Students to College: Our Professors Shouldn’t Be on Welfare

Activists at Ithaca College want the upstate New York school to offer faculty a living wage and fair contracts.
(Photos: Taylor Ford/Ithaca College Students for Labor Action)
Oct 27, 2016· 3 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

Call it on-campus cognitive dissonance: At a time when tuition for a bachelor’s degree has spiraled into the stratosphere and graduates struggle to repay five- and six-figure debts, students at a small, private liberal arts college in upstate New York are standing with part-time professors, demanding that the college give them a raise.

This week students at Ithaca College began circulating an online petition supporting adjunct professors in contract negotiations and calling on college administrators to give them a “living wage” and the respect that comes with it.

RELATED: Nobody Wins When Colleges Hire Too Many Part-Time Professors

“The contingent faculty of Ithaca College deserve fair compensation, job stability, and respect from the school,” reads the petition, dated Oct. 24. “Treating contingent faculty unfairly is not only harmful to them, but also to their students. We call on the Ithaca College Board of Trustees to do the right thing” and address the issues in contract negotiations.

“We support them because they’re people who deserve to be treated fairly,” Taylor Ford, president of Ithaca’s Students for Labor Action, the driving force behind the petition, said in an interview with TakePart. The professors pushing for better salaries, he said, “are people we have relationships with, and care about deeply.” Through a photo series on the student organization’s Facebook page, contingent faculty members at the school are sharing their stories with the broader public. Yet Ford notes students have skin in the game too: The quality of their education is at stake.

“For instance, the very short-term nature of this employment forces professors to be constantly applying for different jobs, in case they don’t get hired again next semester,” said Ford, a senior sociology major from Yellow Springs, Ohio, a Dayton suburb. “This extra work gets in the way of teaching responsibilities. Our contingent faculty are devoted teachers, but this is a structural impediment to them doing their jobs as well as possible.”

Ithaca College officials say negotiations are ongoing, and they are “pleased” progress is being made. “We are optimistic our next bargaining session will continue to allow us to make progress on the remaining proposals under consideration with the part-time faculty,” Nancy Pringle, Ithaca College’s senior vice president and general counsel, said in a statement to TakePart.

Nevertheless, the student involvement in contract talks at Ithaca isn’t an aberration. It comes amid a recent flurry of clashes nationwide between college administrators and the workers who keep campuses running smoothly.

Those workers—ranging from groundskeepers to part-time faculty with little to no job security—are essential to operations, yet their take-home pay is usually far less than what their employers charge in annual tuition. Students nationwide have taken action in support of those workers, helping pressure school administrators into negotiations and significant concessions.

At Harvard University, one of the world’s richest higher education institutions, officials recently settled with striking food-service workers, conceding on pay raise and medical care issues. It was the first strike at Harvard in decades; despite problems in dining halls, including substandard food and dirty dishes, students walked picket lines around campus in solidarity.

At West Chester University in Pennsylvania, students walked out of dorms and joined a faculty strike over pay and health care—the first job action in 33 years. The state university system resolved the strike this week.

Last year, students across the nation walked out of class, protesting tuition hikes but also demanding a wage hike for campus employees, including maintenance workers and office clerks.

“I think what you’re seeing is a squeeze all around the country in higher education,” said Kenneth Mash, a college professor and president of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties, the union representing faculty and coaches at the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education’s 14 universities.

The strikes and pressure are “an attempt to fight off a corporate mentality, one that focuses on exploiting labor in an attempt to balance the books,” Mash, whose organization was involved in negotiations with the state, said in an interview with TakePart. “The connecting track in all of this is, students are siding with the unions, saying they don’t want to be a part of that atmosphere.”

“I think that we’re seeing a growing consciousness among students that the employees of their schools aren’t being treated with fairness and dignity,” said Ford, who studies labor law and is the son of a labor attorney and a sociologist. “We have to see the struggles of people at our own institutions as connected to the struggles of workers more broadly. Wages that leave you receiving food stamps and Medicaid are a problem, whether they’re paid to fast-food workers or university professors.”

It’s also an issue of quality: According to the American Association of University Professors, more than 75 percent of college educators work part-time and aren’t on a tenure track—a reversal from the early 1970s. Moreover, they earn around $2,700 per course, while full-time, tenured faculty take home more than $84,000 per year.

Compared with previous generations, Mash said, the increase in part-time faculty means today’s students are getting a watered-down education—justification for joining a picket line or a walkout.

“There’s a growing awareness among students that they’re getting the short end of the stick,” Mash said. “You can’t throw anything in front of students and call it an education. They deserve the same education as students who preceded them.”