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Accuracy • Independence • Integrity

July 28, 2017   |   Ithaca, NY

Opinion

Contingent faculty union provides update on negotiations

Higher education in America is facing an existential crisis. The prohibitive cost of college education has barred an increasing number of young people from fulfilling their dreams, while for a majority of faculty, being a professor has become a dead-end job that offers no adequate pay, no job security, and no possibilities for advancement. While administrative salaries have soared, faculty compensation overall has decreased, and the percentage of tenure-eligible faculty has shrunk to under 30%. The result has been the creation of a new academic underclass: a “precariate” of demoralized and underpaid contingent professors who are forced to cobble together multiple jobs, do not have benefits, and sometimes have to rely on manual labor, food stamps or Medicaid to get by.

In response to the unsustainable stresses thus imposed on most professors in the U.S., there has been a groundswell of unionization among contingent faculty across the country in recent years. Here at IC, an overwhelming majority of part-time faculty voted in 2015 to form a union to fight collectively for fair pay and better job security. The following presents a summary of the compensation model for part-time faculty that the union has proposed to the IC administration. We provide specific details for your consideration, because much of the discourse on this issue has been clouded by misleading claims and distortions on the part of the administration. We would like to set the record straight.

Our Situation

Part-time faculty constitute 33% of all faculty at IC and teach 15% of the college’s courses. 85% have advanced degrees; 33% are IC alumni; we average 7 years of service to Ithaca College. Part-time faculty teach many of the introductory courses at the college, and thus are often the faculty that new students have the closest and most significant contact with as they transition from home into the college environment. In short, we constitute an active and significant sector of the professoriate at IC.

However, our compensation is in no way commensurate with our contribution to the college. The current salary for part-time faculty at Ithaca College is $4200 per course. Part-time faculty are limited to teaching 50% of a full-time load, making them ineligible for benefits and capping their yearly earnings at $16,800 (most of us earn far less than that). As a result, nearly all Ithaca College part-time faculty are required to have multiple jobs to make ends meet. It is not surprising that, according to a survey we conducted after forming our union, the single most important issue to our membership is job stability for all contingent faculty (both part and full-time), and fair pay for the work we do.

Our Call for Pay Parity

In October of 2015 the faculty union began negotiating with the administration. From the beginning, the union has been committed to the principle of “pay parity” or “equal pay for equal work.” What this means in an IC-specific context is that part-time faculty should be compensated at a level commensurate with what the lowest-paid contingent full-time (i.e., non-tenure eligible) faculty earn. This seems to us a reasonable and equitable approach that takes into account the specific remunerative structures already in place at the college, and merely brings part-time salaries into line with those structures. Not only is the concept of pay parity just, it is eminently achievable. To provide all part-time professors at IC with pay parity would only require a 0.3% adjustment in IC’s operating budget: a tiny change that could significantly improve the lives of 33% of the faculty who are part-time – and thus benefit the learning environment of our students.

It would seem that doing the right thing at minimal cost to the college would not be a difficult decision. Unfortunately, 16 months have elapsed since the start of bargaining and the administration continues to stonewall any meaningful progress on compensation. They have steadfastly refused to engage with – or even discuss – the idea of pay parity, preferring instead to present us with a series of microscopic pay increase proposals in the order of 1 or 2%, which to date have accrued to a total proposed 8.9% increase in pay, to be achieved by the third year of the contract. This means that under the administration’s current proposal, within the next three years part-time faculty would see a mere $375 increase per three-credit course.

The Administration’s Response

So, the obvious question is: why does the administration refuse our call for pay parity? They have made two principal claims to justify their stance.

  1. Part-time faculty don’t do the same work as our higher-paid contingent full-time counterparts.
  2. Part-time faculty at IC are paid above the “market value” for part-time faculty at other regional institutions.

The first claim does not hold up under scrutiny. The second we reject as irrelevant and demeaning.

In regard to the first claim: according to the administration, “a credit-hour comparison with full-time faculty salaries is invalid because they are not asked to do the same work.” The administration asserts that  “[i]n addition to the time they spend teaching, full-time faculty members have a significant level of expectation and accountability for scholarly and professional activity, advising, service, strategic work, and other institutional involvements.” In our experience, this is simply not true. Many full-time contingent faculty members have taught 4/4 (four classes each semester) and had no requirements to do service, advising, research, or any of the other vague “institutional involvements” the administration cites. In the case of full-time contingent professors who do have service requirements, we have found that they generally get time off through course releases.

In regard to the second claim: instead of examining our proposal on its own merits within the specific context of Ithaca College’s institutional and fiscal framework, the administration tries to hide behind the bad practice of other institutions. They assert that IC’s rate for part-time faculty “is among the highest for part-time faculty in our region,” the implication being that we should be grateful for the crumbs that fall from the table – after all, things are even worse elsewhere. We found it revealing that the administration chose not to publicly disclose the basis of their claim that IC’s compensation is “among the highest for part-time faculty in our region.” They had good reason not to tip their hand. Of the 23 supposed peer institutions that served as a model for compensation to IC, the vast majority (16) were public schools in the SUNY system, such as TC3 or Onondaga Community College. The mendacity of comparing a private university like IC (at $41,776 in tuition, one of the most expensive colleges in America), to a public institution like Onondaga Community College (at $4,570, one of the cheapest) speaks for itself, and calls into question the reliability of any of the ostensible “facts and figures” presented by the administration. But more importantly, the fact that other regional institutions also exploit their part-time faculty is not the issue. The issue is that even though IC could easily afford to do the right thing and grant pay parity to its part-time faculty, it refuses to do so.

Challenging the Status Quo

We have been told that IC cannot afford to pay its part-time faculty a decent wage – while for the last 16 months the administration has sunk hundreds of thousands of student tuition dollars into an expensive union-busting law firm that has a vested interest in protracting the negotiation process. We have spent months in a tug-of-war with Nancy Pringle over every dollar – the same Nancy Pringle whose compensation increased in a single year by $29,801 (from $240,468 in 2012 to $270,269 in 2013). We have been told that our proposal of a modest annual $24,900 salary for part-time faculty is radical and unreasonable by an administration whose president earns 24 times more ($592,914 in 2014).

This sad state of affairs may accord with the current lopsided dynamic between managers and workers in this country, but we refuse to accept an untenable and unsustainable model as legitimate. Because something is standard practice or “market rate” – to use the administration’s pet phrase – does not make it responsible, reasonable, or just. It is morally obscene that Tom Rochon’s salary could pay the current annual wages of at least 35 part-time professors. It is morally obscene that the hefty tuition fees that will send many of our students into years of debt are lining the pockets of our top administrators while many of the professors who actually provide the education those tuition fees are supposed to pay for are struggling to afford the rent and forced to get by on Medicaid.

Ithaca may be a small town, but it is an intellectually vibrant one which provides the college with an exceptionally rich pool of scientists, scholars and artists. Part-time faculty at IC are not disposable, interchangeable drones who work on an intellectual assembly line, to be hired and fired at will. We are highly trained professionals from some of the nation’s top colleges and universities who offer unique skills and dedication to Ithaca College. Without the knowledge and passion each of us brings to the classroom, Ithaca College would not be the excellent institution that our students and their parents deserve. It is past time for our contribution to this campus to be acknowledged and adequately compensated.

In 2010, Terry Eagleton lamented that in recent years, “the role of academia has been to service the status quo, not challenge it in the name of justice, tradition, imagination, human welfare, the free play of the mind or alternative visions of the future…We will change it by insisting that a critical reflection on human values and principles should be central to everything that goes on in universities.” It is time to challenge the status quo – for the good of our students, of our faculty, and of Ithaca College as a whole. That’s why we will be holding a vote on February 13 and 14 to authorize labor action up to – and including – a strike. We have been moved, inspired, and encouraged by the support of so many of our students and tenured/tenure-track colleagues, and we remain confident that the leadership of Ithaca College will, in the end, choose to do the right thing.

The Ithaca College Contingent Faculty Union Bargaining Committee