When words fail us: the administration’s rhetoric on adjuncts seeking a union is sorely lacking
May 7, 2014
David R. Weiss
Adjunct Instructor in Religion
Note: the views expressed below are my personal views; they are not intended to speak on behalf of the organizing committee at Hamline. However, if you’d like to stand with us, sign the petition here, which is open to anyone within or beyond the Hamline community.
Over the past two days, both Provost Jensen and President Hanson have addressed the issue of adjuncts seeking to organize a union for themselves at Hamline. Both of them encourage us to have a community conversation around this issue, and I commend them for that. Unfortunately, some of their other remarks seem determined to frame the conversation on terms that are not quite fair or forthcoming.
So, in the interest of joining the conversation, I’d like to speak to their remarks.
Provost Jensen notes, “According to its website, SEIU [the union supporting our efforts] is focused on workers in three sectors: healthcare, property services, and public services.” I suppose we should be a bit embarrassed as university faculty to be organizing ourselves alongside home health care workers, janitors, and bus drivers. But each of these professions has its own dignity and in a diverse community we are wise to honor each one. Moreover, I bet not one worker in any of those professions, if represented by SEIU, has gone nine years without a pay increase. I have. So who am I—or who is the Provost—to suggest that SEIU is not a good union to work with? Frankly, I am proud to be organizing in the good company of people who simply seek a fair wage for honest work.
Moreover, the same website—in fact, the same page that the Provost quotes from—says, that SEIU members are “united by the belief in the dignity and worth of workers and the services they provide and dedicated to improving the lives of workers and their families and creating a more just and humane society.” Sounds like a group of folks quite in touch with Hamline’s professed values!
I appreciate Provost Jensen’s regard for the “collaborative and communicative environment at Hamline.” Those of us organizing a union are eager to engage in this collaborative process; we simply believe—borne of long experience both at Hamline and at other institutions—that claiming a collective voice is the best way for us to enter this process. We reject any assertion that having a union forces us into an adversarial posture. It allows us to enter the conversation with a measure of equality that it utterly beyond us when we speak only as individuals. We have been ignored, overlooked, unheard as an entire category of faculty at Hamline. We choose to embrace a collective voice because it offers us the best chance to be heard.
Both the Provost and the President are unduly—and inaccurately—concerned about the sudden presence of “third party representation” in our campus culture. When we win this union and begin contract negotiations, we will represent ourselves. The people who sit down at the bargaining table will be elected from among our adjunct peers. We will be able to seek advice and counsel from SEIU—or from other unionized adjuncts at other colleges and universities—but “third part representation” misrepresents what a union does. It gives us the platform to speak for ourselves, to take our rightful place in the conversation amid the culture we already know and treasure.
President Hanson’s message speaks of being “careful stewards of our financial resources” and “guided by values of fairness” and wanting to “ensure the appropriate use of tuition dollars.” Here are some hard numbers to wrestle with. In 2005-06 tuition at Hamline was $23,130; this year it’s $34,570—almost exactly a 50% increase. I taught at Hamline during the 2005-06 school year. I was paid $4000 for one course. Today, after tuition has soared by 49.4%, I make … still $4000 per course. Not a penny of those tuition increases trickled down to me (or to almost any other adjunct). Meanwhile, President Hanson earned “about $300,000” back in 2005-06. By 2012 (the last public data I could find) her salary had risen to $516,000—better than a 70% increase. I fully understand that the linkage between tuition dollars and salaries, whether for adjunct faculty or university presidents, is a complex relationship. But believe me when I say that I would welcome a conversation about being “careful stewards … of tuition dollars.”
Looked at another way, the 56 students in my Introduction to Religion class each pay roughly $4300 in tuition to take my class and learn from me this semester. Altogether, they pay $240,000 to Hamline just to take my class. That works out to about $105 from each student for each day they set foot in my classroom. But only about $1.75 of each student’s tuition reaches me for each day I teach them (and that covers all of my prep time and grading time in between classes, too). Each adjunct’s reality is different, but my actual teaching costs each student each day less than a cup of cheap coffee at Starbucks. And, again, I know it’s more complicated than the cost of a cup of coffee, but it’s difficult not to swallow hard at those numbers.
During my time organizing adjuncts I’ve had conversations with a couple dozen of my peers. I can tell you that every single adjunct I’ve spoken with has, as President Hanson hopes, the “best interests of our students” in the forefront of our minds. It’s what keeps us here despite the poor conditions. Seeking better pay, a measure of job security, and access to some benefits are not matters of selfish self-interest; they are tangible evidence that the university is indeed “invested in the personal and professional growth of persons” as our vision statement proclaims. Such basic recognition of our value in the university’s educational mission is one way the university attests to the value it places on the student experience. Indeed, again to echo President Hanson’s own words, we who are adjunct faculty already “provide students with an exceptional experience” at Hamline; we are now asking that the university no longer exploit us as we help it fulfill this “most important priority.”
So when President Hanson speaks of being “careful stewards,” “guided by fairness” and aiming to “ensure the appropriate use of tuition dollars” these are realities that we have known from the underside—some of us for a decade or longer. And when she says the Provost “would like the opportunity to have deep conversations” directly with adjuncts, I am delighted. But as anyone who has taught at a liberal arts college knows—because it is a core insight of all critical thinking—conversations overlaid with unforgiving power differences are never deep—except as they are deeply stacked against those with less power. I will welcome these conversations because I firmly believe that adjunct faculty have a real contribution to make toward the health of our entire community. It is a community about which we care deeply. But I prefer to enter that conversation as a unionized adjunct with a collective voice.
The best way for the Hamline administration to pursue its “collaborative culture” with adjuncts is to stop opposing our efforts to unionize and to welcome us into a collective partnership in these important conversations about matters that indeed affect us all.