Bargaining for Justice: Hamline … and Hope

Bargaining for Justice: Hamline … and Hope
David R. Weiss

On Wednesday, January 7, I had the opportunity to address the Hamline University administration negotiating team as part of our “exploratory dialogue” that will be a prelude to actual bargaining over compensation and benefits for adjunct faculty. These were my words:

I need to say two things at the start:

FIRST – Even though I wouldn’t say I’ve become “chums” with any of you on the other side of the table, I will say that I’ve come to regard you much more as colleagues than as nameless and faceless adversaries. I’m genuinely glad when I see you around campus and can exchange a greeting. So beyond simply bargaining in good faith, I can say that I hold a great deal of good will toward each of you.

SECOND – in the midst of this good will, my job today is to make you squirm. My strong conviction is that Hamline’s treatment of adjunct faculty has been both unjust and out of line with Hamline’s mission, values, and vision. This isn’t exactly your individual or collective faults, but you’re the folks that the administration has put in this room, and so it falls to you to hear what it falls to me to say.

I want to begin with an image I often invoke at the start of my Introduction to Religion class: the animated kids’ film, Madagascar. Some of you may have seen it thanks to your children or grandchildren. It’s basically a comedy-adventure movie with talking animals featuring in particular the antics of a talking lion, giraffe, hippo, and zebra, who, through a series of misadventures find themselves relocated from a city zoo to the island of Madagascar. The giraffe, hippo, and zebra, all herbivores, find Madagascar a relative buffet of edible delights. But the lion, whose food has always arrived in steak form, suddenly begins looking at his friends … and seeing meat.

Fast forward to the end of the movie and the crisis is resolved when the animals discover that the lion can survive by eating fish. And the fish in Madagascar, quite unlike those in Finding Nemo, don’t talk. Lacking any lines (they’re the only animals in the entire film that aren’t personified with speech) they never become full characters, which leaves them, quite literally, fair game for resolving this crisis. The point I make in my religion class is that whenever a category of people—women, persons of other faith traditions, persons of color, LGBT persons—lack a voice in a community, they easily become expendable in times of crisis and the larger community barely notices. And until very recently at Hamline, adjunct faculty have been like those fish: without a voice, our fortunes rendered expendable.

But the health of the Hamline community as a whole—both at the level of our mission, values, and vision and also at the level of our culture as an academic community of liberal education—hinges not on those in the administration taking better care of us, but on the creation of conditions under which our voices are heard and honored with as much respect by the administration as you believe they should be heard and honored by our students in the classroom. Our claiming our voice through a union may be a bureaucratic nightmare and an economic inconvenience to you, but it is an essential step in Hamline becoming the academic community it aspires to be.

The Hamline that is “marketed” to prospective students is the Hamline of our mission, values, and vision. It is a Hamline that adjunct faculty play an essential role in helping achieve—and a Hamline in which adjunct faculty live a sort of apartheid existence.

We are absolutely vital in your ability to deliver what you promise to students: a top-notch education in which they are taught by some of the best teachers available; and equipped to both lead and serve in ways inspired by an ethic of social justice. You could not do that without us, and yet we operate in a system that names us among the best teachers available when selling Hamline to students … then values us as the cheapest minds money can buy on the open market when payday arrives. We find ourselves aiming to instill in our students that ethic of social justice so prized by Hamline, while knowing that this very ethic does not shape our well-being.

Our treatment by Hamline has been dictated primarily by market forces that go unmentioned in our mission, values, and vision—because while such forces may be realities that we need to contend with, they do not deserve the privilege of being ideals that guide us—except that with respect to adjunct faculty they do.

Obviously, Hamline’s mission, values, and vision weren’t written with only adjunct faculty in mind, but unless you want to make the case that Hamline never intended for these ideals to encompass those of us who labor alongside you to help our students succeed, there are places in these ideals where the gap between ideal and reality has reached a breaking point:

  1. Our mission commits us to creating a “community of learners” and this phrase doesn’t refer just to students, but to all members of the community who assist in shaping the students we serve. So we, who are adjunct faculty, are part of the diverse and collaborative community of learners. We inhabit Hamline’s mission, too.
  1. Our values call for “personal and collective effort” that aims to “make a lasting difference in the world”—a difference we specify as “aspiring to the highest standards for:” [among other things] … “An individual and community ethic of social justice, civic responsibility, and inclusive leadership and service.
  1. Finally, our vision is that others will recognize us as being “actively inclusive,” “locally engaged,” and “invested in the personal and professional growth of persons.” Well, that’s pretty much our agenda as unionized faculty.

Unfortunately these aspects of Hamline’s mission, values, and vision have simply not been true with respect to our adjunct faculty for quite some time now. But the good news—as I suggested back on May 13 when we first met with several of you in the provost’s conference room—is that even this moment of cognitive dissonance between our University’s aspirations and its present realities is an opportunity to imagine new ways of being a university. In fact, on the same web page where Hamline declares its mission, values, and value, the University also declares:

Hamline University’s mission statement, values, and vision are not something that exist in words alone.

You can find them in the values that guide our education, in the way our community comes together, and in our professors, leaders, staff, alumni, and students’ hearts.

They are not static. Rather, they are continually active, guiding us in what we do, whether it is creating new programs, erecting new buildings, or charting a course into our next 150 years.

We’re here today precisely to put that mission, values, and vision to work in charting a new course as we move—together—into Hamline’s next 150 years.

So let me offer a few concrete examples of the ideals and realities that we need to wrestle with. I’m going to talk about myself, not because I’m unique, but because it seems only fair to use myself as the example I know best. Each adjunct faculty has their story, their own experience. And, at least some of them would be in stark contrast to mine. But we won our union with better than a 75% vote because my experience is more representative than not.

I am a fully invested member of the Hamline community. My immediate colleagues in Religion would consider me a minor fixture in the department over the past decade. I was hired by Tim Polk to teach my first class in Fall 2004. I’ve taught successively under Tim, Deanna Thompson, and now Mark Berkson as department chairs.

Like many adjuncts, I’ve juggled teaching assignments across multiple campuses over the years. I’ve taught at Augsburg and St. Kate’s besides here. Over the eleven years I’ve been an adjunct instructor, I’ve taught 34 courses for those three schools. When I teach at Hamline I typically have 50-55 students in a class. I have their names memorized by the second or third day of class so I can call on them by name. Teaching is a significant part of my work time, a significant part of my income, and a significant aspect of my vocation.

Beyond my teaching, I’ve been an active in Hamline’s academic community. I’ve attended Religion department colloquia and end of the year gatherings when possible. I’ve attended the Mahle “progressive theology” lecture several times, and have participated in faculty-staff book groups. I encourage my students to join in Hamline’s intellectual life, regularly identifying campus events worth their time and offering a gentle incentive to attend them.

Over the past three years I’ve played the lead role in four campus events:

  • In August 2012 I got funding from the Religion Department, the Wesley Center, the Hedgeman Center, and ten local churches to bring a nationally regarded LGBT performance artist to Sundin Music Hall.
  • In October 2013 I got funding from the Religion Department, the Wesley Center, the Social Justice Program, the Sociology Department, and the Stonewall Alliance of the Law School to host a speaker on LGBT rights from Uganda.
  • And in March 2014, I pulled together funding from the Religion Department, the Wesley Center, the Hedgeman Center, the Social Justice Program, the Sociology Department, the Hamline African Student Association, Stonewall Alliance, the Law School Library, the Law School’s American Constitutional Society and the Hamline Public Interest Law Community to sponsor a screening of an award-winning film about LGBT persons in Uganda and a talk by one of the LGBT activists featured in the film in Sundin Music Hall.

I was the catalyst for these events because I’m passionate about broadening our worldviews, and because I believe that campuses like Hamline are precisely places that life-changing learning can happen, and because over a decade of being connected to Hamline, albeit only as an adjunct instructor, I’ve been eager to foster connections that help Hamline be the type of learning community that our mission, values, and vision speak of.

None of that work – and it represents hours upon hours upon hours … of work – none of it is covered by my teaching salary. But it reflects my investment in Hamline’s community. And it is part of what bewilders me about Hamline’s reluctance to invest equally in me or in my adjunct colleagues who make myriad similarly unsung contributions to our common life as an academic community. The bottom line is that adjunct faculty help make Hamline a vibrant community. And while we have been – of late, at least – pretty consistently praised for our contributions to Hamline, for the past decade or more we have been singularly neglected with anything other than words.

From 2005 to 2014, for ten consecutive years, my pay as an adjunct at Hamline has remained absolutely flat. $4000. No merit increase. No recognition of experience gained during that time. No acknowledgement of contributions to the Hamline community. And no cost of living adjustment. During that same decade we know that Hamline managed to raise the President’s salary from $250,000 all the way to the half-million mark. But never found a penny to increase pay for the majority of adjunct faculty. That’s what happens when you’re fish, without a voice.

We know that, overall, fulltime faculty have seen their salaries remain relatively flat. That may be true of most Hamline employees, but seems not to have been the case with Hamline’s highest tier employees. And here’s the rub – both as a matter of principle and a matter of practicality – there is simply no way to justify – under a professed commitment to an ethic of social justice – the consistent increase of the highest salaries alongside the consistent neglect of the lowest salaries.

I make less than $20,000/year. I don’t complain about that, because almost everything I do rather directly makes the world a better place. I’m not in this (teaching or otherwise) to get rich. But, just like all of you, I work long hours. And at $20,000/year, when I earn $4000 to teach a class, every penny of that goes into my immediate living expenses. It buys groceries; it pays the utilities; it goes toward the mortgage, the student loan (and my children’s student loans).

And when that $4000 stays absolutely flat over a decade, it means that today it buys at least 20% LESS groceries. It means that the vast majority of my colleagues and I – living on budgets with far less wiggle room than any of you – have been expected to take functional pay cuts year after year after year, while continuing to inspire our students to aim for an ethic of social justice that our university touts but does not apply in our direction.

I don’t doubt that some of you, and that many of our fulltime faculty colleagues, have needed to adjust spending priorities over the past decade. But what I am saying as starkly as possible is that for those of us at the bottom of the pay scale, those adjustments are not made in discretionary spending. They’re made in day-to-day living expenses. At the grocery store. I’d challenge each of you, for the next month or two, every time you unpack the groceries in your home, ask yourself which 20% you would choose to do without. Because those of the type of choices we’ve had to make for the past decade now.

There are, without question, in our bargaining unit a handful of professionals for whom the adjunct teaching salary at Hamline is simply a footnote in a six-figure income from other sources. But those persons are the rare exception. For most of us, the pay we make as adjunct faculty IS the major source of our income … or IS the primary place we utilize the skills we gained through advanced degrees. And at present, both the level of our pay and it’s stagnation are at dire odds with the ideals of Hamline, with the recognition due the expertise we have, and with the practical demands of our lives.

When we present our pay proposal I hope you can recognize that we are not asking for the moon. But we will be asking for real recognition of our training and our teaching, real recognition of our value in the vibrancy of Hamline’s community, and real recognition of the day-to-day costs that our salaries need to cover. And – we will be asking for Hamline to make good on its pledge that the mission, values, and vision of this university exist in something deeper than words.

Almost done.

We will also ask for participation in Hamline’s retirement plan. I hope I’ve said enough to suggest why we might deserve that. Let me just put a couple figures on why we NEED that.

After two years of teaching as a graduate student, seven years of full-time college employment (with benefits), and eleven years of teaching as an adjunct (without benefits) … sometime in 2014 – just in the last twelve months – my retirement savings in my TIAA-CREF account, now at $38,329 finally surpassed the outstanding balance on my student loans, now shrunk to $33,940.

Think about that. I’m in higher education, teaching at the college level, because I have the training, the skill, and the passion to do so. I’m 55 years old, and after twenty years of teaching … I have $38,000 set aside for my retirement. Is it fair to think that an active commitment to an ethic of social justice might include Hamline making a commitment to the retirement of those of us who help make Hamline a success even as adjunct faculty? I hope so.

Adjunct faculty, of course, have no insurance coverage through Hamline. Still, our day-to-day presence in the classroom to teach depends on our health no less than does your day-to-day presence in your jobs. And it is sometimes no less challenging.

In the fall of 2012, for eight weeks, I taught Introduction to Religion to 50 students through a long bout with kidney stones. Originally misdiagnosed as a UTI, then as an inflamed prostate, on 3 or 4 occasions I taught in discomfort so severe that I couldn’t stand in class, so I sat on a stool to teach. One day I cancelled class altogether. But there are no sick days allotted for adjuncts. There is no medical leave. And this was my class; these were my students. So I taught through the pain. It’s not really a big deal – although at the time it was excruciating. And, given that I was making the same $4000 per course that I’d been making for the previous eight years, it was perhaps a remarkable display of commitment to my craft.

It is, moreover, a reminder that my ability to help Hamline succeed in its mission is as fragile as yours. And can be just as costly. The first week of December 2012, right before finals, I needed surgery to remove two kidney stones, one of which had entirely blocked my right kidney. My total bill for that half-day out-patient surgery at United Hospital was $21,690.94.

$21,690.94. The City of Minneapolis, where my wife works, covered almost all of it, as I was fortunate to have insurance coverage through her. Not every adjunct is so fortunate. But when Hamline reaps the benefit of my teaching – even on days that my health is far from ideal – is it fair to think that an active commitment to an ethic of social justice might include Hamline making a contribution to the health care costs of those of us who help make Hamline a success even as adjunct faculty? I hope so.

In conclusion, my story is uniquely mine, but among my adjunct colleagues, my training and skill is hardly unique, my commitment and giftedness is hardly unique, my contribution to Hamline’s success is hardly unique. And my hunger for a Hamline that adopts policies toward adjunct faculty that echo the ideals it aspires to, that hunger is far from unique.

But please hear me, because I am full of HOPE. We have the opportunity, here in this room, to imagine for Hamline a future that can be both just and sustainable for all of us. Offering us pay that is fair and benefits that respect the realities of our lives is not a threat to Hamline’s mission of education – in fact, it is fundamental to its achievement.

*          *          *

3 thoughts on “Bargaining for Justice: Hamline … and Hope

  1. Well said David, you deserve to have a voice in Hamline because you and others like you have earned it.. I hope some well paid administrators see the justice of your passionate work for students and the University and our world. My daughter is adjunct at Cal State San Bernardino but she does have medical and retirement benefits .

  2. Pingback: Union Update: Getting to ZERO. | To the Tune of a Welcoming God

  3. Pingback: Regarding the Hamline Adjunct Faculty Union | To the Tune of a Welcoming God

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