You may have heard the news: faculty at this school are coming together to form a union. This might come as somewhat of a surprise—for many, the idea of being a college professor is the intellectual’s jackpot. A cushy salary and benefits for the whole family are paired with job security unparalleled in the working world. All this, combined with free summers, paid sabbaticals, and access to some of the best resources in the academic world. Sounds like a dream. Unfortunately, for many professors at the U of R, it is just that—a dream, and one that seems increasingly unattainable.
The educators I am referring to here are contingent faculty—which includes adjunct and full-time professors who are not on the tenure track. You may not realize it, but there are hundreds of contingent faculty at our school. Most are quietly struggling.
Earlier this year, I was shocked to learn that some adjunct professors make as little as $4,000 per class (though some will earn up to $10,000). No, that’s not a typo. $4,000. The school is willing to dish out more to have a smoothie bar installed (think the Student Government 5k Challenge) than to compensate professors for hours of work spent in and out of class. Additionally, many contingent faculty don’t receive health benefits through the University, adding injury to insult. Some are not even afforded their own office space, forcing them into the awkward position of holding office hours without privacy. Many I’ve spoken to hold a job on the side. Even for those who are full time, there is no clear path to professional development nor transparency in the hiring process. All of these issues negatively impact our experience as students, as we are being taught by people who are unsure if they’ll be back the next year, or even if they’ll have enough money to cover basic living. Even for those who are full time, there is no clear path to professional development nor transparency in the hiring process.
Ultimately, however, perhaps the biggest issue contingent faculty currently face is that they have no means to change any of these things about their workplace. Over the past few months, I’ve talked with over a dozen adjuncts. Every time that I’ve asked someone if they have ever approached their superiors about making changes in their workplace, they’ve have scoffed at the idea. Alone, non-tenure track professors have little to no power to effect changes—or even have a say—in what their daily working lives look like.
This is why recently contingent faculty have been coming together to form a union under SEIU (Service Employees International Union). With a union, non-tenure track professors will finally have an organization that unites them and allows them to negotiate a fair contract with the University. As of now, the hiring process is characterized by a gross imbalance of power; administrators hire (and fire) adjuncts with little to no negotiation process. If the current situation represents a lopsided power dynamic, a union is a way to rectify it—to democratize the workplace and allow some of the more vulnerable members of our campus community to have their voices heard.
Fortunately, we are not alone in this movement. Adjuncts and contingent faculty have recently formed unions at: Boston University, Tufts University, University of Chicago, Ithaca College, Georgetown University, College of Saint Rose, Wells College, and over 30 more. Unfortunately, the experiences of professors at these schools has been comically similar—banal, hostile responses from administrations, whose ultimate interests lie in generating value for the board of trustees, recruiting the next set of tuition paye—I mean… students, and retaining prestigious tenure-track professors, rather than providing good working conditions for everyone in their community. I hope that our administration can buck the trend, by neither intimidating nor discouraging contingent faculty in their march towards a more just workplace.