Faculty unions seek AI guidelines in contracts and policies – Inside Higher Ed

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Faculty unions are starting to take their concerns about artificial intelligence out of peer group discussions and into contract negotiations.

The advent of generative Artificial Intelligence (AI)—which largely hit the general public when ChatGPT launched in Nov. 2022—immediately began causing concern for some faculty members across the nation. Faculty unions, from local state associations to national behemoths, are now discussing how to ensure their concerns are addressed by their institutions’ administrators.

“It’s looking at ethical concerns, data protection and educators’ involvement as AI continues to evolve,” said Noel Candelaria, secretary-treasurer at the National Education Association (NEA).

The NEA represents nearly 200,000 members and expects to have language finalized in July that members can use as a framework for their own bargaining. The union expects to lay groundwork focused on questions—centered on issues such as ethical concerns, data protection and educators’ involvement—that faculty should be asking administrators as they create AI policies.

“We know what it looks like right now, but it will evolve and look different in how we as educators remain a central part of the policy processes,” he said.

Boston University faculty were alarmed earlier this month after the university’s dean of arts and sciences, Stan Sclaroff, emailed faculty suggesting they use AI to help manage course discussions, labs and student feedback during a strike by graduate students.

“What Dean Sclaroff is advocating in his memo is that in cases where some discussion groups have been affected by the union’s job action, professors should consider a wide range of teaching tools available to them to offset the absence of a striking teaching assistant,” Boston University said in a statement to Inside Higher Ed.

That AI was mentioned at all among other “creative” options raised alarm bells for Service Employees International Union Local 509 chapter, which represents BU faculty and staff.

“We sincerely hope that the university would reconsider this suggestion and instead focus on properly compensating the people who do the work that is crucial in keeping the university running,” the union’s BU chapter said in an email to Inside Higher Ed.

Some large university unions, including the California Faculty Association and the United University Professions, or UUP, which represents the State University of New York System, aren’t concerned about being immediately replaced by AI.

“I think job replacement is a valid concern and I think [faculty and staff] could understandably be nervous about it,” said Kevin Wehr, bargaining team chair for the California Faculty Association. “Am I in a panic? No. Should others be? No, I don’t think they should think the sky is falling. We have a lot of issues facing higher ed and this is just one of many.”

However, concerns about the impact of AI on faculty members’ intellectual property rights and workload, and potential diminished autonomy have cropped up among faculty unions across the nation.

“We’re not being luddites; it’s not, ‘tech is bad and people will lose their jobs,’” said Laurie Stoff, a member of United Campus Workers of Arizona, which represents the state’s three public universities. Stoff, a professor at Arizona State University, is also a member of the Faculty Senate’s “AI Concerns” subcommittee.

“Our argument is it’s our job to serve students, educate them, ensure their success, uplift them and provide them the best opportunities for their learning. We don’t see this as a valuable way to do that,” she said of the notion of using AI for teaching.

“There’s a lot we could potentially learn from other sectors of laborers who have dealt with automation in the past,” said Alissa Karl, the UUP’s vice president for academics. “We can be in a place where we’re creative and look to other industries.”

The State University of New York system has doubled down on investments in AI over the last few years, including a $200 million statewide AI initiative to boost research, policymaking and workforce development. The UUP’s contract was ratified in August 2023 and expires in 2026.

Although none of the union representatives interviewed called for the banning of artificial intelligence in higher ed, Karl said specific, detail-oriented conversations are best for discussions on AI policies.

“We’ve heard off-the-cuff assertions from leadership about how easy it would make our lives to use AI to write syllabi, which has created a lot of alarm,” she said. “If someone generated a syllabus with the assistance of AI, would they be disciplined for it? We don’t know. We don’t have clear guardrails and boundaries.”

Multiple unions—including the NEA and the American Federation for Teachers—suggest the “gold standard” of creating AI policies is getting specific language in labor agreements that are enforceable if a disagreement arises between faculty and administration.

The unions recommend faculty and staff members working at institutions or in states without strong unions—such as Arizona where it is illegal to have collective bargaining agreements—get college administrators to codify AI policy language in an employee handbook. Stoff, of Arizona State University, cited using demonstrations, social media, petitions and direct requests to the state regents, to press for better work environments.

“Our goal is to make the universities the best place they can be for the students we serve, because our working conditions are our students’ learning conditions,” Stoff said. “When we improve those, everyone benefits—the whole university becomes a better, more welcoming, more constructive place.”

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