by Walter Brasch
About 800,000 Pennsylvanians are members of labor unions, and the state has a long history of union rights and activism, but neither of the two largest university systems has a labor representative on its governing board.
The only labor representative on the Board of Governors of the State System of Higher Education (SSHE) in its 29 year history was Julius Uehlein, who served 1988-1995 while Pennsylvania AFL-CIO president. The appointment was made by Gov. Robert P. Casey, a pro-worker Democrat. The SSHE, a state-owned system, has 120,000 students enrolled in 14 universities.
Only three persons have ever represented labor on Penn State’s Board of Trustees. Gov. Milton Schapp, a Democrat, appointed Harry Boyer, the state AFL-CIO president, in 1976. When Boyer retired in 1982, he also left as a trustee. Richard Trumka, a Penn State alumnus and Villanova law school graduate, now the national AFL-CIO president, served as a trustee, 1983-1995, while president of the United Mine Workers. He was first appointed by Gov. Dick Thornburgh, a Republican, reappointed by Gov. Casey, and not reappointed when Tom Ridge, a Republican, became governor. Penn State, a state-related university which received about $272 million in state funding for the current fiscal year, has 96,000 students on its 24 campuses.
The 32-member Penn State Board of Trustees is divided into five groups: ex-officio members who are in the Governor’s administration (6), Governor appointments (6), members elected by the Alumni Association (8), Business and Industry members (6), and elected members from Agriculture (6). The Agriculture representation dates to 1862 when Penn State (at that time known as Farmer’s High School) was one of the first two land grant institutions; the land grant institutions were created to provide advanced education in agriculture and the sciences. About half of its members are corporate CEOs. Except for one student representative, most of the rest are lawyers or senior corporate or public agency executives.
SSHE’s 20-member Board of Governors has three student representatives, who are appointed by the Board after being nominated by the presidents of the 14 universities; thus, the students usually have views similar to what the administration sees as acceptable. Most student representatives have tended to follow a “cower and comply” role. Membership also includes four legislators, selected from each political caucus (Democrat and Republican caucuses in the House and Senate), and the secretary of the Department of Education); the rest are appointed by the Governor, with the approval of the state senate. Gov. Tom Corbett and his designated representative, Jennifer Branstetter, a public relations executive, serve on both Penn State and SSHE boards. Most of the other members are lawyers or senior business executives. One of them, Kenneth Jarin, who served as chair for six years and is currently a member, is a lawyer who represents management in labor issues.
The lack of at least one representative of labor on the SSHE Board of Governors is because of “a lack of sensitivity to the labor point of view,” says Dr. Stephen Hicks, president of the 6,400 member Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculty (APSCUF).
“It remains a curiosity why the people’s universities don’t represent the people,” says Irwin Aronson, general counsel for the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO. Aronson is a Penn State alumnus and graduate of the Penn State’s Dickinson Law School.
“Because of the number of union members in Pennsylvania, and the need to have working people’s issues and perspectives represented on the board,” Dr. Paul Clark, chair of Penn State’s Department of Labor Studies and Employment Relations, says “We always thought it made a lot of sense for that constituency [working class] to be represented on the trustees.”
About three-fourths the 6,400 full- and part-time faculty and coaches, and about two-thirds of the staff at the SSHE universities are members of unions. About 3,000 Penn State staff (mostly those working in maintenance, physical plant, dormitories, and the cafeteria) are members of the Teamsters; about 1,300 registered nurses, including those of the Hershey Medical Center, are members of the Service Employees International Union. However, there is no faculty union at Penn State. Part of the problem, says Dr. Clark, is that faculty in the large business and agriculture colleges, plus those in engineering and science, tend not to have strong union loyalties; those in the liberal arts tend to have more acceptance of the value of unions.
Dr. Hicks has tried to get the SSHE Board to include a faculty member. However, he says, when a Board has most of its members “who have run a business and made money, you get a certain viewpoint.” Under the “business plan,” it is more economically feasible to bring in as much raw product (often called freshmen) as possible, and for the university to produce finished units (often called graduates.) More units and fewer staff and faculty result in higher return on investment. Having unionized staff and faculty-or unionized graduate and teaching assistants, as exist at some out-of-state universities-apparently is believed to be a deterrent to a business model.
It is that reason that probably results in most public and quasi-public Pennsylvania universities having strong business schools but few labor studies classes. At Penn State, about 90 percent of students in the Labor Studies and Employment Relations Department plan to enter the corporate world in human relations. Of the 14 SSHE universities, only one, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, has a labor studies program that has a focus upon the working class.
During the recently-concluded presidential race, Mitt Romney (a multimillionaire venture capitalist) and Barack Obama (a Constitutional lawyer and community organizer) incessantly drummed out a theme of how much they would do for the middle-class. Perhaps it’s time that both Penn State and the State System of Higher Education realize they need to include more diverse governing boards, starting with permanent representatives from the labor movement.
[Walter Brasch is a syndicated social issues columnist, and the author of 17 books. His latest is Before the First Snow: Stories from the Revolution, available at amazon.com, www.greeleyandstone.com, and bookstores.]