University faculty should unionize amid COVID-19

TABOR reform isn’t enough. Educators need advocates.

Outside the University Memorial Center at University of Colorado Boulder. (colorado.edu)

I love my job as a university lecturer — I just wish I got paid more than $22,500 per year to do it.

As the school year starts, coronavirus is quickly escalating classroom challenges. Teachers who previously worried about lack of pay, no textbooks and too-large class sizes now also face unfamiliar digital infrastructures and health scares. With billion-dollar state budget shortfalls, educators are bracing for losses. Yet one distinct difference among state educators is the political power harnessed by the teachers’ unions in primary education. 

Traditionally, while K-12 has a rich history of union membership, higher education has almost none. Having relied on tenure-track positions, college instructors largely ignored collective efforts. But a slippery trend has left tenure-track positions few and far between, exposing a vast number of workers to exploitative working practices in recent years. In Colorado, one state university group internally tracks nearly 50% of its teaching staff as part-time faculty, with non-tenure track faculty accounting for nearly 80% of student instruction. As it happens, this author is one such faculty member, and I can tell you exactly how it works.

Although my students would never know it, I ultimately make less than the Colorado minimum hourly wage to teach them. Each semester a state university offers me a new contract for roughly $3,750 pre-tax per science course I teach. This amount is for the full semester, approximately five months, and is supposed to cover everything from course preparation to grading to mentoring students and more. I receive zero benefits, zero private office space and no guaranteed teaching assistants, even when I teach three courses per semester.

Needing to pay bills, many adjunct faculty turn to multiple institutions simultaneously. One professor I knew taught across four Colorado institutions, reaching eight classes per semester, a course load nearly double any single institution’s limits. In doing so she made over $35,000 per year and gained minimal access to health insurance (some institutions offer less per course in exchange for health care), though she admitted her teaching quality suffered greatly. This is the higher education gig economy, where teachers are expendable and students pay the price. Unsurprisingly, it’s particularly a women’s issue, with women disproportionately facing declines in tenure-track positions and increases to part-time work.

It’s easy to blame a lack of funding, and surely increased funding is a critical component. Yet having worked in academia for nearly 15 years, I’ve also seen firsthand how prioritization of available funding is equally important.

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Considered through the lens of the Colorado state university system — a system that I wholly acknowledge is vastly underfunded due in large part to the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR) — expenditures clearly trend toward priorities that do not always reflect teaching faculty first. For example, during the same years that adjunct faculty continued to earn near-poverty wages, the new University of Colorado president was offered an 81% increase in pay over the last president, with subsequent increases to make his base salary $850,000 per year. Other examples include a $63 million dollar swimming pool and recreation center renovation paid for by student fee increases, a $14.75 million contract for a new football coach (while simultaneously paying the retired coach his remaining $2.95 million per contract), increased university officer pay for decades and, now, furloughs and/or decreased hours for faculty and staff during coronavirus. While credit is due to CU President Mark Kennedy and chancellors for cutting their salaries 10% during furloughs, the lack of prioritizing teachers over time remains stark. In this light, Colorado educators could expect compensation issues long after TABOR is fixed, to say nothing of class sizes and other challenges.

To better serve both faculty and students, there are three things Coloradans can do. First, by all means, voice your support to legislators for TABOR reform and increased funding for education. As one of the lowest state-funded universities in the country, Colorado has a lot of work to do. Second, this November, it is crucial to vote for pro-science and pro-faculty CU regents. These are overlooked elected positions that remain in charge of CU financial decisions, including contracts for president and tuition rates. The board has been dominated by Republicans for years, prioritizing blind economic growth and administrators over core education. Third, and critically, higher education employees must strongly support the unionization of graduate students, staff and faculty. In light of COVID-19 funding cuts, worker protection is needed now more than ever.

Whether kindergarten or 16th grade teachers, we love our jobs. We’re also as valuable as administrators and recreation, if not more so. Please treat us accordingly.