Beyond Getting Back to the New/Old “Normal” (2021)


In this Volume, the authors explore various pre- and post-pandemic matters that relate to getting back to the new/old normal in negotiating higher education’s future. The pandemic-year has surfaced and amplified pre-existing and ongoing challenges to postsecondary institutions and employees, with regard to: public health and higher education’s public responsibilities and mission; pre-existing and heightened financial stress; patterns of employment, hiring, and layoffs; a racial reckoning with historical and ongoing systemic racism; and a reckoning with historical and ongoing patriarchy and genderism. Moreover, as detailed in 2020 Supplementary Directory of New Bargaining Agents and Contracts in Institutions of Higher Education, 2013-2019 (William Herbert, Jacob Apkarian, and Joey van der Naald) the last year plus has witnessed a significant surge in organizing by academic employees.

As the Unites States starts to come out of the pandemic, management and labor will be confronted with old and new challenges as well as opportunities that the authors in this Volume explore. Daniel Scott and Adrianna Kezar detail patterns of employment in “the gig academy,” which mirrors the larger gig economy of society, drawing on their book of that name (Kezar, DePaola, & Scott, 2019). They identify problems and challenges for shared governance and collective bargaining, as well as solutions for new forms of collective action in democratic workplaces.

Writing from a lifelong standpoint as a private university principal contract administrator, and now a member of the faculty union, James Castagnera offers empathetic insights into the contrasting perspectives of the two parties soon embarking on impending contract negotiations. In exploring the “irresistible force” (of the union and its frustration with past patterns) and the “immovable object” (of the institution and its resultant finances) forthcoming clash, Castagnera counsels patience and an openness to creative thinking that in the context of small private universities that have for many pre-pandemic years been experiencing enrollment and financial decline provides a path in which both parties can win to bargain another day.

In considering “Online learning, Covid-19, and the future of higher education,” Anthony G. Picciano speaks to contrasting possibilities for higher education and academic labor. As Picciano details, online postsecondary education has been expanding, and even more so in the context of the pandemic. Such past and almost certainly future growth has “implications for faculty governance and collective bargaining,” ranging from workload to health and safety to training, compensation, and leave considered by Picciano. He then plays out “further into the future” scenarios connected to the perspectives of a current and former private university presidents, Joseph Aoun of Northeastern, and Drew Faust of Harvard.

Finally, Gary Rhoades weaves together a national and local narrative on the ways in which academic labor is “working in coalition and wall-to-wall.” In a pattern he calls “the new progressive normal,” Rhoades traces the increasing commitment on the part of groups of academic employees to work in coalition with other employees and groups on campus and beyond, in bargaining units that increasingly center broader community and social concerns in their organizing and contract campaigns. The expansive character of the academic labor movement nationally is then woven into a narrative about the birthing of an activist social justice coalition and then wall-to-wall union local of United Campus Workers, Arizona, Local 7065 of the Communications Workers of America.

Each of the contributions to this Volume consider patterns that predate but were also augmented by the pandemic. They offer insights into multiple possibilities, some of which can take us beyond the “new/old normal” for labor and management to negotiate the future of the academy and society.


Kezar, A., DePaola, T., & Scott, D. T. (2019). The gig academy: Mapping labor in the neoliberal university. Johns Hopkins University Press.