Negotiation, equity... and connections

by Andrew Shryock, councilor-at-large

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Every year, the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions organizes a conference on collective bargaining in higher education. Notably, conference participants include representatives of “both sides,” academic labor and administration. This year marked the forty-sixth conference. It was my first.

Highlights of my experience include the plenary session “History of Right to Work,” in which historians discussed union activity in America since the post-Civil War era. Even in early days, opponents of organized labor peddled phrases such as “right to work” - and “open shop” and “free labor” – in an effort to mask assaults on workers’s rights. On workers, too. Union opponents routinely resorted to physical violence in the 19th century. Nowadays, aggression is expressed in the courtroom, though the effects are no less injurious.

A session on Bargaining for the Common Good (BCG) served as a reminder that bargaining might be less combative. BCG encourages negotiations that benefit stakeholders as well as adjacent communities. At Berklee, for instance, the Union and the College’s recent rewrite of the fraternization policy reflects the spirit of BCG. The new policy benefits administration and faculty as well as students and staff.

A session on faculty evaluation proved especially enlightening. Not surprisingly, summative student-based evaluation, in which students rank faculty using a numerical scheme that generates statistical results, undermines the educational experience. To say nothing of bias and discrimination, which demonstrably taint the process, research has shown instructors alter (or reduce) academic standards in an effort to elicit positive feedback. This is an advanced application of the bribery-by-chocolate method: “I’ve brought some delicious candy. Take as much as you’d like, and if you don’t mind, fill out this evaluation.” The strategy doesn't change in the online version of this game; student participation is simply lower.

One especially effective solution is to administer question sets that resist statistical analysis. Responses are then set alongside self assessments, supervisor evaluations, and peer observations. The resulting profile serves as a foundation for improvement, not a disciplinary instrument.

In conclusion, the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions would benefit from a new name. Perhaps an acronym. Joking aside, the Center and the conference furnished the Berklee contingent with new ideas on topics ranging from negotiation to equity. We made connections with faculty at other institutions, including Boston-area colleges, and advocates for academic labor. And speaking for myself, I returned with information and inspiration, and I look forward to putting both to good use here on the home front. 

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