The culmination of the months-long campaign to organize a faculty union at Duke University came far from the campus, in the nondescript offices of the National Labor Relations Board in Winston-Salem. It was, for anyone who cares about the state of American universities, a sobering scene.
This was the counting of mailed-in ballots to determine if 296 nontenured, nonrank faculty members at Duke had chosen to join the Service Employees International Union.
As the two sides huddled around a hearing room tablea half-dozen Duke officials and their lawyers on one end, a dozen faculty members, their lawyers, and organizers from the union on the otherNLRB officer Ingrid Jenkins directed the tedious process: first, determine whether each envelope received was from an eligible person; second, open and insert the ballot into a cardboard box to preserve anonymity; third, read each ballot aloud.
Yes. No. Yes. Yes.
In the two hours it took to complete this task, it was clear that this wasn’t Duke and a part of its faculty tilting amicably. Rather, it was “the company” and “the union”Jenkins’s termsstaring across a great divide.
The outcome, on March 18, was a lopsided win for the union, 179–24, with thirteen ballots set aside because of contested eligibility.
Why did I find the clash so jarring? Because it burst my ideal of what university governance should be, with faculty at the center and the administration supporting them. For that matter, it was jarring to realize that an eclectic group of scholars, individualists for whom the uniformity of a union seemed an odd fit, wanted the SEIU nonetheless.
But there it was. The modern university isn’t governed by its faculty, though in my memory administrators were drawn from the faculty, and they respected the tradition that a university was its faculty and students.
Its tenured faculty, anyway. But then, most faculty members had tenure.
Today, though, universities are run like a businessthey’ve been “corporatized,” critics say, and chase the almighty buckwhile a majority of faculty members lack the protection of tenure or any hope of getting it. Instead, their employment is “contingent,” dependent on fixed-term contracts that are typically one to three years long but may be semester to semesterand are often part-time. Those without tenure are constrained in their ability to challenge university policy. They’re treated as workers who may or may not be retained.
Rann Bar-On is a Duke mathematics instructor with a contract. “We are workers,” Bar-On told me after the votes were counted. “Especially those of us who focus on teaching, as I do.” As opposed to doing research, he meant. “I do not consider myself as any different from workers in other industries,” Bar-On added. “Because the university does not.”
Across the country, contingent faculty workers are banding together: according to The Wall Street Journal, union drives have succeeded at seventy colleges and universities in the last three years.
Duke stands out, however, as a first in the South and, according to the Journal, “the first new private sector faculty union in a right-to-work state in decades.”
The question ahead is whether unions can help stem the impacts of corporatization and reassert the centrality of teaching, learning, and inquiry on American campuses. Will unions play the role that tenured faculty once did to safeguard academic freedom? And, in North Carolina, will Duke’s union spark an uprising on other campuses, in particular across a University of North Carolina system under threat from forces corporate and political?
When I started following the Duke campaign and the related SEIU-led Faculty Forward efforts on other North Carolina campuses, I thought I’d be meeting adjunctspeople who teach a course or two, often as a sideline to their day jobs, and supplement the regular faculty.
But adjunct has little meaning in the context of the irregular faculty who bear such titles as fellow, lecturing fellow, visiting scholar, or, my favorite, professor of the practiceall invented to disguise the fact that they are hired help with little job security.
A primer: college faculty in the United States went from two-thirds tenured in 1970 to three-fourths nontenured today. According to the American Association of University Professors, half of nontenured faculty members teach part-time. It’s common for all of them to be paid by the course. Average payment: $2,800, usually with no benefits.
Do the math and you’ll find that a college instructor teaching four classes per semesterthree is usually considered a full loadwould earn just $22,400 a year. Throw in a summer job, and it’s still far short of the $35,000 starting pay for K–12 public school teachers in North Carolina, a state that ranks near the bottom in teacher pay.
At a forum in Durham a few months ago, someone said that, as poorly paid as school teachers are, the worst-paid teachers work in our colleges and community colleges, most after earning a master’s or Ph.D.
That comment stuck with me, as did the observation by state AFL-CIO leader MaryBe McMillan that these underpaid professionals are victims of the “gig economy,” in which jobs that used to be secure and well paid are being replaced by lower-paid contract workers.
“Workers in all types of jobs are working longer and harder for less and less, and meanwhile the divide between the haves and the have-nots gets wider and wider,” McMillan told the forum.
Who are the haves in higher education? First, the administrators, whose pay is on the rise. The chase is on for grant funds, and many come from corporations for product-related research. Also, universities are pushing their prices higherat Duke, to $63,273 this year for tuition and living costs.
The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters, a 2011 book by political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg, examined the data. Between 1985 and 2005, student enrollments increased 56 percent, and faculty by half. But the number of administrators increased 85 percent and attendant staffGinsberg coined the term deanlets to describe all the aides to deans who manage the grantsjumped 240 percent.
Duke may not be the worst offender, though, as a private university, it keeps details about faculty and administrative pay to itself. We do know, from surveys by the Chronicle of Higher Education and data distributed by the SEIU, that Duke president Richard Brodhead pulled down $1.2 million in 2013, the latest year available. We also know that tenured and tenure-track faculty at Duke still outnumber the nontenured ranks three to two.
But the trend is going the other way. According to a 2015 Duke report circulated by the union, just 11 percent of faculty hired in the last decade were on the tenure track.
If Duke is bad, however, UNC-Chapel Hill is worse, according to geography professor Altha Cravey, a leader of the Faculty Forward campaign there. Cravey was shocked when she discovered that, from 2003–2013, the percentage of UNC faculty not granted tenure or on a tenure trackthe so-called NTTsgrew fivefold, from 12 percent to 59 percent.
So who are these have-nots?
Everything is relative, and the dozen or so nontenure-track faculty members I’ve interviewed aren’t poor, though one or two verged on poor. But remember, these were the best and brightest students in their schools, the graduate students who earned advanced degrees and thought that their success and knowledge would be valued by an information-age society.
By that standard, the universities are failing themand failing their students.
Chris Shreve, for example, is employed full-time at Duke as a lab instructor in a molecular biology class. He’s been teaching at Duke for thirteen years. He has a master’s degree but no Ph.D, because he’s not “research driven.”
Last year, Shreve received a 20 percent raise, after multiple years of none. His base pay now: $33,000 a year. He supplements that by teaching extra courses in summer school and working as the assistant wedding director at Duke Chapel.
Molecular biology is an intensive, competitive course that’s a prerequisite for students going to medical school, Shreve says.
“They can succeed, and they do phenomenally well once they have the background,” he says. “One of the reasons I’ve joined this union effort is that there’s a certain underclass of faculty who are not research driven, who are teaching driven, and who have seen the importance of teaching diminish at [Duke].”
Eileen Anderson does have a doctorate degree from UNC-CH. At Duke, she’s a lecturing fellow in Spanisha full-time teacher on a three-year contract with one year to go. She’s been at Duke five years, after an earlier stint at N.C. State. She makes $45,000 a year, with benefits, for teaching six classes a year. That equates to $7,500 per class, the standard Duke stipend for an NTT.
Anderson started with a series of one-year contracts at Duke. Every year, by second semester, she was nervous.
Is it better on a three-year deal?
“Once you get in the system,” she says, “you think, well, they’ll probably renew me.”
So she’s OK?
“I’m always nervous,” she laughs.
Shreve, Anderson, and other Duke “contingents” I spoke with said they love their jobs and want to keep them but are frustrated by Duke’s unpredictable approach to pay, retention, and promotion. In general, these things are up to department heads; department heads, in turn, are under pressure from administrators to cut their budgetsbut cuts never hit the tenured staff, only the NTTs.
Which leaves the latter in perpetual anxiety. That’s a big reason they voted for the union, hoping a negotiated contract will clarify how hiring and pay are determinedand ensure that NTTs are given a chance at promotion when better positions open up.
“The big word is transparency and making the career path clear for people,” Anderson says. “We want to figure out how we can do things more fairly.”
Jen Bowles, also a lecturing fellow, teaches in Duke’s vaunted Thompson Writing Program, which trains freshmen to apply critical-thinking skills. Bowles has a law degree and a Ph.D in anthropology, and she hopes to find a tenure-track job. But she finished her doctorate during the Great Recession, when jobs were scarce. She’s paid $42,000 a year for full-time work, about what she made as a public-interest lawyer in Washington ten years ago.
Bowles calls the Thompson program “super sexy,” lauding its purpose and the quality of the faculty who teach it. “Duke’s getting top talent cheap,” she says. But their stress levels are high: the Thompson jobs only last three years, with the possibility of a two-year extension. Which keeps her constantly on the lookout for that next job, constantly needing to keep up her research in anthropology, though it earns her no money.
“Every day, you’re stressed looking for openings, networking, putting time into research. And if you’re not doing it today, you’re stressed about not having done it,” she says.
Her contingent status doesn’t affect her in the classroom, Bowles says. But it does limit the time she can spend with students outside of class, in all the informal settings where they talk about what matters, discover new interests, and reflect on how the world really works.
What her students may be considering instead, however, when they see how many of their teachers are contingent, is that they’re heading into a world of diminishing opportunities for the intellectually adventurous. Better put those critical skills aside and train for a slot they can fillmaybe a banker?
The irony of the Duke-SEIU vote should not be missed. Duke’s contingent faculty is the best paid in the state by a lot. But then, Duke is also the wealthiest university in the state, with an endowment of $7.3 billion and an operating surplus in 2013 of $403 million.
Duke should set the bar high in terms of paying and extending tenure to its teachershigher than it does.
The fact that it doesn’t may be why the UNC system can go so low with its contingent faculty. One example: Kelly Jones, who taught in the writing program at Appalachian State and now lives in Durham.
Jones has a master’s degree. She usually taught two classes per semester, for between $3,800 and $4,300 each; her gross income was never more than $17,000 a year. That’s why she had a part-time job in the public library, which boosted her as high as $25,000.
“I do miss teaching,” Jones says, but she’s doubtful she’ll return to it or pursue a doctorate, given the paucity of tenured jobs.
Or take Chris Reali. He earned his Ph.D in music history after working as a roadie for rock bands. His specialty: the music industry. This semester, he’s teaching two courses at N.C. State and one at N.C. Central, plus a fourth at Campbell University’s RTP campus. His pay: $4,000 per class at State, $3,500 at Central, and $2,700 at Campbell. All more than the $1,500 he was paid for a class he taught last year at Wake Tech.
“I’m looking for a full-time job, but for now I’m making ends meet,” he says.
Fingers crossed: he’s a finalist for a full-time job in South Carolina, at USC Upstate.
At Duke, the new SEIU unit is preparing for negotiations and eyeing possible expansion to organize an additional 150 nontenured faculty, who were excluded from the March 18 vote because Duke considered them supervisory and thus ineligible. Bar-On, the math instructor, fell into this category. After leading the organizing efforts, he couldn’t vote and can’t join the union unless his supervisory tag is dropped.
On UNC campuses, meanwhile, faculty are covered under the state law banning collective bargaining by public employees, so any union activityif the Faculty Forward campaigns spawn unionswould be limited to advocacy.
Still, advocacy by the faculty in Chapel Hill is in short supply, Altha Cravey argues. A tenured professor for twenty-one years, she worries that the core mission of the university system is under attack by the board of governors and its newly installed president, Margaret Spellings. But contingent faculty members, lacking tenure, are afraid to push back. And tenured faculty are complacent.
What’s the core mission?
It should be to create informed citizens with the critical-thinking skills to be self-governing, Cravey answers. But that mission is at war with an opposing view, held by business-minded Republicans and some Democrats, that there are cheaper ways to “deliver content” than teacher-student interactions, and too many students are taking courses that, to paraphrase Governor McCrory’s boorish comment, don’t put their butts into jobs.
Cravey’s geography courses, which McCrory no doubt would disdain, are designed to help students make connections between the physical things they can see and the power relationships hidden from view.
“Learning to see the things around us from a new perspective of how are things related to each other at a human, intermediate, and global scale”that’s what geography is about, she says.
That’s what all of higher education should be about.
Ideally, the college experience is a blend. It’s scholarship that dives deep into the human experience using the tools of a discipline taught by faculty who are scholars themselves. It’s training for a lifetime of occupations that will benefit from sharp analytical skills. It’s preparing to participate in the community and democracy.
But, increasingly, our corporatized universities are about money, not ideas, and fund-raising more than raising minds and improving humanitythe core mission.
A tenured faculty used to safeguard that mission. That was the point of tenure: to put the faculty in charge and preserve freedom of thought. Now it takes a union.
This article appeared in print with the headline “The Have Nots”