Nearly 100,000 college students are currently being required to attend classes at 14 state-owned universities in Pennsylvania, despite the fact that their professors are absent. More than 5,000 professors staged a walkout on Oct. 19 — and are now on strike — after 16 months of failed contract negotiations. Union members from the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties have been preparing for this strike for months now — their employment contract expired in June of last year. Declining government financial aid has been one of the reasons behind the staff members’ resistance to renew said contract, which has resulted in high out-of-pocket costs for health insurance and wage stagnation.
These concerns, while understandable, do not change the fact that students are going to ultimately suffer the fallout from the contract dispute. Striking can be a useful negotiating tactic, and given the professors’ valid grievances, it is understandable why they resorted to it. However, the group that ultimately pays the price for these actions are the students who are left with their educational futures potentially compromised. Not only are students denied the qualified professors that their tuition entitles them to, but also the university system does not have any sort of contingency plan in place for such circumstances. The result is a chaotic situation in which students, professors and the university as a whole suffers.
Although strikes like these can have harmful effects on third parties, blaming professors for exercising their right to strike helps no one. They should be able to collectively bargain and strike during contract negotiations. The burden falls on the university administration to create contingencies for strikes. And in this situation — particularly because the university system’s administrators were warned about this walkout in advance — their lack of a response is especially contemptible.
After a year of failed contract negotiations and months of explicit strike discussions, the university should have been prepared to handle the fallout from this strike. Whether that would include a comprehensive plan to replace the missing faculty members, or a promise to refund the already paid tuition for the now incomplete courses, any specific and coordinated choice would have helped students more than the administration’s inaction.
This culture of unpreparedness and blame evasion is unfortunately not solely restricted to the Pennsylvania university system. Faculty walkouts and strikes over labor issues are only growing more and more common, and they seem to reflect a widespread shift in how we as a nation view the role of professors and the field of education. While one can obviously not blame the faculty members for standing up for their own rights, it is still beyond disconcerting that there seems to be no end in sight for this strike, which is directly affecting students on a daily basis. The fact that such a disruption has been allowed to occur — and that no mediation sessions are planned for the coming days — is an ominous harbinger of dark times ahead.
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