President Cheryl J. Norton personally visited each of SRU’s residence halls to meet students and talk about what would happen if the faculty would go on strike.
Norton visited two residence halls per day from Monday to Friday in order to meet students and answer any questions that they had about the university. The main subject that came up during each meeting was about the potential faculty strike.
She began by saying that there are seven different unions that operate within the Pa. state system. All of the unions have finalized and agreed upon their contracts other than the contract with APSCUF (The Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties). Their contract has been expired for a little over a year and a half ago, and negotiations for a new contract began two years ago.
The contract negotiations are between APSCUF and PASSHE (The PA State System of Higher Education) and take place in a closed environment, meaning that specific details about the issues are not released to the public.
Norton reported that one of the biggest sticking points right now is the debate over health care. This is presently a big issue because of the demographics of the faculty. Specifically, the baby boomer generation is starting to retire. This is a cause for concern because there will be more people retiring than working and paying. Norton compared this to the current national debate over social security.
“The question becomes, ‘how do you keep that health care continuous?’,” stated Norton. “Obviously there are different ideas and ways of approaching it, and that’s what they’re talking about.”
Next, Norton explained that APSCUF has signed a strike authorization, but this does not necessarily mean that there will be a strike. Instead, it allows them to call a strike if they decide that they need to. Historically, a strike authorization has been passed three times, but the union has never gone on strike.
“Let’s hope that history repeats itself in this case,” Norton explained. “We don’t want a strike and I think that the faculty doesn’t want to strike either. But sometimes when you come to an impasse, you use what tools you have to get passed it.”
There may be professors and faculty members picketing or handing out information, but that doesn’t mean that they are on strike. Norton said that she would be the first person to know if APSCUF has decided to go on strike and that she would send out an email to all students and parents as soon as she found out.
There is a contingency plan set in case a strike does occur. Norton said that the plan has three main goals. The first is that the campus will continue to operate in case of a strike. This means that the residence halls, the ARC, the library, the offices, and the dining halls will remain open. Norton also stated that the coaches’ contract is not the same as the APSCUF contract, so there will still be sporting events.
The second goal is to ensure the health and safety of the staff and students by making sure that the strike remains a peaceful display. The third goal is to continue to help students work towards their academic goals.
Norton explained that in the event that there is a strike, some professors will choose not to participate and will still be holding class. Because of this, it is important for students to continue to attend all of their classes. If there is no instructor at the class, the students are asked to visit the dean of the college and report that the professor did not show up to class.
Going on strike is a big decision for professors, Norton explained. The professors who go on strike are fired until the strike is over, and afterwards they will be rehired.
“The definition of strike means they have left their job responsibility, they’re not maintaining their contractual obligations,” Norton said. “As a result, they end up having no position, no benefits, nothing.”
There have been questions about if there will be refunds if there is a strike, Norton said. She answered the question by saying no, when you pay tuition you’re paying for the getting class credits. In the case that a strike does happen, the university will figure out a way to assign a grade. Norton cited stories about other universities that have gone on strike saying that they usually only last a few days, meaning that making up work would not be too difficult.
Students agreed that they were glad to attend the meetings with Norton.
“The fact that we all know that [Norton] knows what’s going on helps us feel more comfortable with everything going on,” explained sophomore secondary English education major Jessica Horgos.
SRU chapter president of APSCUF Dr. Patrick Burkhart stated that he thought it was good that president was speaking to the students about the negotiations. He stated that because she is not directly at the bargaining table, she would offer a nonbiased opinion.
“Her job is to run a healthy university,” Burkhart said. “There’s a negotiations team in Harrisburg whose job it is to hash out the issues. They sound like the same job, but they’re not. Quite honestly, I have a lot of respect for her not getting pulled into that process because she has a different job to do.”
Norton said that she had previously been planning to meet with students as a way of introducing herself and answering any questions that the students may have. Because the negotiations between PASSHE and APSCUF have continued past winter break, she decided that this would be a good opportunity to speak with students about it.
President Norton believed that it was important for her to talk to the students in order to help prevent the spread of rumors and misinformation. She also stated that hearing about a potential strike could be stressful for students, so by answering each individual question, she hopes to ease some of that stress.
Norton explained that as president, she thinks that it was extremely important that she was the one answering the questions. She stated that it personally benefits herself because she gets to see what kind of issues students are worrying about. She also stated that it is good for the students and community to see that their concerns are being taken seriously and are being heard by the higher-ups of the university.
So far the meetings have been relatively small, Norton said. The first meeting had about eight people, but the numbers have been rising for each subsequent meeting. Norton expects that more people will start to show up as she continues to hold more meetings.
“It doesn’t matter to me if I’m talking to one person or a hundred. If I can answer a question or give information then the time has been well spent,” Norton explained.
Norton states that she believes that her visits with the students have been successful so far and plans to meet with students and community members in the same way once per semester. Depending on how long the contract negotiations continue, she may also hold more meetings after spring break.