by Mary Ellen Flannery
Dozens of NEA Higher Ed members marched on the streets of Chicago on Thursday, March 1, in an enthusiastic demonstration on behalf of part-time faculty and NEA members at East-West University and Columbia College.
“We are marching today to let this administration know that it is not above the law,” said Curtis Keyes, Jr., president of the newly certified adjunct faculty union at East-West. Earlier this year, Keyes was fired (for the third time) because of his efforts on behalf of faculty and students at his college.
At both institutions, part-time or contingent faculty have been grossly underpaid, subject to unfair terminations, and denied basic rights. In these respects, unfortunately, they are far from alone. Many college administrators across the country have shown their preference for a low-cost, easy-to-fire teaching force. Between 1999 and 2007, the number of part-time or contingent faculty grew by 41 percent, about four times the rate of full-time, tenure-track faculty, according to federal statistics.
And while they are paid poverty wages, 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.
“Continuity is important. Building relationships is important,” said Frances Cortez Funk, an NEA Higher Ed member from Pennsylvania who joined the informational picket line. (NEA Higher Ed members are in Chicago this week for their 30th annual conference, which began Friday, March 2).
As a former first-generation college student, Cortez Funk felt a personal obligation to demonstrate on behalf of East-West and Columbia students, she said. “Across the country, it’s becoming more and more difficult for students, especially non-traditional ones, to access a quality education,” she said.
NEA believes that all students should have the opportunity to attend college. It also believes that part-time faculty should be treated as professionals, and no different from full-time or tenured faculty. Their rights need to be honored — especially their right to collectively bargain.
Outside the doors of East-West, where administrators have refused to join Keyes and his colleagues at the bargaining table, NEA Higher Ed members shouted, “What do we want? A contract! When do we want it? Now!”
At Columbia, NEA members were joined by dozens of students. “I can’t actually afford to go to school here,” said freshman Leeah Brekhus, who noted that the already expensive tuition will go up another 5 percent next year. “It’s really messed up…but I know the part-time faculty is supporting us and I wanted to be here to support them.”
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