Macalester won’t stay neutral in faculty union vote

Macalester sophomore Julia Gay leads a rally during Contingent Faculty Appreciation Week on campus.

Macalester sophomore Julia Gay leads a rally during Contingent Faculty Appreciation Week on campus.

Despite public appeals from students, instructors and U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison to take a neutral stance, Macalester College administrators last week announced their opposition to efforts by contingent faculty members to organize a union.

Macalester President Brian Rosenberg and Provost Kathy Murray revealed their opposition in a memo sent May 2 to the school’s tenured and tenure-track faculty members, who are not a part of the organizing drive. Macalester’s student newspaper, The Mac Weekly, obtained a copy of the memo.

Although respectful in tone, the memo takes a clear stance against the union, arguing that organizing “is not the right direction for any of our faculty members, will not strengthen our institution or our governance structure, will not help the faculty who are directly involved, and will not assist our students in any way.”

Rosenberg and Murray also declared their intent to tell contingent faculty members “why the College is opposed to this effort” before they vote on whether to join Local 284 of the Service Employees International Union. The vote is likely to take place in June.

[Sign a petition calling on Macalester not to use financial resources to fight its contingent faculty members’ union drive.]

U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison urges Macalester to remain neutral during contingent faculty's organizing drive.

U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison urges Macalester to remain neutral during contingent faculty’s organizing drive.

In forgoing neutrality, the administrators turned a blind eye to a sizable demonstration on campus last month. The culmination of a student-organized “Contingent Faculty Appreciation Week,” the rally drew students, faculty members and community leaders who showed their support for the organizing drive – and voiced their opposition to interference from the administration.

“It would be unfitting for this school to interfere with a union drive,” Rep. Ellison warned administrators during a speech at the rally. “It would lower this institution that has given so much to the world if you took any position other than neutrality.”

The 5th District Congressman, who taught a course on civil rights and liberties at Macalester 20 years ago, praised contingent faculty members at Macalester and adjunct undergraduate instructors at nearby Hamline University, who also have petitioned the National Labor Relations Board to conduct a union election, for having the courage to “step out and say we are going to organize a union,” acknowledging the decision can be “a little scary.”

Feeling invisible

Contingent faculty members at the rally said they approached forming a union as a proven method of achieving greater job security, more professional development opportunities, higher pay and more reliable benefits. And like any group of workers looking to organize, they want a voice in decisions that affect their working conditions.

“Contingent faculty often just feel invisible,” said Kathryn Pratt, a former contingent faculty member who now works for the school’s Institute for Global Citizenship. “Contingent faculty want to be allies and collaborators in decision-making processes and not feel like they are on the margins of decision-making processes.”

Better working conditions for contingent faculty, visiting assistant professor Brendan Miller added, will increase stability inside the classroom – and increase instructors’ availability to students outside the classroom. Faculty members are paid substantially less per course if they do not teach a full course load, forcing many to pick up courses at campuses across the metro. That makes it especially difficult to work with students outside of class hours, Miller said.

Eric Otremba, a visiting professor of history at Macalester, thanks students for organizing Contingent Faculty Awareness Week.

Eric Otremba, a visiting professor of history at Macalester, thanks students for organizing Contingent Faculty Awareness Week.

Miller, who teaches physics and astronomy at Macalester, pointed to a list on the school’s website of key reasons students should choose to enroll, including a strong commitment to teaching, low student-to-faculty ratios and opportunities for interaction between faculty and students.

“Contingent faculty are essential to Macalester delivering on this core mission,” Miller said. “We share and we embody Macalester’s strong commitment to teaching.”

Student body supportive

Still, contingent faculty members are treated differently than their tenured and tenure-track colleagues – a fact that initially surprised sophomore Kathy Paral, one of the organizers behind Contingent Faculty Appreciation Week.

“In the classroom there is no difference,” Paral said. “Contingent faculty do as much work and are just as passionate as any other faculty member. My education at Macalester would be hard to imagine without them.”

Junior Eli Liebman said the organizing drive “affects every student here.”

“If the contingent faculty have a union, then they have a collective voice, they can make decisions as a group and have a little more power,” Liebman said. “They probably would be compensated more and maybe be more willing to do more work outside their contracts. If you do that now and you’re an adjunct professor, you do that out of the goodness of your heart.”

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