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May 24, 2013

Union leader seeks to spark activism

By Joe Mahoney Staff Writer
The Daily Star

---- — COBLESKILL — As the incoming leader of the nation’s largest union for professionals working in higher education jobs, Fred Kowal has an ambitious agenda that includes giving his organization greater clout in the halls of the state Capitol.

A social sciences professor with a specialty in Native American studies at the State University at Cobleskill campus, Kowal, 54, will be installed on June 1 as president of the United University Professionals, the statewide faculty union boasting some 35,000 members.

In an interview in a former dormitory room that serves as his office, Kowal said one of his objectives is to get his union to recognize its own innate strength.

“There is a great deal of diversity with the campuses, and what I want to do is raise the varying levels of activism from region to region, so that the union has more real political power,” he said. His priorities, he said, include fighting efforts to privatize some operations at the state medical centers in Brooklyn and Syracuse.

Forging relationships with key lawmakers, he said, can pay dividends for UUP.

The membership includes those with faculty jobs and other professional positions at all 64 campuses in the system, which, in addition to Kowal’s own Cobleskill campus, includes the State University College at Oneonta and the State University at Delhi campuses,

“We have one of the least-funded state universities in the country,” said Kowal, whose activism with the union began in the early 1990s.

Among the lawmakers Kowal said he has found very responsive to SUNY’s needs is state Sen. Jim Seward, R-Milford.

“Jim Seward has been very supportive of SUNY,” said Kowal, a native of the blue-collar town of Chicopee, Mass. “A large part of that is because we have built this close relationship with the folks who live in his district. I want to expand that throughout the state so that UUP’s presence is right there in the district, dealing with legislators who are aware of our concerns and interests, and how we have common ground with their political agendas.”

Over the past two decades, the SUNY system and other public universities nationwide have relied more on part-time teachers to lead classrooms, while the opportunities for professors to get on the tenure track — a pathway that leads to higher salary and more job security — have diminished.

Nationwide, tenured professors now account for less than 30 percent of the faculty jobs in academia. Until about 15 years ago, Kowal said, about 70 percent of the faculty positions were filled with tenured professors.

“There has been this massive shift in the name of administrative flexibility,: he said.

The union has been pressing the university administration to establish a minimum per-course salary for adjunct professors. Two weeks ago, SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher was greeted at the SUNY New Paltz campus by dozens of protestors who raised questions about what they contended was low pay for adjuncts, according to the Kingston Freeman.

Kowal, a resident of Warnerville, said the pay for adjuncts and the increasing reliance on part-time teachers remains one of the biggest concerns of UUP. Still another concern, he said, is that the administration has a tendency to introduce new programs that impact professors without first running the ideas past the union.

“SUNY has been changing in some ways we don’t necessarily oppose, with things like distance earning — online classes — and shared services,” Kowal said. “The problem we have with the chancellor on both of those initiatives is the lack of consultation. What we want to be able to do is provide what we think is very sound advice on how to do these initiatives right.”

Earlier this month, SUNY officials announced that the SUNY Delhi and Cobleskill campuses will no longer have to share Candace Vancko as president of both campuses. She will return to the Delhi campus June 1 as its full-time president, while Debra Thatcher, vice president for academic affairs at the Cobleskill campus, will become its acting president while a search will begin for that position.

However, Cobleskill and Delhi will continue to share vice presidents, a situation that is a “cumbersome arrangement” for those working under them because the days they spend at a particular campus are limited, Kowal.

SUNY’s history has been shaped in no small measure by the succession of governors who have reigned in Albany.

As for Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has been in office since January 2011, Kowal said: “I am hopeful that the governor will work with public employee unions because together we have a long tradition of public service in building New York State. And I would hope that the governor would share that value. Certainly, the Democratic Party has a long record of progressive leadership. I would hope the governor would embrace the legacy of previous governors, like Franklin Roosevelt and Nelson Rockefeller.”