked his duties, it would be fair and just of the school to reduce his compensation, fire him or otherwise respond to such a failure to act in accord with the contract. But this would entail that the reverse is true: if the school decides to push the faculty member beyond the contract, then due compensation should be expected.

One way universities "get around" this is by having vaguely defined obligations for salaried faculty. Various other techniques are also used. For example, at my university the typical faculty member teaches four classes each semester. Each class counts as 20% of her work, thus leaving 20% for other duties. This 20% seems to be infinitely divisible-that is, no matter how many things are added to the 20%, it is always 20%. In the 2012-2013 academic year, my 20% included being the facilitator for the philosophy & religion unit, running the department web pages, advising, publishing, professional service, running the seven year program review and being a member of 9 committees.  Another faculty member might have her 20% consist of much less than my 20%, while another faculty member might (God forbid) have even more jammed in there.

Until recently, schools have been able to rely on the willingness of faculty to engage in extra work. While some of this was done in order to earn tenure, much of it was done out of a sense of obligation to the students and school and, perhaps, from a sense of being a valued member of a worthy community. However, this willingness seems to be eroding in the face of administrative decisions and attitudes. Interestingly, we might see the academy become rather like a business with each party sticking tenaciously to its contracted obligations and refusing to do more for the general good, since this notion has no place in the business model being exalted these days. Well, except as a tool used to milk free work from unwary faculty and staff.

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