by Mary Ellen Flannery
After nearly a decade spent teaching and inspiring the students of East-West University in Chicago, Curtis Keyes, Jr., recently was warned away from his campus gates by a security guard.
“You don’t know me?” Keyes asked, in disbelief.
Keyes, president of the newly certified, NEA-affiliated union of contingent instructors at East-West, was fired last month for the third time in nine years. But don’t imagine this attack by hostile administrators is going to stop him—not for even one minute— from moving forward with the very first collectively bargained contract at East-West.
“I hope our battle can serve as a model for other unions,” offered Keyes at a recent symposium hosted by the New Faculty Majority (NFM), an association of non-tenure track faculty members. “You need to stand up. In doing so, you will find protection,” he promised.
A growing number of contingent (or adjunct) faculty members are working on campuses of higher education in this country, as many administrators seek a low-cost, easy-to-fire, pliable teaching force. Between 1999 and 2007, their numbers grew by 41 percent, about four times the rate of full-time, tenure-track faculty, according to federal statistics. In 2007, full-time and tenure-track faculty accounted for just 27 percent of the total faculty.
Most are paid appalling wages: At the blog, The Homeless Adjunct, adjunct professor and filmmaker Deborah Leigh Scott describes colleagues living in cars and homeless shelters. In 2003, four-year institutions paid contingent faculty about $12,000 a year on average, according to information provided by the NFM. In two-year institutions, which employ greater numbers of part-time faculty, salaries averaged closer to $9,000 annually.
While they starve, their students suffer as well. How can a student get extra help if their teacher doesn’t have an office? At East-West, two-thirds of instructors leave at the end of the semester, making it almost impossible for their students, who are almost all Black or Latino and poor, to forge the kind of mentoring relationships that make a difference in graduation rates.
“If we’re to succeed as a nation, we will only succeed to the extent that we address and redress the working conditions of contingent faculty,” said Gary Rhoades, professor of higher education at the University of Arizona, and director of the Center for the Future of Higher Education. Increasing numbers of contingent faculty, Rhoades pointed out, are teaching specifically in institutions with large numbers of poor, minority and immigrant students.
For its part, NEA strongly believes that part-time faculty members should be treated as professionals, and no different than full-time, tenured or permanent faculty. When it’s clear that adjunct positions are anything but temporary, they should be converted to full-time, tenure-track jobs. And, most importantly, NEA supports the rights of contingent faculty to bargain collectively.
Increasingly, despite the odds, that’s happening. At East-West, where Keyes, a member of NEA’s Emerging Leaders Academy, is leading the way, contingent faculty will bargain their first contract this spring with help from the Illinois Education Association. Keyes is determined to create the kind of working conditions for faculty that support student learning, he said.
Meanwhile, at Klamath Community College in Oregon, part-time faculty bargained their first contract this past fall, which includes provisions for equitable layoffs, a grievance process, and even the guarantee of email addresses for adjunct faculty. (Can you imagine trying to keep in contact with students without email?) “We tried very hard to keep in mind how we could serve students better,” said Mary Lou Wogan, a math professor and member of the NEA/OEA-assisted bargaining team.
“We just need more unionization,” said Adrianna Kezar, an associate professor of higher education at the University of Southern California, at the NFM symposium last week. Kezar also noted that not all of these improvements actually cost any money. “The respect, the inclusion in governance, the professional development that already is being offered…” can easily be offered to contingent faculty for free.
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