University strikes and unforced errors by administrators

From news reports in the past week, it looks like the University of Oregon administration is making some foolish decisions in how to respond to striking graduate students. If the news sources I have read are accurate (see reports from Inside Higher Ed, Oregon Live, and December 6 and December 9 reports from the philosophy blog Daily Nous), the administration has taken the following steps:

  • Refused to make written commitments on several agreements in principle on family leave, the prime area of disagreement remaining in bargaining.
  • Asked faculty to let students receive semester grades based on work completed before the strike, even if assignments with significant weight in the syllabus — and significant student work — were due after the strike began.
  • Asked at least some department heads to become instructors of record or hire non-union graders, including for hundreds of students in courses where they and likely graders have little to no expertise.
  • Threatened international students with deportation if they participated in the strike.

This is happening as the university is led by an interim president whose area of research is precisely around paid leave.

One word for my reaction: Ouch. At a time when the university will be the focus of hundreds of sports reporters in the run-up to the NCAA Division I-A football playoff, the administration is offering a tantalizing story of conflict with sympathetic faculty and students. Even if you are entirely on the side of the administration on the bargaining issues, the day-to-day decision-making does not look smart.

What is the cost of agreeing to the leave provisions that the students requested? Probably a few hundred thousand dollars, and that’s assuming that there is no upside to leave, such as better graduation rates, better morale, and so forth. What is the cost of the strike to the university’s reputation outside Oregon? Probably not horrific, but noticeable. Who would advise their students to go to graduate programs at Oregon, after this? And what is the cost to the reputation of interim President Scott Coltrane, who publicly supports paid parental leave, except apparently for graduate students?

My entirely unsolicited advice: settle, President Coltrane. Take some not-so-giant steps. Take some of that bowl payoff you are going to receive and earmark it for the graduate-student union settlement. For that matter, take some of the rest of it and devote it to something academic. Be smart, and stand up to anyone who is telling you that the administration must be “firm.” Make the right decision, not the testosterone-driven decision. Settle.

Broader perspective: When I was a faculty union activist in Florida, I regularly saw administrators make unforced errors on union issues. It’s almost inevitable: if even a small fraction of faculty or graduate students are activists, in effective touch with their colleagues rather than their egos, and thinking carefully through tactics, sharp union leaders will outnumber administrators who are highly motivated to outwit a union. Most administrators don’t go into the job relishing conflict with faculty or students, and they are unlikely to be effective in an adversarial role over the long haul. They also often share values in common with faculty and students, and many may disagree with tactics chosen by some of their fellow administrators or a governing board. If you have to be sneaky and tactical over the long haul, and it is not in your nature to be sneaky or tactical, you are probably not going to be good at it.

At least from what I can read, the University of Oregon’s central administrators are very bad at being sneaky and underhanded. They would be well-advised to stop it.

Addendum: The strike ended with a settlement at the end of the day.