Seattle University Students Stand Behind Their Faculty
Note: The following guest post comes to us courtesy of Jacob Bell, a junior at the University of Maryland pursuing a dual degree in journalism and general biology. He currently works as the staff writer and web content manager for Student Voice and is a general assignment reporter for the University of Maryland’s student newspaper, The Diamondback. Jacob is also the features chair of “Stories Beneath the Shell,” which is an online multimedia publication. You can learn more about Jacob by connecting with him through LinkedIn or following him on Twitter, @realjacobbell.
In late May and early June, instructors at Seattle University casted ballots on whether they wanted to unionize. Since then, not a single ballot has been counted. Instead, administrative efforts have impounded the vote and put the faculty’s unionization status in limbo.
Seattle University employs nearly 350 adjunct faculty members. Adjuncts, along with graduate student and full-time, non-tenured instructors, are referred to as contingent faculty, and make up more than 75 percent of instructors at U.S. higher education institutions, according to a 2014 report by the House Committee on Education and the Workforce Democrats
The same report states that adjuncts earn an estimated annual median salary of $22,041, meaning many of them “often live on the edge of poverty,” and make less than half the amount of full-time faculty members.
“[On] most campuses … the majority of the teaching is now done by adjunct and contingent faculty, rather than tenured-track or tenured faculty,” adjunct communications instructor Dr. Louisa Edgerly said.
Contingent faculty also lack many of the benefits offered to tenured instructors, such as job security, career growth and smaller, less varied course loads.
When Seattle University faculty attempted to address these issues with university administrators, the response was less than proactive, according to Edgerly.
The faculty then turned to unionization as a way for contingent instructors to get the same benefits and securities as tenured instructors, and filed a petition for an official vote among campus instructors on the matter to the National Labor Relations Board, a governing body for all things related to unions.
Though the NLRB approved the faculty’s initiative, university administrators appealed the decision. The administrators reasoned that the university did not fall under the state’s, and by extension the board’s, jurisdiction because of its religious affiliation. Due to the appeal, the ballots from the vote will remain impounded until a final decision is made.
“As a student, my big concern about this is that it really makes sense to support the faculty because a union would create far more longevity for faculty on this campus,” junior public affairs major Izzy Gardon said. “Odds are good that probably none of the [adjuncts] will be at this institution come the decision for this case. It’s probably gonna be 4 to 5 years away, millions of dollars in lawyer fees, and many of them won’t be here to see that.”
Gardon is the social media director for the university’s Student Coalition for Faculty Rights, an organization devoted to students supporting their faculty. In the last year, the coalition held a rally, took photos, wrote newspaper editorials and hosted “project engage,” an event where students wrote letters to the university’s president, in an effort to educate students about the pertinent issues their instructors are facing.
Gardon is also the external chief of staff for the Student Government of Seattle University, which has lent its support to the faculty and requested the withdrawal of the administration’s appeal of the NLRB decision.
“We hold forums, we publish polls, and so if you ask your average student here, we really do reflect the climate here on campus and really try to act as a barometer of student voice,” Gardon said.
According to a recent SGSU poll, 74 percent of university students support their faculty having the choice to unionize.
While their opinions may differ from those of students and faculty, Gardon added that administrators have been flexible and supportive of the coalition’s initiatives.
Seattle University has taken steps in recent years to try to improve faculty wages and benefits, including securing $5.6 million that will go towards keeping faculty and staff salaries competitive, increasing the minimum full-time annual salary from $24,600 to $42,000, and offering modified full-time faculty appointments to part-time instructors teaching more than four classes per year.
Many people at the university are looking to these measures as a starting point for more benefits and increased negotiations between faculty and administrators. Moreover, countless students are using issues like faculty unionization as a platform to improve dialogue between them and the administration and solve many of the ingrained problems in higher education.