By Tom Schneller
I am a contingent faculty member at Ithaca College who has been on the union’s bargaining committee since the beginning of the negotiation process. As someone who has been intimately involved with the negotiations, I would like to comment on the recent editorial by The Ithaca College Chronicle, “Point Counterpoint: Should students support the faculty union?” The argument presented against supporting the contingent faculty union is not only factually inaccurate, but based on a false premise.
The author claims that the union’s proposal to achieve pay parity with the lowest-paid full-time contingent faculty represents a “pie-in-the-sky” idealism incompatible with “financial practicalities.” This is nonsense. So is the hysterical claim that putting our modest and reasonable demands into practice would have “disastrous effects for students and the campus community.”
The fact is that our proposal for pay parity — based on numbers provided to us by the administration — would add between 0.3 percent and 0.5 percent to the 2016-17 budget (depending on how many part-time professors are employed by the college in a given semester). The claim that we are asking for a “multi-million dollar increase to the budget” is false. Our current proposal would require an increase of around a million dollars or less. Adjusting a $238.4 million annual operating budget by half a percent or less is not going to produce “disastrous” effects for anyone.
If the administration were to slightly restructure its spending priorities to accommodate this amount, it could be done without impacting either students or tenured faculty. To suggest otherwise is nothing but fear-mongering hyperbole — exactly the kind of “demagoguery” of which the author accuses the union.
Apart from the fact that the counterargument is inaccurate and misleading, it also reveals an extremely limited understanding of the real and serious threat posed by the exploitation of contingent labor to the future of higher education in the United States. Over 70 percent of academic faculty in the U.S. are now in precarious and underpaid contingent positions, and the number of tenure-track jobs is steadily shrinking (for statistics on this alarming trend, see the AAUP’s recent report). If this continues, academia will no longer be a viable profession in the near future. Fewer and fewer graduates will want to become professors, because obtaining a doctorate represents an enormous investment in time and money, while the chances of finding a job as anything other than a demoralized and underpaid adjunct are becoming fewer and farther between. If the university is to survive, something has to be done to shore up the crumbling foundations of the American professorate.
The unionization of contingent faculty that is taking place here at Ithaca College and across the country represents an attempt to push back against this slow-motion collapse by providing at least a modicum of financial stability and job security. It is difficult, if not impossible, to maintain a high standard of academic excellence as a university professor if the institution that employs you deliberately and systematically makes your job as hard as it possibly can by depriving you of financial stability, benefits, job security and research support, not to mention office space to meet students or mailboxes (as is the case for many contingent professors).
Like the Ithaca College administration, the author appears to be blind to this aspect of the issue, and thereby unwittingly promotes the erosion of quality education at the college. Far from being practical or fiscally responsible, a complacent commitment to business as usual is harming the long-term ability of Ithaca College to deliver on the “commitment to excellence” that is emblazoned on its seal. It is generally not a good idea to saw off the branch on which you are sitting. By the same token, it is neither “financially practical” nor ethically justifiable for the Ithaca College administration to continue its exploitation of the 40 percent of the faculty who are part-time and full-time contingent professors by balancing its budget on their backs.
If there are any students reading this who are hoping to become professors, please understand that the struggle of contingent faculty at Ithaca College is not only about us — we are also fighting for the future of academia, which we have entered willingly because we love and value knowledge, and consider teaching a noble profession. That profession is under existential threat right now across the country, and needs to be defended by anyone who cares for it — faculty, students and administrators. Contrary to the complacent and cynical counterargument in this debate, there are no “inevitable forces” that compel us to bow to the false idol of corporatization and the cult of the market. We do not have to submit to the neoliberal ideology that turns everything and everyone into a disposable commodity, and in the process corrodes the very foundations of our society. These forces are inevitable only if we fail to resist an unsustainable status quo, if we listen to those who tell us to give in and give up. By doing so, we would betray not only the future of this institution, but that of higher education as a whole.