DePaul and unions clash over recent efforts to win adjunct loyalty

Adjunct professor Ilan Geva goes through the syllabus of his marketing class. Geva has been at DePaul for 10 years and is one of 1,800 adjunct faculty that teach per year, on average. (Megan Deppen / The DePaulia)
Adjunct professor Ilan Geva goes through the syllabus of his marketing class. Geva has been at DePaul for 10 years and is one of 1,800 adjunct faculty that teach per year, on average. (Megan Deppen / The DePaulia)

The university announced enhanced benefits and support for adjuncts a few weeks ago, just months after union organizers were found on campus with support for adjunct unionization growing. And in a separate but related twist, university administrators alerted faculty and staff last week of “unwelcomed union contact with faculty.”

On March 31, an email from administration alerted faculty and staff that reports of union organizers visiting adjunct faculty members both outside of the classrooms and at home “in ways that have made them uncomfortable.”

“Faculty members have also expressed concerns about their privacy, safety, and security,” the email read. “Please know that DePaul did not provide union organizers with any faculty member’s home address, class schedule or any other contact information. We do not know how union organizers acquired this information; only the union can answer that question.”

Union members from the Service Employees Intenrational Union (SEIU) did not return requests for comment.

Provost Marten denBoer said that DePaul’s open campus allows for union solicitation to take place and several faculty members have been approached by union workers. He emphasized the right for faculty to decline any solicitation.

This adds to the ongoing drama surrounding threats of union solicitation at DePaul and other universities across the country. A memo from denBoer to faculty, dated March 7, announced improvements to the adjunct experience at DePaul, which include an update to the course cancellation policy as well as the creation of a task force to measure ways to improve adjunct involvement on campus.

Geography adjunct professor Heather Smith has been teaching at DePaul since 2007, and though she has never been approached by union organizers, she only recently noticed these increased efforts by the university to improve resources for adjuncts.

“I did find it interesting that many of these changes have been put into place since the union started coming around,” Smith said. “I’ve been watching and intrigued by this and the discourse around it.

“Clearly there’s a lot of free speech and freedom to join a union,” Smith added. “At the same time, I sense the administration is leading up to this because they have a lot of adjuncts and there’s a lot at stake with adjuncts joining. I think as commentary, the improvements from administration didn’t start coming until the SEIU started recruiting adjuncts. I don’t necessarily think they’re good. I think the administration has had the right responses. I just think that there’s adequate pressure to help support adjuncts. It’s nothing the administration was doing negatively, but there just wasn’t anything they were doing before union recruiting came about.”

According to the announcement from den Boer, as of July 1, 2016 professors will receive 25 percent of their agreed-upon salary should their course be cancelled at least one month prior to the start date. Currently, adjuncts receive 10 percent if the course is cancelled between a month and a week to the start date and 20 percent if it is within a week.

According to their union contracts, Roosevelt University paid 10 to 20 percent of a course fee in the case of cancellation. Columbia College pays a flat fee of $250 and Northeastern University pays $100 for every class meeting a professor completed before the class was canceled.

DenBoer, who served as provost of Cal Poly Pomona in California before beginning at DePaul in July of last year, mentioned that despite adjuncts at his former university having a union, there were no cancellation fees. In this sense, he believes DePaul is much better than other universities.

“But I think it’s very clear that the full-time professors are given priority no matter what. I cannot say anything against it. It’s their job.” – DePaul adjunct professor Ilan Geva”

“I would venture to guess, and I emphasize that it’s a guess, that the majority of universities do not have any kind of a cancellation fee for adjuncts,” denBoer said. “So I think we’re sort of on the leading edge of that.”

Business school professor Tim Smith has taught at DePaul for 13 years and said it has consistently paid more than other universities. Though he has had some classes dropped, he said he was paid appropriately and that overall DePaul has “been good to me.”

Alternatively, Ilan Geva said the course cancellation policy has caused problems in the past.

“It’s like I never know what to expect,” Geva said. “Usually … I have to initiate a phone call to the department to ask ‘Are you counting on me for next semester?’ I never know in advance. It’s happened that classes are canceled because of a minimum number of students. Some classes were canceled a week before the semester began. I never had a class canceled at UChicago.”

Geva has been teaching at DePaul for 10 years and has taught at the University of Chicago for 15 years. He owns his own business and usually only teaches two classes per quarter.

“DePaul is a very sensitive organization. It’s not a place where I can find many faults. They’re very considerate,” Geva said. “But I think it’s very clear that the full-time professors are given priority no matter what. I cannot say anything against it. It’s their job.”

This prioritization of full-time faculty often comes down to shared governance, or how loud the adjunct voice is in governing bodies like Faculty Council.

“The (faculty) handbook is pretty clear that shared governance in terms of governance of curriculum and so on is in the hands of Faculty Council,” denBoer said. “And that is an important principle because it’s the tenure and tenure-track faculty who have the greatest responsibility for the curriculum and the academic programs that we offer.”

Though part-time professors have the opportunity to teach when full-time professors go on sabbatical or do other research, Geva said that is never done in coordination with adjunct professors.

“We are at the end of the process,” Geva said. “We either get feast or famine. I cannot plan my life around that.”

Another aspect of the provost’s plan for adjuncts involved a task force that would determine what kind of committee or structure would best give part-time faculty a voice. 

“That’s a concern that comes up in conversations with part-time faculty far more frequently than any other issue,” den Boer said. “The goals of the Task Force we’re forming is to help see how we can help engage adjunct faculty in the departments they participate in, that they’re not just coming in to teach a class and then disappear, but have some ongoing involvement.”

[Read: More on the adjunct unionization movement at DePaul]

The Task Force will include 10 part-time faculty, one from each college, two representatives appointed by Faculty Council, preferably to include the chair of the Committee on Contingent Faculty, a dean appointed by the provost and the designated associate provost. The committee’s members have been determined, but the provost declined for the time being to release their names.

Heather Smith said her full time job doesn’t allow time to attend any meetings from the department, but she said her relationship with the department has always been friendly and supportive.

“Department chairs always really supportive. I’m on the general email list,” Smith said.  “All (my department chairs) have been super supportive and available for questions over email no matter day or night. I definitely felt like part of community.”

Weighing the pros and cons of unionization at DePaul, Tim Smith said unionization wasn’t something he saw as a practical venture at DePaul. 

“Being an adjunct is not supposed to be a full-time career job … When I compare the adjunct versus full-time professional role, it’s just horrible,” Smith said. “Adjuncts can do anything they want to, which is kind of a nice. It’s a different role. It’s a different career choice with a different level of responsibilities.”

“Because I have access to a research library I was able to write a textbook,” Smith continued. “I couldn’t have done that if I wasn’t at the school with the quality of DePaul. At DePaul I was able to write that textbook because of the access to research material that DePaul provides. It changed my life. That’s what I use my adjunct role for.”

“We have such a different range of adjuncts here that I think trying to fit everyone into one straitjacket I think would really constrain what we could do for our adjuncts.” – Provost Marten denBoer”

When asked about the possibility of adjunct unionization, denBoer said it would not be straightforward.

“I think part of it is self-explanatory that if you have a third party between the university and the adjuncts, that conversation is always going to be more difficult,” denBoer said. “You’ve played games I’m sure where a message goes around a circle and it gets very disordered by the time it goes around. And if you have a third-party, unions are very good at making rules that apply to a very particular kind of worker. But, we have such a different range of adjuncts here that I think trying to fit everyone into one straitjacket I think would really constrain what we could do for our adjuncts.”

The provost also added that a permanent structure would still be necessary given the likelihood that not all adjuncts would be represented by a union. As The DePaulia reported, the SEIU has taken an approach of organizing smaller bargaining units by college within a university. This strategy worked in the formation of unions at the University of Chicago and Loyola, but left several adjuncts at each school without representation.

“This is a little speculative on my part, that even if there’s a union in place for some part-time faculty, that it’s not likely that union would represent all adjuncts,” den Boer said. “And so, we’d still want to have some mechanism in place in case those adjuncts who are not in the union would have a voice and be able to do the things we’d like this permanent structure to be able to do.” 

Moving forward, Heather Smith said, “I just think the changes that DePaul is making is a really great step in the right direction and articulating what that support looks like in one central place given that it’s such a large institution. I hope they continue to do that and having the dialogue sessions with adjuncts to really understand what the needs are.”