Adjunct professor union would ensure fairness

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Adjunct professor union would ensure fairness

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It’s happening everywhere, even in St. Louis.

Across the country, universities are depending more and more on contingent faculty who have access to zero job security and low wages with scant benefits. As a sixth-year adjunct at Saint Louis University, I’ve seen it up close. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

According to the American Association of University Professors, “contingent faculty” (or “non-tenure track faculty”) currently comprise over 76 percent of instructional faculty that are responsible for teaching across America’s college campuses. Yet while making up a majority, contingent faculty all share a common set of setbacks: employment that is unstable and inconsistent, a lack of health care and other critical benefits, and financial insecurity. The titles of these contingent faculty vary from school to school. Some may be called “adjuncts” or “instructors” or “non-tenure track faculty,” but they are all caught up in an unrelenting trend across higher academia: the reliance on part-time people to do full-time work.

This same pattern is at work within the faculty at Saint Louis University. The majority of college instruction on SLU’s campus is given by highly qualified non-tenure track faculty.  As of 2014, around 62 percent of the University’s faculty are not on the tenure track. This hard-working group of contingent faculty is made up not just of part-time adjuncts, but also full-time professors who are not allowed to gain tenure.

The heavy reliance on contingent faculty, coupled with the fact that the university dedicates only 32 percent of its total expenses towards funding student instruction, places great burdens on part-time and non-tenure-track faculty. As a result of such insecure working conditions, contingent faculty face greater challenges to providing quality instruction to SLU’s students. We have less of a voice and role in our respective departments, have less time to prepare for students’ courses and face greater limitations on the types of resources we can access to be able to focus on the needs of SLU’s students.

These facts and figures speak personally to me. Currently, I teach part time at multiple universities in the St. Louis region to help make ends meet and provide for my family. On average, I make around $3,200 a class, which isn’t enough to cover important things like health insurance, college loan payments and rising living expenses. My classes can be cancelled up until the first day, which makes financial planning virtually impossible.

I feel strongly that teaching at SLU is a valuable part of my higher calling to educate for the greater good. Yet I am tasked with delivering quality instruction without access to socially just compensation, health benefits or job security. My colleagues at the University are going through the same struggles.

In light of these urgent problems, it is essential that the voices of SLU’s contingent faculty be heard and that more organized steps be taken to address these highly important issues. Following the strides of other schools across the country, and in keeping with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ position on union organizing, conversations have begun with Faculty Forward, a project of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). As one of the largest contingent faculty unions in the country, the goal of SEIU faculty members is to improve the employment standards and working conditions of contingent faculty and, in the process, responsibly ensure that teaching always remains the focus of higher learning.

Now is the decisive opportunity for not only members of SLU’s contingent faculty, but also SLU’s community at large, to join other institutions of higher education in St. Louis that have already formed contingent faculty unions to work toward equality and respect, including Washington University in St. Louis and St. Louis Community College, and other schools like Duke University, The University of Chicago, and Georgetown.

Saint Louis University’s rich history of Jesuit activism in the community and world at large is grounded in the core value of social justice. The University’s Mission Statement states explicitly the goal to “maintain and improve the quality of life for all persons” and “strive continuously to seek means to build upon its Catholic, Jesuit identity and to promote activities that apply its intellectual and ethical heritage to work for the good of society as a whole.”

We are the members of the SLU community, and it falls upon us to affirm and live out the Jesuit social justice tradition by calling out that all faculty, regardless of their position, be treated with dignity and fairness. To students, faculty and other members of the St. Louis community, we need your support to help us attain a seat at the table and have a voice in the conversation.  The cost of doing nothing is just too high.

Jameson Ramirez is a sixth-year adjunct at Saint Louis University’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology.