Part-time instructors deserve equal opportunity
Next session, the Washington Legislature should level the playing field for part-time faculty members at the state's community colleges, argues guest columnist Keith Hoeller.
Special to The Times
OUR Democratic-controlled state Legislature summarized its operating budget for the next biennium as "cuts with a conscience." This is rather surprising, since the Legislature just made some of our nation's deepest cuts to education. Worst hit were Washington's 34 community and technical colleges, victims of a 7.6 percent cut in their budget, even after raising student tuition by 7 percent a year. This legislative session might more aptly be labeled as "cuts without a conscience."
Gov. Chris Gregoire has said that "we truly have one of the best community and technical college systems to be found anywhere in the nation." Indeed, until now our two-year colleges have managed to maintain small class sizes and keep tuition low.
Yet, the colleges have done this by keeping full-time faculty members to only 3,500, while hiring 7,000 low-paid, low benefit "part-time" faculty members who have no job security from quarter to quarter. The average part-timer, who teaches half of a full-time load, is earning only $15,000 a year, while the average full-timer earns in excess of $50,000.
Successive governors and legislators have been reluctant to interfere with either the colleges' demands for "flexibility" or unions' insistence on the inviolate nature of "collective bargaining." Politicians have instead preferred to study the problem to death, ordering three "Best Practices" task forces since 1996.
And while the Legislature has increased part-time salaries by $48.5 million in the past 12 years, the disparity between part- and full-time salaries has actually increased in this period, from $115 million to $132 million per biennium. The slow progress has been due to the fact that the unions have bargained millions of dollars in incremental step raises for full-timers, but not for part-timers, and because each full-timer has been receiving cost-of-living adjustments that are three times larger than what part-timers have received.
In the next legislative session, lawmakers should at long last develop a conscience and end the hypocrisy of running a higher-education system that provides expanded job opportunities for every citizen except the professors who work in them.
They should begin by passing legislation allowing adjuncts to have their own bargaining units separate from the tenured faculty who serve as their immediate supervisors. Unlike many other states that forbid mixed units, our state law actually forces adjuncts into the full-timers' unions.
The Legislature needs to pass the "Adjunct Bill of Rights," which would provide annual contracts to adjuncts who have taught half-time for at least three years.
Politicians should pass an equal-pay-for-equal-work act which would pay adjuncts 100 percent of a full-time teaching load, prorated for the number of courses they teach. It also means eliminating the artificial caps the unions have negotiated that prevent adjuncts from teaching full-time at any one college.
Adjuncts deserve to be rewarded for their experience and they should receive at least 50 percent of all money intended for incremental step raises. As long as the full-timers receive more, the increments will continue to drive up the disparity between part- and full-timers.
Perhaps nothing better underscores the treatment of our adjunct professors than the colleges' practice of routinely challenging their unemployment applications when they are laid off. While unemployment benefits have been extended in these hard times, community colleges are still arguing that unemployed adjuncts are simply on term breaks and have "reasonable assurance" of returning to work once the break is over. They have thus successfully denied unemployment compensation to their adjuncts and diverted this money. The Legislature should pass a bill mandating that any unused unemployment money be returned to the state's general fund.
Ultimately, our legislators should abolish the current system of faculty apartheid, and treat all faculty equally, as is currently done in the Vancouver, B.C., community-college system.Keith Hoeller is chairman of the Adjunct Faculty Committee of the Washington state chapter of the American Association of University Professors.
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
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