I was happy to see that the SEIU is taking the lead on organizing in the for-profit university system, although they are a very long way from unionizing any online faculty. Still, both their website, For Profit U, and a recent online seminar, summarized in both Truth Out’s ‘”Good for Wall Street – Bad for Students’: SEIU Hosts Webinar on Predatory, Proprietary Colleges and Universities” and Pittsburgh’s Post Gazette’s “Service union’s criticism rankles EDMC” are a breath of fresh air. I think, though, that they don’t understand the industry.
The Truth Out summary of the for-profit industry’s roots in neo-liberalism, and its use of unethical recruitment practices is right on target. I also think that SEIU has good reason to target EDMC which, as its recent layoff process suggests, seems to have a profoundly paranoid corporate culture. (Full disclosure: I was recently laid off from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh Online, which is owned by EDMC.) The tone of the SEIU website seems a little off-putting to me, but the real issue is how the SEIU is portraying teachers.
The seminar participants underplay the role of traditional academics in the for-profit schools, which were largely founded by professors and academics with established careers in the public higher education system. This is a profoundly conservative strain in academia that’s not often discussed. More importantly, none of the participants seems to realize that the for-profit system is full of teachers that are, in effect, refugees from thirty years of decline in professional conditions. They are not the enemy of the public good.
The public and for-profit higher education systems share in the erosion of tenure, the loss of academic freedom of speech and full-time employment. The for-profits, in a sense, are the creation of academics and administrators who felt that the destruction of the old system was going too slowly. The for profit system is a direct development of the long-standing desire, largely realized in the public system, to take power away from teachers. The focus on students is laudatory, but the SEIU also needs to focus on the teachers.