When Will We Learn?

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Today, at InsideHigherEd.com, and on the AFT Face Talk blog, we have the makings of a bona fide tizzy. Ms. Margaret West lost her job as a part-time faculty member after 21 years of employment at Edmonds Community College in Washington State. Take a deep breath, and let’s unbunch our collective bloomers for a moment.

First of all, why did AFT leaders choose to be outraged about Margaret West? Was it because she is a union member with AFT Washington? AFT Washington represents about 1,500 faculty who hold part-time and quarter-time appointments. Many of them lost their jobs at the end of the semester. So why the outrage on behalf of Margaret West, and not on behalf of all of her fellow colleagues at Edmonds Community College who were let go, or for that matter, all of the other part-time faculty in Washington State who were let go?

Let me tell you a bit about Margaret West. She serves on the AFT Washington Committee on Contingent Faculty as a representative from her college. She taught English courses part-time, and was one of the lucky part-time faculty at Edmonds Community College who worked under “assurance of employment.” Under the terms of the union’s contract, the college was obligated to offer this kind of employment to only ten of the 320 part-time faculty employed by the college in a single year. Margaret West was one of those ten. The other 310 part-time faculty at Edmonds Community College were employed on a part-time quarterly basis; they were at will employees.

Last Fall, Keith Hoeller and his colleagues worked with a Washington State legislator to craft a piece of legislation that would have guaranteed all 10,000 part-time faculty in Washington State multi-semester contracts, such as the one Margaret West had for many years. Not a single member of the AFT Washington Committee on Contingent Faculty, including Margaret West, testified on behalf of Hoeller’s bill.

The outrage the AFT national Higher Education Group, through the Face Talk blog, is trying to whip up on behalf of Margaret West’s “plight” is disingenuous, at best. Here’s why. Her employer was able to dismiss her because her employer has a contract bargained by the AFT Edmonds union leaders that did not protect the jobs of the part-time faculty members in the local. After decades, at Edmonds Community College, the majority of the 320 part-time faculty are still contractually disposable. AFT Washington’s Committee on Contingent Faculty, not to mention the state leadership, walked away from an opportunity to support legislation which would have protected Margaret West’s job, as well as the jobs of 10,000 other part-time faculty. Finally, in 2001, AFT Washington worked to have a law passed that meant part-time faculty could collect unemployment insurance between semesters, but which also made the following language law:

“In the case of community and technical colleges assigned the standard industrial classification code 8222 or the North American industry classification system code 611210*, for services performed in a principal administrative, research, or instructional capacity, a person is presumed not to have reasonable assurance under an offer that is conditioned on enrollment, funding, or program changes.” In other words, unless included in the language of a union local’s contract, every part-time faculty member in Washington State on that day in 2001 lost any hope of having reasonable assurance of continued employment.

Margaret West will be able to collect unemployment thanks to her union, but in the 20 years it has represented her, her union never negotiated to protect her job so that she wouldn’t have to rely on unemployment! Now, the AFT national office wants to assign all of the blame to the employer for Margaret West’s lost teaching position. Worse still, we are supposed to jump to the conclusion that she was let go, because she was running for the office of union president. Again, thanks to West’s own weak union contract, as it applies to the part-time faculty, her employer does not have to explain or justify the reasons for refusing to renew her yearly appointment.

To be sure, losing one’s job is traumatic, and no one deserves to be treated disrespectfully by one’s employer. However, had Margaret West read her contract she would have understood that every clause which made it easy to dismiss a part-time faculty member—even the ten like her whom university officials were obligated to offer assurances of employment—were not being represented with equal vigor by the union that took their money for 20 years, and never bargained to protect their jobs.

If anything, Margaret West’s story is a morality tale.

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6 Comments

  1. From 1981-2008 I was an adjunct faculty member at several local community colleges and, for nearly 18 years, at the University of Washington. As previous writers indicated, adjuncts serve very much at the pleasure of our department chairs and can be fired for any reason, or no reason.

    In May of 2006, I signed on as the named plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit against the UW for failure to implement a mandated raise for adjuncts. We also asked for back pay.

    Previously, the University’s full-time tenure-track faculty had filed a class-action lawsuit against the UW for the same reason. They recovered over $10 million. In order to settle the cast quickly, the full-timers followed their attorneys’ advice to cut the part-timers out of the class. In my experience, unions representing college teachers care only about the interests of the full-timers. The unions’ treatment of part-timers ranges from negligence to outright hostility.

    After I filed suit, my days teaching at the Business School were numbered. I finally left the Business School in December of 2007, after enduring covert harassment and pressure of the kind that made
    filing complaints difficult.

    Our lawsuit was successful. We settled for several million dollars. After attorneys fees were paid, each adjunct faculty member got an increase in pay and a modest amount of back pay.

    I had been member of the low caste in the academic apartheid system since 1981. When I first arrived at the UW in the early 1990s, and for many years thereafter, our academic mailboxes were segregated, with separate alphabets for full-timers and adjuncts.
    We were reminded everyday that we were second-class citizens. Even so, I was astonished at how nasty and vindictive administrators could be in jettisoning troublemakers.

    I propose that the Legislature abolish academic tenure and give every college and university instructor a 2-3 year renewable teaching contract. The Legislature should create two tracks, one primarily for research and the other primarily for instruction.

    Instructors would retain their positions so long as their performance (based on objective standards agreed upon by faculty and administration) was satisfactory. All instructors, whether part-time or full-time, would be paid according to the same scale. This reform would do away with mediocrity and encourage better teaching, thereby better serving students. It would stretch limited state resources for education. This system would provide equal pay for the same work and provide fairness for faculty in both hiring and retention.

    Only parents and federal judges have guaranteed life-time jobs. Why should faculty have that assurance?

  2. As a colleague of Ms. West at Edmonds Community College, I challenge the comment that “West has long been known as a weak teacher.” In fact, she has received consistently high student evaluations, has been offered a number of “annual assurance” contracts over the years, and the deans under which she worked had never indicated to her any dissatisfaction with her performance. The big piece of information missing here is that West was candidate for president of the local AFT union. She was running for this position unopposed (and indeed won the election at week after being informed she would not be rehired). The perception among most part time faculty (of which I am one) was that this was an attempt at “union busting” by the admin. And perhaps the most tragic aspect of this is that the chaos and conflict that has erupted is destroying the morale of faculty, both full time and part time, on our campus.

  3. As a colleague of Ms. West at Edmonds Community College, I challenge the comment that “West has long been known as a weak teacher.” In fact, she has received consistently high student evaluations, has been offered a number of “annual assurance” contracts over the years, and the deans under which she worked had never indicated to her any dissatisfaction with her performance. The big piece of information missing here is that West was candidate for president of the local AFT union. She was running for this position unopposed (and indeed won the election at week after being informed she would not be rehired). The perception among most part time faculty (of which I am one) was that this was an attempt at “union busting” by the admin. And perhaps the most tragic aspect of this is that the chaos and conflict that has erupted is destroying the morale of faculty, both full time and part time, on our campus.

  4. Anonymous,

    I appreciate your comments.

    I actually looked up Margaret West on those sites where students rate their profs. She didn’t show up on any of them. I was curious as to whether she was, perhaps, a weak teacher. If she was, did she become one overnight after 20 years? If she was all along, why the heck did it take 20 years to get around to getting rid of her (a very scary notion)?

    I read the contract, and found that the only procedure for letting lecturers working under those “assurance” contracts was non-renewal. No explanation needed.

    You are absolutely right that employees shouldn’t need a contract to be treated fairly; that’s why we have federal employment laws and a capitalist system, right? Sometimes, those things just don’t work. The union contract, after 20 years, clearly favors FT faculty. AFT leaders in Washington should be upset about THAT, don’t you think?

  5. Unfortunately, this writer’s assumptions include errors. It is certainly NOT, for example, easy or even likely, that part-time faculty can obtain unemployment benefits in Washington. As a long time community college adjunct I have always been denied unemployment between quarters because the schools I work for assure the Employment Development Div. that I do indeed have classes in the upcoming quarter. I have explained to the EDD that these classes are not guaranteed, and that we do not even receive the quarterly contract until after the first week of the quarter. Most of the adjuncts I know are not able to collect unemployment for the same reason. The few who have been able to collect did so by repeatedly appealing initial decisions of rejection. A friend of mine was awarded unemployment, received $1,500, and then was ordered to repay the money because the EDD then reversed its decision, finding that she did have a promise of employment in the upcoming quarter. Adjuncts are caught in between: according to the state EDD we aren’t eligible because we customarily receive classes each quarter, but the schools are under no obligation to fulfill offers of employment. Many of us lose classes during the first week of the quarter without notice if a full timer’s class doesn’t fill and we are bumped to fulfill a the school’s contractual obligation with full timers. Everyone at Edmonds, by the way, including Margaret, has always understood and spoken out against our lack of guaranteed employment. No one is under the illusion that we are guaranteed anything. The reason Margaret’s case is so upsetting is not that it is illegal or goes against any rules, but that it lacks humanity and speaks to the lack of common business sense of Edcc. Imagine you work somewhere where a person is told they are no longer wanted after 21 years and no reason is given to that person. Wouldn’t you worry more about your own situation at that place of enrollment? What do you think this does to the morale of fellow employees? Fearful, anxiety ridden and underpaid instructors certainly do not provide the best learning environment for students. The AFT is upset not because the school was wrong in dismissing Margaret, but because the lack of respect with which she was treated is indicative of the larger, nationwide problem of schools prioritizing profit and wringing the most value they can get out of part-time faculty, often with little regard for them as people. Really, should one need a union contract to be treat with common human deceny? It’s a sad day in America if a request for respect has to be put in writing.

  6. Well-written and reasoned, but still lacking in information. Three pieces that most outsiders can’t know: 1) Due to a weak contract and other reasons, EdCC has not had a clear policy of evaluating PT faculty in their teaching roles, so there were/are no formal procedures in place for letting PT faculty go; 2) West has long been known as a weak teacher, and at least one former dean was persuaded by West’s teaching colleagues not to let her go, not because it was best for students; 3)the Humanities and Social Sciences division in which West teaches has gone through three deans in the last ten years; the current dean has only been at EdCC less than a year.

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