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Solidarity in a Time of Crisis: A Plea from Your Contingent Colleagues

Contributed by Tom Schneller on 05/06/20 

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As institutions of higher education across the country face a health and economic crisis that threatens their very existence, the precarity of contingent faculty positions has never been more fraught. This is particularly true here at Ithaca College, where early administrative signs point to a significant reduction in our union membership come fall. Phase one of the college’s cost-cutting measures appears to consist of eliminating some of the lowest-paid faculty and staff on campus.

Attempting to balance the budget on the backs of the cheapest labor on this campus is neither “creative,” “nimble,” nor “humane.” We hear from members of our union that they have already received non-reappointment letters for next year, including members on visas fearing deportation because of contract non-renewals. Members are writing to us with harrowing anxiety about being able to pay rent, heat their apartments, and feed their kids come fall when they are unemployed and potentially ineligible for unemployment insurance because of the nature of their gig-economy contracts.

Of course, we understand that the college is facing harsh economic realities, and enrollment trends were a challenge before this pandemic. Yet assuring faculty and staff that these changes were all coming anyway, in accordance with the administration’s “Ithaca Forever” strategic plan, or masking these realities with terms like “workforce reduction,” “business needs,” and “bold movement,” does nothing to instill a sense of community at a time when we’re all feeling isolated and detached. In fact, it is an entirely predictable corporate response—one that only serves to accelerate the widening gap between secure and precarious academics, between town and gown, and between the burgeoning administrative ranks and the communities that they’ve been hired to serve.

 The policies already enacted in the first wave of austerity measures—cancellation of sabbaticals, forced decreases in reassigned time, a possible increase in teaching loads for our tenured colleagues—alone will surely eviscerate our contingent ranks. Any increase in workload for “continuing” faculty, if their salary remains the same, is a job loss for one of our members. There is no enrollment, no “need” in this equation; it is pure exploitation of the situation for a bottom line. As usual, it is up to us - to come together, to demand humane treatment, and to counter the corporate forces that would deny it.

 We have been heartened by the support of our tenured and tenure-track colleagues across the country who recognize the inequity crippling academia, and who are standing up to their own institutions as administrations attempt to use this pandemic crisis as an opportunity to further exploit contingent labor. Right now, a “Covid-19: Statement of Academic Solidarity” is circling the country. Prominent scholars across all fields and disciplines have signed on to boycott doing readings, lectures, workshops, or other appearances at institutions who fail to support contingent faculty and graduate student workers during this unprecedented disaster. Among the hundreds of signatories (a list growing by the hour) are such luminaries as Zadie Smith, Yiyun Li, Donna Harraway, Naomi Klein, and Harold E. Varmus. If Ithaca College continues with the current measures outlined thus far in all-faculty and staff meetings, they will soon find themselves on this list.

 Therefore, we urge the Senior Leadership Team, the Deans, and the Associate Deans to actually be “creative” and “humane” in your policies and decisions moving forward. We thank you for your tireless work at a time when you are also navigating the fear and anxiety induced by this crisis, but we also ask that you tangibly recognize that this pandemic is not impacting IC community members equitably. Pain is not being dispersed across our campus community and transparency is not achieved by top-down, carefully scripted and censored webinars. Whenever someone asks how the SLT plans to support contingent faculty, administrators defensively reply by defining the word contingency - as though IC had not been relying on more or less the same pool of "contingent" professors for years (the average length of service for part-time professors at IC is 7 years). Simply denying that these are layoffs is not going to cut it.

 Here are some immediate actions the administration (and larger community) can take to help live up to this institution’s purported values:

  • Honor multi-year contracts for contingent faculty as you have promised to do for our NTEN and TT colleagues. Keep those faculty members employed at a time when pay/benefits have never been more vital. We will be fighting, on a case-by-case basis, to make sure that the college honors these contracts or that they justify breaking them in specific documentable terms.
  • If, due to unmitigable conditions, contingent faculty must be let go, supply a letter that explicitly states that these non-renewals are caused by the Covid-19 crisis. This may make it easier for our members to apply for and receive UI to cover basic living expenses.
  • Don’t contest UI claims by contingent employees.
  • Grant library “affiliate” cards for contingent faculty not rehired so that they might continue their research and retain a connection to the campus community.
  • To Department Chairs and Deans: Grant “Leaves of Absence” to all contingent faculty laid off /not rehired so that members can retain seniority and help ensure future employment.
  • To our Tenured/TT Colleagues and our NTEN Colleagues with the means to do so: Consider refusing summer overload credits. Pressure your department to privilege the most vulnerable faculty for these overages so that those who find themselves jobless in the fall might have a final few paychecks before being laid off in August.
  • Finally, reach out to your contingent colleagues and mentors. Mutual aid and honest connection has never been more vital or needed. There will be a lot of empty offices marking their absence once we do return to campus.

In Solidarity –

The Contingent Faculty Union Leadership Committee

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