Changes at Labor College Offer Lesson in Corporatized Education

Michelle Chen

A graduation ceremony at the National Labor College, in Silver Spring, Maryland.

The economic crisis has hit the country’s colleges and universities with staff cuts, tuition spikes, and financial barriers that foreclose educational opportunities for many. So it seems like now is the perfect time for the country’s premier labor-focused college, the National Labor College, to step up efforts to bridge the gap between working people and the academy.

But the college’s plans for a new online-based institute reveals some uneasy alliances of labor, academia and corporate interests in higher education.

The NLC, which grew out of an institute founded by the AFL-CIO in 1969, has historically focused on developing organizing capacity and workplace-related skills. The new venture, the College for Working Families, moves beyond applied training to give union members career-ladder credentials in fields like criminal justice and health care. The curricula, reports Inside Higher Ed, will be based on online coursework, charging tuition rates on par with regular community colleges.

Announcing the plans last week, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said the goal is to support the increasing need of working men and women and their families to expand their knowledge in an affordable and accessible manner.”

Yet the union has selected a surprisingly elite vehicle for delivering education to ordinary people. The NLC’s new branch is backed by two high-profile partner companies: distance-learning powerhouse Penn Foster and test-prep mogul Princeton Review (which bought Penn Foster last fall in order to boost cash flow generating capabilities.”)

The AFL-CIO says that under the deal, to be completed in early 2010, The College will retain majority control of the joint venture, and will continue to be solely responsible for the integrity and quality of the programs of the new College for Working Families.”

But critics were quick to pick up on the irony of a union-based college doing business with companies that have helped corporatize higher education and capture the exploding online edubusiness” market.

Inside Higher Ed reported that in response to its initial coverage of the launch:

the reaction that arrived (in comments and also in e‑mail and phone calls suggesting more reporting) came from faculty members who, despite no direct ties to the labor college, Princeton Review, or Penn Foster, felt betrayed. And their anger came not from any specific criticisms of the individual entities involved, but from the idea that organized labor’s college was turning to for-profits to expand.

The president of an American Federation of Teachers local posted a comment saying: This is a sad day for the working class and a sad commentary on the state of organized labor & the institutions that allege to represent our interests.”

NLC President William Scheuerman (who, as former president of United University Professions, publicly criticized for-profit institutions) stressed that the new college would remain independent, and that the deal the National Labor College made with the for-profit entities protects academic labor and academic values.”

The companies, he told IHE, would focus on the technical and marketing” side of the online programs, not academics, and faculty would be hired by the new college, controlled by the Labor College.” New faculty hires would be represented by unions (Newspaper Guild for full-time faculty and AFT for adjuncts, who make up a substantial portion of staff). Moreover, the administration reportedly conferred with the union representing the company’s service staff, United Steelworkers, before formalizing the deal.

Though plans for the new college are still evolving, the criticisms are based on principle, reflecting underlying tensions about privatization and the role of labor in academia. Is labor education simply a field of study, or just another service offered to union members? Or is it a political project as well, an intellectual community that seeks to honor the labor movement in both theory and practice?

Despite the NLC’s legacy as a labor-centered college, it is not immune to the trend of economic stratification on college campuses. Freighted with financial woes, schools are shifting its programs away from intellectual enrichment and toward tracking students into high-paying careers. Meanwhile, rising tuition rates price out less privileged students. As Valerie Saturen recently wrote in In These Times, The growing inaccessibility threatens to deepen the divide between a well-educated elite (once called the ruling class) and a technically proficient, but less broadly educated, middle and working class.”

An institution like the National Labor College, in theory, should serve as a bridge between the ivory tower and working people seeking professional and intellectual development.

But to some critics, in its alignment with the private sector, the NLC has failed to walk the talk. Dovetailing with the controversial online entrepeneurialism is what many see as another problematic aspect of the NLC’s structure: reliance on adjunct instructors. The American Federation of Teachers contends that the exploitation of adjuncts, who lack job security and control over academic programming, has undermined labor representation, working conditions, and ultimately, the quality of student experience.

In response to the follow-up IHE article, one commenter asked, When a for-profit acquires’ a non-profit, whose model’ shall we presume will dominate in the resultant faculty labor arrangements at the new acquisition’?”

Within the NLC, tensions are subdued for now. Greg Giebel, president of adjunct union, told IHE he supported the college’s new enterprise, but indicated that faculty have been isolated from the negotiations leading up to the expansion.

Giebel said that in the administration’s discussions with the union about expansion, no mention was made of the Princeton Review and Penn Foster or of the implications of doing it with an outside party.” Giebel said he learned of the role of for-profit entities with the college’s expansion from news accounts, not from the college….

For now, Giebel said he is waiting to learn more about the deal. While not criticizing Princeton Review or Penn Foster, he said that many faculty members nationally worry about the impact of for-profit higher education so this is something we need to address.” He added that I absolutely understand that to some, it seems like a Walmart subcontracting to a third world, non-union provider, which is a very different model than the nonprofit higher education model.”

In a rapidly privatizing higher education system, you might assume that the one college that could resist Wal-Martization would be a school birthed by the labor movement. But it’s too early to tell how the NLC’s digital expansion might affect labor conditions — or for that matter, whether the college will fulfill its mission of democratizing higher education.

Nevertheless, the philosophical dissonance between the ends and the means — leveraging for-profit mechanisms to advance labor’s educational aims — may symbolize the penetration of market forces into two arenas that ideally should remain unfettered by profit motives: the union and the academy.

Amid this tension between business ambition and labor ethos, the College for Working Families hasn’t even taught its first class, but is already providing a telling lesson on the future of education for working people.

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Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.

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