By Scott McLennan
T he 2014 MTA Higher Education Conference brought together about 180 faculty members, staff and administrators from across the state
for discussions on key issues and a wide range of
Topics ranged from the difficulties faced by
adjunct faculty members to the implications of
student outcome assessments.
The two-day gathering was held at the Westin
hotel in Waltham.
The conference, MTA’s first since 2011
dedicated specifically to the concerns of higher
education members, opened on April 11 with
a question-and-answer session featuring MTA
President Paul Toner and Vice President Tim
“Behind all of the issues raised here is the
single-minded goal of creating colleges and
universities where faculty and staff are fully
supported and students are given the opportunity to
thrive,” Toner said during the exchange.
Toner touched on pending pay increases
and improvements in working conditions for
community college adjunct faculty members who
are working under a tentative agreement that has
been overwhelmingly ratified by the Massachusetts
Community College Council.
More work still needs to be done, he said, to
secure health insurance and retirement benefits for
The prevalence of adjunct faculty on higher
education campuses generated many of the comments
and questions during plenary sessions. Faculty and
staff raised practical issues — such as the low pay and
lack of benefits that make adjunct jobs economically
unsustainable — as well as broader policy issues,
including the impact of staffing patterns on students
when most of their education is delivered by
instructors who are not on campus full time.
Many other MTA higher education units are
just beginning to negotiate new contracts, and the
conference gave bargaining leaders a chance to
discuss what they have been seeing at the table.
Addressing another subject, Toner highlighted
a successful campaign at UMass Amherst to address
workplace bullying. He also made note of organizing
drives for new members on the UMass campuses in
Amherst and Boston.
Sullivan recounted a swift and successful
lobbying effort in March by members to preserve
their health insurance options when one carrier,
Fallon Health Care, announced it would drop the
popular Fallon Select Care HMO plan. He said
successes such as the “call for action” directed at
Fallon underscore the value of union membership.
On Saturday, Massachusetts Commissioner of
Higher Education Richard Freeland and members of
his staff answered educators’ questions.
In both prepared remarks and in response to
inquiries, Freeland emphasized that the state needs
to significantly increase appropriations for higher
education. Even with a rise in state spending on
higher education last year and proposals for an
additional funding boost in fiscal 2015, Freeland
pointed out, Massachusetts would still need to pour
$300 million more into its colleges and universities
for the Commonwealth to be ranked among the top
10 states in terms of funding.
Current spending levels in Massachusetts are
still far below peak years. The shortfall has an
impact on everything from rising student debt to
the state’s overreliance on lower-paid contingent
faculty, Freeland said. He said, however, that there
is hope for improvement. “There is traction for our
message that there is a need for quality public higher
education,” he said.
“Your advocacy and the economy have
helped increase interest in public education,”
Freeland continued. He pointed to the need for a
well-educated and well-trained workforce and an
affordable means for Massachusetts residents to
obtain postsecondary degrees and certificates.
Student outcome assessments were also linked
to funding. Many educators voiced concern about
what a fair assessment system would look like, given
the wide variety of backgrounds and aspirations
among students attending public colleges and
While members of the Department of Higher
Education said that the state has no plans to
formulate a standardized test for student achievement
at the college level, they cited a need to determine
how students are faring.
“The reality is that money flows to quality, not
to need, and we need to demonstrate that we are
successful if we hope to receive the funding we
need,” Freeland said.
He said that because federal measures of success
— centered on graduation rates and student loan
default rates — are not adequate, Massachusetts
should develop assessment measures of its own. In
that context, he defended the open-admissions policy
of community colleges.
Other participants expressed concerns about
privatizing services on public campuses, especially
as the DHE looks at maximizing cost efficiency
across the system.
The second day of the conference also featured
several workshops. MTA leaders and staff presented
seminars on legislative issues, collaborative
bargaining, online topics such as social media, and
retirement planning. Education and finance experts
were on hand to lead discussions on the Affordable
Care Act, higher education funding trends and
student assessment initiatives.
Members of negotiating
teams from several higher
above, attended a workshop
on collaborative bargaining.
At left, Massachusetts
Commissioner of Higher
Freeland, left, spent a few
minutes talking to C.J.
O’Donnell, president of the
Massachusetts State College
Photos by Scott McLennan