Tokar: Part-time faculty at UVM seeking justice

Editor’s note: This op-ed is by Brian Tokar, a part-time lecturer in environmental studies in UVM’s Environmental Program and an elected member of the Executive Council of the faculty union, United Academics.

Recent weeks have seen an unusual level of coverage in the national press about the plight of part-time workers in today’s economy. All across the country, people are working shorter, less-predictable hours and are lacking the basic benefits and job security that are the anchors of a modern economy. Retail and food processing workers, two significant job categories in Vermont, are among those who are most affected.

One of the last places many people would expect to find such levels of work insecurity is at our state university. University professors are often seen as holding some of the most prestigious and secure job appointments. But like most large universities across the country, UVM relies heavily on part-time, so-called “adjunct” faculty to teach courses that our students rely on, and that are essential to the university’s offerings in many key areas of study. As recently reported in the Burlington Free Press, UVM’s part-time faculty have reached the point of impasse in our negotiations for another three-year union contract, meaning that the next round of talks in late November will rely upon the assistance of a federal mediator.

We value our close ties to our students and colleagues as much as other faculty members, and provide the backbone of the university’s educational offerings in fields as diverse as environmental studies, business administration, education, and community development.

Who are the part-time faculty at UVM and why do we seek the support of the university and wider Vermont communities? Many of us are experienced professionals who first came to UVM to broaden the scope of our activities. Others are highly skilled researchers, clinicians and library faculty. Many of us have come to rely on our UVM teaching as a primary career – two thirds according to a recent survey – and nearly a quarter have taught at UVM for 10 years or more. A typical part-time lecturer teaches the equivalent of three courses per year,
but several of our part-time colleagues teach three or more courses each semester, comparable to some full-time teaching loads.

We value our close ties to our students and colleagues as much as other faculty members, and provide the backbone of the university’s educational offerings in fields as diverse as environmental studies, business administration, education, and community development. Some of us teach basic mathematics and foreign languages, while others draw upon decades of professional experience to offer classes we’ve created ourselves that are available nowhere else in the country. Some programs, such as UVM’s American Sign Language Program, are staffed entirely by part-time faculty.

Yet, like part-time employees in many other settings, we have no meaningful access to benefits nor job security. Even those who have taught consistently for 10 years or more are often hired on a semester-by-semester basis. Some, including many of our sign language instructors, teach a full-time load or much more, but are denied full-time status and benefits because they teach some courses for Continuing Education or only have single semester appointments, even though they may teach every semester. The high-deductible health plan offered to part-time faculty is so far below Vermont’s minimum standards that we tend to rely on the state’s Catamount Health Plan if we’re not eligible for health benefits through a spouse or another job. Part-time library faculty do not even get paid sick days.

A recent study by the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education (futureofhighered.org) reported that adjunct or contingent faculty – those who are hired by the class instead of through regular contracts – amount to two-thirds of university faculty nationwide, and that half of those teach part time. While students rely on us, and offer enthusiastic evaluations comparable to those for full-time professors, our course preparation time is unpaid and access to university resources is often limited. Here at UVM, our union contract protects us from one of the most egregious practices nationally, which is for faculty to be hired to teach a class with less than two weeks’ notice. But many of the grievances cited by contingent faculty across the country apply at UVM as well.

Perhaps the most consistent thread that links our situation to our colleagues across the country is the myth of administrative “flexibility.” That has been UVM’s rationale for treating Continuing Education faculty as different from everyone else and refusing extended contracts for part-timers, a benefit that exists at comparable institutions from Massachusetts and Connecticut across to California. The Future of Higher Education report summarizes their
conclusions on this topic as follows:

Our survey data suggest that campus administrations have too often reached beyond the demands of flexibility to a level of arbitrariness in hiring practices unrelated to fiscal prudence, reasonable flexibility, or any real educational purpose.

UVM gets consistently high ratings due to the quality of educational offerings and unusually high level of collaboration between faculty and students. Our experienced part-time faculty are an essential factor in sustaining the university’s high academic standing and its levels of student achievement. It’s time for part-time faculty to gain the respect and working conditions commensurate with our many contributions to the university.

A petition in support of UVM’s part-time faculty can be found here. Signatures will be submitted to the UVM board at their meeting on Nov. 8.

Comments

  1. Dave Bellini :

    UVM is a “reality” TV show. They should have hired Vince McMahon as President and Chief Promoter.

  2. Steven Farnham :

    Well written piece, Brian. Best of luck in the upcoming “federally mediated” negotiations.

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