Adjunct faculty aim for union

Features, Loyola Marymount University, News, The Los Angeles Loyolan

Graphic Credit: Kevin O’Keeffe | The Los Angeles Loyolan

Originally published in the Los Angeles Loyolan. For original, please refer to: Adjunct faculty aim for union – The Los Angeles Loyolan.

Chiara Sulprizio, a visiting professor at LMU, adopted a baby in March. The adoption had been in the works for quite some time, but the child, Evan, arrived earlier than planned.

“My husband and I had intended to get the baby in summer,” Sulprizio said. “But as is the case with most babies, they come when they want to come.”

Evan arrived in the middle of spring break, when Sulprizio was visiting family in Reno, Nev. Coincidentally, Evan was also in Reno – serendipity Sulprizio said she couldn’t ignore.

She got the call Sunday and picked Evan up on Wednesday. Due to technicalities with the adoption, Sulprizio couldn’t leave Nevada until into the school week, cancelling her class the following Tuesday.

“And that was all the time I took off,” Sulprizio said. “One day. Just one day.”

Ordinarily, someone in Sulprizio’s situation would have colleagues informally cover for her. But Sulprizio is one of three professors in the classics and archaeology department and teaches four classes. Finding a cover for maternity leave is impossible – and as a non-tenure track professor, Sulprizio was confused as to whether she had the right to take time off.

“Admittedly, I did not demand anything,” Sulprizio said about petitioning for leave. “But even if I did, it doesn’t mean I would have gotten it. It’s not that anybody said to me, ‘No, you cannot take a leave.’ But realistically, how would that have worked?”

Sulprizio is in her third year, often the last for visiting professors at LMU. However, unlike other part-time professors, she has four classes, instead of just one or two. She is still a member of contingent faculty – the broader term used to describe those who must reapply for their positions on a semester-by-semester or year-by-year basis. And it is those contingent faculty members who are now considering unionizing.

As of 2012, 51 percent of LMU professors are employed part-time, according to Andrew Dilts, a political science professor on the tenure track. A former adjunct professor at other universities, Dilts has a strong interest in the trend of what he terms “adjunctification” – the shift towards more part-time professors versus full-time – not only at LMU, but nationally.

“In the 1970s, 70 percent of everyone who was teaching at an institute of higher education was on the tenure track,” Dilts said. “In 2011, 30 percent of instructors at institutions of higher education were on the tenure track. So it’s reversed in the course of a 40-year period.”

According to Anna Harrison, a full-time professor in the theological studies department, contingent faculty are ineligible for health care benefits and can’t buy in to a group plan. No part-time faculty are permitted to sit on committees. Additionally, according to Harrison, the academic freedom touted by University President David W. Burcham during his Convocation address this year is put in jeopardy when part-time professors lack the job security of tenure.

Teaching a course at LMU pays approximately $5,000 – limited to two classes a semester, part-time professors make just over $20,000 each academic year at maximum. Many part-time faculty take other jobs, often at other universities, to supplement their income. One such professor is Emily Hallock, a part-time political science professor both at LMU and UCLA. Because she’s teaching in two places, her students are shorted on available time in office hours.

“I simply cannot be here when I’m teaching another class,” Hallock said. “The students lose out if the person that they see and interact with is not a permanent member of the department.”

She’s also unable to devote time to research, something that affects the viability of the “teacher-scholar” model mentioned in LMU’s Strategic Plan. In the Strategic Themes section of the Plan, one of the objectives is to create “an educational environment that fosters lifelong learning for both students and faculty.” Because teachers like Hallock are taking part-time jobs elsewhere, they cannot focus on building the scholar aspect.

As a result, many adjunct faculty members are making strides towards a change. First, they created an online network for the Bellarmine College of Fine Arts (BCLA) adjunct faculty – designed to improve the work environment for adjuncts. Now comes a move towards unionization, thanks both to motivated faculty and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), representatives of which have slowly begun building a presence on campus.

For their part, members of the University administration are aware of the efforts, according to Rebecca Chandler, LMU’s vice president for human resources. Because this is LMU’s first brush with potential unionization, the administration has no official position on the topic.

“We do recognize and respect that it is an individual’s legal right to participate in unionization efforts, or equally, to refrain from such activities,” Chandler told the Loyolan via email. “We respect an individual’s right to speak and/or meet with union representatives.”

Similar unionization efforts have occurred at other universities – successfully at schools like Georgetown University and George Washington University with the assistance of SEIU. While there will be obstacles along the path, including different adjunct faculty needs and the lack of a central communication system, professors passionate about the issue are ready for a shift.

“I would like to leave this place in a better state than I found it for people working off the tenure track,” Sulprizio said. “This place can afford … to do a little bit better and a little bit more for its contingent faculty.”

Trying to make a living

“My biggest mistake, had I wanted to pursue a teaching career in academia, seemed to be that I didn’t marry well,” Elizabeth Quiros-Loe said with a laugh. “Which pissed me off.”

Quiros-Loe came to LMU’s theological studies department last year on an externship from getting her graduate degree at Vanderbilt University. She taught one course to get some teaching experience. When it became clear that adjunct work wouldn’t be enough to live on, she moved to her current position as the program administrator at the Bioethics Institute.

“I was planning on continuing teaching, but this position became available,” she said. A much more secure job – year-round versus semester-by-semester, 20 hours per week – Quiros-Loe said she was grateful to be able to go to the dentist and not worry about future employment. While she could have found work elsewhere, LMU is important to her; her parents met in Malone when they were students here, and she said she felt connected to the campus.

“I want to work at one institution, and I want to work at LMU,” she said. “The only reason I’ve been able to teach here was because it’s subsidized by student loans. So the moment I get a Ph.D., I wouldn’t be able to teach here. … I did not want my Ph.D. to be my pink slip.”

The path to a union

Efforts to make working conditions better for part-time professors have been in the works at LMU for some time. Contingent faculty like Sulprizio and Quiros-Loe started the Contingent Faculty Network (CFN) last year with a web page that included resources like a guidebook for contingent faculty that with information on everything from contract renewal to where to park. According to its own website, CFN wasn’t a unionization effort in and of itself; rather, it was a more general effort to support contingent faculty.

“We just wanted to reach out to other people in our situation and not feel so isolated,” Sulprizio said.

The CFN was designed with BCLA professors in mind, and was received well by then-Dean Paul Zeleza’s office. The long-term goal of those who created the network wasn’t a union, but when Zeleza left LMU at the beginning of this year and the CFN went “by the wayside” in the transition, according to Sulprizio, things changed.

Enter SEIU, an organization that has worked in Washington, D.C. and Boston to unionize part-time faculty as part of their Adjunct Action program. They’re now in L.A. and at LMU specifically. How they came to campus isn’t quite clear – according to Jesse Yeh, an organizer for SEIU, they were invited when they spoke to over 200 adjunct faculty on campus. Yet when asked about which professors in particular formally invited SEIU on campus, Yeh hedged.

“I guess ‘formally invited’ wouldn’t be the case,” he said. “It’s that we see there’s a lot of really strong support here … to organize.”

For her part, Quiros-Loe was curious as to why SEIU was the right organization to get involved versus an organization like the American Association of University Professors. The answer: It came down to resources. “SEIU had the ability to make a local campaign and a metro-wide campaign,” she said, the latter half of which was deemed important. “We’re metro workers – we work here, we work there … so having union representation at one place isn’t quite as helpful as having it across the place where we work.”

Additionally, according to Dilts, the tenure track political science professor, SEIU has “a track record of working with existing organizations” on a city level. “They’re one of the few unions that’s seen that what’s happening with higher education has this particular quality in cities that’s different than in rural areas or in suburban areas,” Dilts said.

‘I’m not going to skimp on the students’

So where do students fit into the unionization equation? According to Hallock, the professor who teaches part-time at both LMU and UCLA, students are the most important aspect.

“I think a lot of students don’t realize that the people who are teaching them are being paid basically a tenth of what one student pays for their tuition and everything for the year,” Hallock said. “If I were a student and I was paying $50,000 to go to school, I would wonder why half of the people that were teaching me were making so very little when I was paying so very much.”

For Quiros-Loe, the whole reason for the vicious cycle is because professors care about their students. “We tend to be complicit in our own exploitation,” … she said … “because we love the students. And it’s not their fault. So we do more than what we’re paid for, going above and beyond, and we do this … because we feel committed to our students.”

“I’m not going to skimp on the students, because that would be wrong,” Hallock added. “But the result of this is that I don’t have much time for anything else.”

Deadline: December

The goal is to file for an election by the end of the semester, according to SEIU organizer Cindy Flores, which will allow for a vote to unionize. To file before the end of the semester is important, according to Quiros-Loe, because of the turnover in adjunct faculty – in other words, the part-time professors on staff now aren’t necessarily the same professors that will be on staff come January.

Still, the group seeking to organize faces some obstacles. For one, as Quiros-Loe sees it, there is a deep-seated feeling that being passed over for the opportunity to move onto the tenure track is somehow merit-based. Additionally, when it comes to attempts to organize, according to Dilts, management or administration obstruction can be one of the most difficult obstacles.

“At LMU, I have incredibly high hopes, though, that our administration will understand that this movement is coming as a response to the shared goal of the administration, faculty and students, which is to find a way to increase the quality of our educational program here and support all our members,” Dilts said.

Should a union come to pass, Chandler, LMU’s vice president for human resources, said there would be significant change. “Human resources and the administration will, for the most part, not deal directly with individual part-time faculty members,” Chandler said via email. “Part-time faculty will have the union as their ‘voice’ and exclusive representation.”

Whether or not the vote can be mobilized, for Sulprizio, the issues with part-time faculty at LMU aren’t going away.

“I don’t think this is the worst place to work as a contingent faculty member,” Sulprizio said. “But the time has come to deal with the problem.”

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