November 30, 2015

Let us vote

A contingent faculty member comments on the state of unionization at the University.

I have taught at U of C for eight years, and I love it. I love the students and how they ask me “don’t make the assignments easier, we want to learn!” (True story.) I love my colleagues, who are fantastic professionals who create a supportive work environment. I love the campus community, and I believe in the idealistic truth-seeking that this university stands for. I even love the grammar enthusiasts who will undoubtedly side-eye me for ending the previous sentence with a preposition (a silliness up with which I will not put).

Without false modesty, I think the faculty who teach here help bring these intellectual ideals to reality. But our students may not know that we are divided into two species: those with tenure (or possibility of tenure) and those without. As you may have guessed, I belong to the ranks of the non-tenured, contingent faculty. The distinction is not merely a matter of prestige: while tenure-track faculty enjoy a job for life, the contingent faculty at best have an appointment for a few years without a guarantee for renewal. There is no possibility for promotion in most positions. Even if our contracts are renewed and we work for decades, our pay is still a fraction (considerably less than one) of what any tenure-track faculty member makes.

It’s true that the tenure-track faculty have a full plate: they write grant proposals, run their labs, supervise graduate students, sit on committees, publish mounds of papers and books, travel to give talks, and chair panels at conferences. Running the academic gauntlet is tough, and the tenure-track faculty who make it are fantastic scholars and deserve the remuneration and stability of tenure. But teaching, traditionally the central vocation of a professor, is often crowded out by the avalanche of other responsibilities. Tenure committees don’t seriously consider teaching quality when deciding on promotion. Deans are very concerned if a professor doesn’t bring in grants but they would rarely stir if one isn’t doing well in the classroom. The clear message is that teaching college students is not a paramount concern of the administration. This makes a big difference for both the faculty and the students.

Across the country, the task of molding young minds has been largely relegated to the care of temporary, replaceable employees. I’m an applied mathematician, so let me give you some numerical evidence: nationwide, two-thirds of the faculty at all institutions of higher learning are contingent. At U of C, the situation is better, with the fraction of contingent faculty at around 40 percent, but the fraction of students we teach is likely far greater. Taking my department as an example: 13 contingent faculty teach or co-teach 60 percent of the approximately 1,700 students enrolled in biology courses this quarter. Meanwhile, the hundreds of tenure-track biology professors are responsible for less than half of the teaching load in our program. We are efficient at what we do!

Contingent faculty fill an essential niche in the modern university, but, despite this, we have little say in the decisions that affect us, and scant agency to negotiate for better compensation or a promotion. What’s more, when instructors are treated as second rate, the quality of education for the students suffers. Many of us feel that we deserve to have more influence on University governance and want our teaching to be treated with the respect it deserves. Driven by these considerations, my colleagues have filed for an election to form a union, which will represent the contingent faculty at this University. Unfortunately, during the negotiations on the composition of the bargaining unit, the University administration used legal nitpicking to exclude some of my colleagues from voting, even though they do the same work as the rest of us, and succeeded in cutting the size of the bargaining unit in half. It is highly disappointing for an institution that professes a belief in intellectual freedom and social justice to bar some of its employees from voting in a union election. It shows that the administration would rather maintain control than give its contingent faculty a chance to have a collective voice.

The contingent faculty of this University are privileged to be a part of the life of the young minds on our campus. We teach, we learn from our students, we mentor and get to know them as junior colleagues and as human beings. Every June we experience the bittersweet thrill of watching them take the next step in life, and sometimes even develop long-term friendships with them (I was once honored to attend a former student’s wedding). All we’re asking, to paraphrase the great singer, is for a little respect when we go to work.  It would mean a lot to have our students support us in our struggle to have a voice and to be heard.

Dmitry Kondrashov is a senior lecturer in Biological Sciences Collegiate Division.

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