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Episode 108: Why your professor might be a gig worker

This week Stella Mehlhoff met with Heather Holcombe and Sumanth Gopinath to break down their editorial article “Your Professor May Be A Gig Worker.”

STELLA MEHLHOFF: All right. Hello everyone. I’m Stella Mehlhoff and you’re listening to In the Know. This week we’re doing something a little different and reprising the top story. Once a month we break down some of the Minnesota Daily’s most compelling stories. This time I’m speaking with the co-authors of a recent op-ed called “Your Professor may be a Gig Worker.”

I just wanted to start by thanking you both for taking the time to speak with me. Um, and could you both briefly introduce yourselves with your name, pronouns, and role at the university?

HEATHER HOLCOMBE: Sure. I’m Heather Holcombe. I am a lecturer, um, in the English department. I’ve been here since 2018. I use she/her pronouns.

SUMANTH GOPINATH: And I’m Sumanth Gopinath, associate Professor of Music Theory in the School of Music. I’ve been here since 2005 and I use he/him pronouns.

MEHLHOFF: Ok now if we’re all comfortable, um, I think we’ll just jump into some questions.

MEHLHOFF: Okay, so first in your article you mentioned that a lot of instructors at the U are hired under titles like lecturers, teaching specialists and term faculty rather than official professors. Could you guys walk me through what makes those positions different?

HOLCOMBE: Sure, there are a number of things that make those positions different, and there are also some differences even within those categories. People who have titles such as lecturers or teaching specialists in particular, are actually classified as what would be known as professional and administrative staff at the university.

so that is an actually different bureaucratic institutional category than faculty in and of itself, which means that the terms of our employment are quite different. those of us in those kinds of roles, I mean our teaching, we are teachers. That is our primary job description and our role.

One big difference, um, inhabiting a role like a lecturer, teaching specialist versus a tenure track faculty position, it means that we are hired, almost always on very short term contracts. they might be semester long contracts, they might be year long contracts. Um, the luckiest of us are on year long contracts. Those contracts also are typically what is called a non-renewable contract, which means that the presumption is that at the end of the semester or the end of the contract,there’s no expectation that we would be coming back. The expectation is that the contract is over.

And so it would have to be a rehire for us to come back, which means that many of us are doing our jobs semester to semester or year to year with absolutely no knowledge of what our future holds at the university.

GOPINATH: I can add to that and to say, to make things more confusing, some units and colleges will also use different labels, like assistant professor or associate professor, in ways that are associated with tenure stream faculty. Tenure stream faculty are faculty who, unlike the faculty who Heather was talking about, are faculty who are hired on first a probationary basis, and once they get tenure or if they come here with tenure, then they’re permanent hires. They’re on the permanent budget of the university. The university expects to employ them for the duration of their career until they retire. And that’s a, that’s a, a major financial commitment. It also entails, um, a great deal of expectations as to what faculty are supposed to do, um, that are stated and written.

And I think one of the things that’s striking about it is that many contingent faculty or faculty who are term faculty, faculty who are not on the tenure track are also often doing those very same things – doing research, having research agendas, doing a lot of service for their units, teaching courses, the very same courses that tenure stream faculty are teaching.

MEHLHOFF: How does that make it difficult for these instructors to better serve their students?

HOLCOMBE: I think there are a lot of challenges, um, when you are employed on those kinds of terms. Some of those are just plain morale issues. It is very disheartening to bring your best work, your best self, your qualifications. Everyone in this role deserves and has earned their right to be at the front of these classrooms. They bring extraordinary dedication, talent, motivation. you would have to, to work under these conditions.

People are qualified to be where they are, but it is just plain demoralizing to bring your best self and your hard fought qualifications to a situation where you are fundamentally not acknowledged as part of the institution.

Where you find yourself in sort of, frankly, humiliating situations of explaining to students who may want to work with you on thesis projects or independent studies, or even just to take another class with you, and then you find yourself in a position to say, “well actually I’m not a real faculty member.”

And that’s not on me. I’m qualified to be there. Everyone in this role is qualified to be there, but there is something very humiliating about that. There’s a sort of element of shame and people carry that with them. It is very difficult to work in a situation where you are not institutionally backed, but still doing intense intellectual or intense actually emotional labor that teachers do in their classrooms.

So I would say, there’s a true morale sort of issue that is part of it and people are just very courageous about carrying on, even though they are not fully supported or seen institutionally. But I think there are some very student related issues too, that have to do with not only are these contracts short term, so people are just fundamentally dealing with instability all the time.

People are always sort of having to look out for, well, where am I gonna work next? What is my next job? They’re carrying that kind of concern with them and also spending energy, making sure that they have another job in the future. That’s very difficult. These contracts also can happen on very short term notice.

It’s very frequent to be hired to teach for fall semester in July or August, which means then that, these hiring policies put people in a position to be ready to roll on September 6th when they have only found out maybe two or three or four weeks prior that they are teaching a class, which means they have to design the class, they have to order the books, they have to prepare lecture materials, they have to figure out the logistics.

That is a very short term kind of turnaround, in terms of what the administrators are asking instructors to do. Um, that’s not in any student’s interest, frankly, right? People should have time to plan for their courses and to think really deliberately and carefully about what they wanna do in their classes.

Now people manage to do very good work despite that. I wanna like be very clear about that, but it is an active impediment to doing your best work to be thrown into these kinds of situations. I think that the other thing that people experience in those situations too is that you are asked to do this work on a very short term notice, to inhabit a fundamentally unstable position, to be ready to roll at any particular minute, to teach any particular class that comes your way.

The other issue though is then that if your contract begins in September, right, but someone contacts you in July, you end up doing quite a lot of many hours of unpaid labor to do this work of preparing, right? That’s also part of it. And so also if you’re paid very little to start with and then doing unpaid labor on top of it, it is also a very difficult working condition.

GOPINATH: Sometimes set-term faculty have their email access cut off in the summers. So students may be trying to contact, um, the professor and may not actually be able to get in touch with them. If they’re even listed on the, you know, course schedule all, sometimes they’re not listed. So there are, there are all sorts of, you know, little logistical problems that add up to sort of stress and anxiety for faculty in those situations.

And I’ll add in relation to all of this, is the fact that these faculty are paid dismally poorly. The sort of going rate at the university is $2,000 a credit hour. Sometimes that’s not even reached in, in many cases, so for a three credit class, you’re getting $6,000.

That rate has not gone up for many, many years. I don’t entirely know when that rate was instituted. I think it’s been that rate as long as I’ve been here, so that’s quite a long time.


GOPINATH: That means that in terms of inflation and the cost of living and especially what things are looking like right now, when we’re living in a moment of extreme inflation, uh, this is not tenable for people to survive on and it’s obviously a way for the university to depress, this actively depresses the wages of a substantial number of its faculty members.

MEHLHOFF: You also talked in your article a little bit about how these challenges can restrict academic freedom. Could you explain a little bit more what that means?

HOLCOMBE: Sure. I might defer to Sumanth just a little bit about this, but what I would say is, that when people are higher, I mean, first of all, that classification of, well, are you term faculty?

Are you a professional administrative staff? Are you actually a tenure student faculty? That actually matters in our tenure code here. So the tenure code then applies differently to people in these categories and the most vulnerable, unsurprisingly, are people in the professional and administrative role. Just simply because we are not bureaucratically understood as faculty within the institution. The, the applications of the tenure code are most tenuous when it comes to us. So what I would say about that is, I mean, first of all, I’m just always worried about my job at any given time. I have literally no safety net.

I’m worried about a single poor teaching evaluation, right? One, right? Say, I mean, this year I’m gonna teach 375 students at the University of Minnesota, but I’m worried if like one person says something, right? That was like, “I didn’t have a good experience in this class.” I’m that vulnerable that I am worried about that all the time.

So then to sort of layer in the academic freedom issue, that gets very dicey then in terms of, well, are we willing to talk about things that are urgent and important and topical to students in class? I teach English, everything comes up. Issues of race, issues of consent, issues of identity broadly, right?

Because that tenure code, um, does the because the tenure code doesn’t apply to us, there is no sort of institutional backing for us to like state a position or even just host controversial conversations in our classrooms. So it’s just another level of precarity, I think.

That is again, an issue that impacts students directly because students should be empowered. They should have an instructor who’s empowered to host those kinds of conversations in the classroom because they are urgent and important, in the world of your learning, but also in the world of your personal existence and the kinds of identities and urgencies that you bring with you into the classroom.

SUMANTH: I’ll add into as part of that to just say that academic freedom is central particularly in the context of situations where you’re dealing with controversial topics.

And that is the sort of the principle of academic freedom is that it allows faculty, teachers, and researchers to do work unencumbered by the sort of political constraints and economic constraints of the social situation in which they find themselves, in order to do the kind of necessary, potentially provocative, or controversial work that pushes knowledge forward and that allows a university to be the special thing that it is.

That means that, um, academic freedom has historically been tied to employment security and so the organization that we both work for, that we are officers of, our local chapter of, is called the American Association of University Professors. It actually is an organization that’s over a hundred years old.

It was the organization that advocated for the tenure system in the first place in the United States. and in fact, we have a special thing in the US that not all countries have, which is this tenure system. And it allows for faculty to basically do that kind of controversial work from a range of political and knowledge-based perspectives.

It protects people on the right as much as it protects people on the left. You know, we have a rarefied sense of what that means in our country these days, but these things are really complicated and the more that academic freedom is supported, the more that the wealth of possible knowledge is supported and brought, not only in terms of research, but in classrooms to students.

I will say that this is where things get really dicey for faculty who don’t have tenure protections. The university does have a very extensive and good policy around academic freedom, being able to speak, uh, no matter who you are at the institution, uh, employee of any type, that includes the right to criticize your institution, which is really good.

The problem though is that if you’re a non-tenure stream faculty member, your employment is unstable, especially if we’re in these semester-to-semester or year-to-year contracts that are non-renewable. In those situations, just like Heather said, a negative, um, course evaluation can be the basis to just determine that, well, you know, maybe this person isn’t who we want and so we’ll find someone else to do that job.

Depending on your field and your position, there can be a large supply of people who are available to do the same job that you would be able to do and also qualified, which is, gets really, you know, terrifying. But then there are also, beyond that there are, you know, extreme political situations that faculty find themselves in today, which can include, um, being monitored by political organizations, judging the title of your course or looking at the syllabus or waiting to audit your class or take your class and then report what you say to some external organization.

That’s starting to happen increasingly on university campuses today. It happened to a colleague of ours who no longer is employed at the university. She was teaching a course in one of the CLA departments and the course was flagged by a far right organization, and they had to move the course out of its original location into a secure location.

This person was, you know, attacked by Breitbart and all. I mean, it got really extreme and, and the fallout from all of that was basically this pushed that person out of academia, and that’s tragic. A person with tenure protections can, can respond to that situation and say, “look these situations are terrible, and they’re becoming more common today, but the institution is backing me in a way that I know no matter what happens, as long as I’m doing my job, which you know, the vast majority of faculty do, I’m gonna be protected and this is not going to ruin my career.”

And that’s exactly the point of academic freedom, right? To teach those kinds of classes that might stir up controversy. If you’re doing it a responsible way, which again, the vast majority of us do, this is exactly what academic freedom is for.

MEHLHOFF: So what motivates the university to hire instructors on this basis?

HOLCOMBE: We have a wonderful colleague, Ruth Shaw, who’s always reminding me that the university is us.

The university is the students, it’s the faculty, it’s um, the lecturers. Um, when we’re talking about these matters, I actually think it, to take her point, it’s actually really important to clarify these are administrative policies, right? And so part of the work that we do in the AAUP is to sort of remind ourselves and others that this university is what we make of it, and we’re working hard to make it a better place.

But I think in terms of your question about, well, what motivates hiring policies like this, I think there’s a clear economic incentive for doing this. It is, it’s a common trend that’s happening nationally.

And to be clear, universities all lean on each other, to say, “well, we’re not the only ones who are doing this, everyone’s doing this.” But that just makes it all the more pernicious as a trend, I think. And so I think there are moral obligations. There are like institutional obligations in terms of, are we interested in meritocracy?

Are we really interested in the values of true like intellectual inquiry? Are we interested in understanding structures of power? Which we are. Like we teach, we are asked in our classrooms to teach all the time structures of power and what structural inequity is. And then there’s this terrible irony, which is that the university itself is participating in these forms of structural inequity that we inhabit.

So I think that the universities have a particular obligation to sort of straighten this out. Like if we’re gonna understand what power is and how it works, then we also need to have equitable power structures. So clearly there’s an economic incentive here. And again, it’s a national trend and everybody sort of uses this national trend as a kind of way of scapegoating. I think that there could be any number of causes for that.

I think at a state university like this, it’s true that state universities are not subsidized at the rates that they used to be and there are greater pressures on tuition money. Um, so universities can find themselves in, I think, budgetary positions where they’re not necessarily sure how they’re gonna make this work. There’s a financial, incentive for sure, but I think, you know, intentionally or not there are also other kinds of ramifications, which is that if you have greater and greater proportions of people working in these unstable roles, then for all the reasons that Sumanth just said, then you have actually a very disorganized form of labor that isn’t able to speak up for itself, that isn’t able to organize, that isn’t able to advocate for better working conditions. And it makes it easier and easier to hire more and more people, um, on terms that are untenable for the for the people inhabiting those jobs, that are unfavorable for the learning conditions of students, but financially beneficial, um, to the university as a whole. Um, did you wanna add anything to that?

SUMANTH: Yeah, uh, yeah, that was great. I was gonna say that the other piece of this is that at our institution in particular, uh, we have a very sort of decentralized structure as to how, you know, responsibility works for paying faculty. Um, so for example there are, you know, university-wide policies but they don’t actually specify, as far as I know, what faculty should be paid and including these rates.

These, uh, that is determined by the colleges. So individual colleges do set these kinds of rates, and we heard recently, uh, in another op-ed that was written by faculty in the school of social work or maybe there was even a departmental level, I guess there would be a departmental or unit level decision to pay less than the $2,000 per credit hour rate, uh, which was really troubling.

Um, so, and again, you know, because I don’t know all the ins and outs of these details, I don’t know what amount of it is determined by the collegiate versus the department level, but those all make those sorts of decisions together. But at the same time, it is the central administration that oversees the formula whereby a unit and a college are paid based on the kind of income that they make, the number of students who um are, you know, taking classes, number of majors, there are all sorts of metrics that go into determining that sort of budgetary income for every unit.

We have a very, uh, it’s not peculiar, it’s become kind of common, but it’s not universal, budget model called, uh, responsibility centered management which basically that treats every unit as a kind of cost recovery operation. So it has to basically cover and, you know, pay for all the facilities like keeping the lights on electricity and maintenance. It has to, you know, pay for any sort of employment, of course, that, that it has.

So all the faculty that hires grad students, you know, who are in uh teaching assistant or instructor roles and the like. And so, and then it gets income based on how many students are enrolled, but it’s according to a formula. And the formula is, I don’t know enough of the details, but I have heard many of my colleagues complain that the formula is not always equitable.

That, that in fact, the central administration sort of has these mechanisms to cut off funds from the top. They’re called cost pools, but others who know much more about it who could talk more intelligently about it. But I will say that the fact of this means that the central administration doesn’t have to claim responsibility because they’re just overseeing the formula and like distributing the funds and managing the university that way.

Colleges can say, “well, the departments are the ones who have their, you know, responsibilities, they need to like meet their budgetary requirements in order to pay for people.” The departments say “we’re not getting enough money, so of course we’re stuck in the situation, right?” So like on every level someone can defer responsibility and that’s the kind of thing that happens not only at the national level where we’re seeing rates of, I think it may be even 80% to 20% non-tenure stream to tenure stream faculty. I’ve seen that statistic relatively recently.

For many years the figure was 75 to 25, but that’s still a lot. Um, if it’s going up, that’s all the worst, uh, all the worse. And so anyway, this deferral of responsibility is central to the, to the problem.

HOLCOMBE: Sure. And I think, um, that’s all really complicated, right?

But I think there’s a kind of very simple statement and the language in our, in our opinion piece is that what we really are seeing, however we attribute it, whatever the model is, what we really are seeing is a disinvestment in teaching and instruction at the university. However we want to explain it. Whoever’s fault it is, wherever it’s going, this is a problem.

We should not, as an institution of higher education, be running a shoestring budget to pay for classroom instruction, right? That’s just simply absurd. Um, it’s totally unfair to the people who are doing that work, and it is very unfair to the students who inhabit those classrooms who deserve a fully empowered teaching faculty who are secure in their jobs, who get to take intellectual risks in their classrooms so that we can encourage students to take intellectual risks in our classrooms and so that we can bring our full human capital to the institutions where we work and stop spending energy on worrying about where we are gonna work next semester or how we are gonna pay our bills, right?

I can only do this job because I have a partner who can supplement my income. If I were a single income household, I could not do this work. I could not pay my rent. I could not pay for food. I could not take care of my children, right? There is something deeply wrong with that.

GOPINATH: Well, especially given all of the years it takes to do the work. We have to remember, so many non-tenure student faculty have terminal degrees in their fields. These are people who have put in many, many years to gain the expertise that they have and the skills that they have to gain new expertise, which you always have to do when you’re teaching, um, to do this kind of work.

This is really hard work. Um, and I mean, it’s wonderful work. It’s the, you know, it’s the reason we do it despite everything, um, is because the work is wonderful. But again, the, you know, institutions of higher education depend on that. Uh, they take a kind of, you know, they allow you to discount your own labor because it’s labor that’s wonderful to do.

In many instances there are non-wonderful aspects of it, of course. But, um, but to try to kind of think about that process that the amount of work that people have done many, many years that go into, you know, the employment situation that you’re in is, you know, is really unconscionable. And this is, this is what higher education in many fields has come to.

MEHLHOFF: Yeah, absolutely. Um, and this is a little bit more of an abstract, broader question, so if you guys don’t have input on this, I completely understand, but I’m curious, do you think that these financial and hiring trends have something to do with the way that society sees higher education as a whole?

HOLCOMBE: I don’t know. We may have different, we may have different answers to that question. You go first.

GOPINATH: Oh yeah. Um, sure. I mean, I think society in the U.S. right, is conflicted about higher, higher education. Higher education is increasingly becoming a politicized phenomenon, which it used to not be in the same way. It used to be that, you know, 50 years ago, it was independent of your political affiliation, the idea that you could go to a university or a college and get a college degree, it was understood that this was a way that you would have an opportunity to better your life and your economic situation and to explore subjects of interest to yourself, uh, and that that was the kind of ideal.

And now, um, given that the, the idea of higher education has become politically polarized, this has certainly affected the budgetary situation of many higher education institutions. Now that is primarily, I think, affecting state institutions like ours, where we’re dependent in part on, uh, budgetary supplement from the state legislature.

Um, but you know, the thing is, even institutions that have multi-billion dollar endowments do very similar things. When I was, I was a grad student at Yale University, which, you know, had even at the time when I was there, had a multi-billion dollar endowment. Now the endowment is much greater, and it was remarkable how little they supported and paid graduate students to teach courses and to do the work that they were doing to, to pay a non-tenure stream faculty to do the work that they did. It was a, it was a sizable gap.

And I suspect, I don’t have the figures, but I suspect that that gap has grown even at such institutions. Um, it’s not an accident that graduate students, um, at Yale, in fact, just this earlier, no, I think it was last week, voted to unionize after being involved in a 30 plus year campaign to try to seek unionize, uh, union recognition.

I mean, they, they voted that, results will be reported in January, but it is expected that they’ll win. Um, and I was part of that campaign when I was back in grad school, so it was really heartening to hear about that. So there are lots of, there are lots of factors that affect, you know, why we’re in the situation we’re in.

I do think political polarization is part of it. It also depends on what field you’re in. There has been a long standing trend, um, to kind of view certain fields as less socially valuable, there’s been an emphasis on stem, on science, technology, et cetera. Like these kinds of fields that, you know, are seen to be productive in society.

They, you know, contribute, uh, a workforce that gets jobs. And those jobs therefore are the metric of being a desirable field or, or area of study in the first place. And that’s a, that’s a strange situation to find ourselves in too. We’re both in the humanities. So the humanities have, are one of the, um, you know, victims of this particular kind of thinking.

And that means that being in a field like ours or fields like ours, is not always adequately appreciated, the kinds of things that we teach students. Even though as I have encountered in a numerous context, many businesses really like humanities students because they tend to be really good writers and critical thinkers.

And that kind of, uh, capacity is really useful for hiring someone that’s, you know, that’s you are hiring creative, interesting people, which, uh, they add a lot to the economy. So it’s a, it’s a, it’s a, yeah. Those are some of the factors that come to mind. I don’t know if you have stuff to add to that.

HOLCOMBE: Sure. Yeah. And I, I agree with all of that. I think that the conditions for funding higher ed are vastly different, um, and changing all the time. Um, and that definitely is, um, political. I think that I have a, a slightly more practical answer, which is that with concern to the issues that we’re talking about today in terms of the exploitative labor practices, at institutions of higher ed, I think people are just profoundly unaware. I think, um, you know, when we talk about, well, okay, we have lectures, we have teaching specialists, we have clinical faculty, we have contract faculty, we have term faculty, and then we have faculty faculty, like, you know, that is in and of itself a sort of like, it’s a kind of like impossibly complicated network of titles to navigate and the fact of the matter is students have no real way of knowing that because the person standing in their classroom is just as qualified as every other person on this campus to do that work.

So it’s not like it’s transparent that, oh, like this person, um, is like not as good as this person, right? These are arbitrary hierarchies that are put in place, and they are meant to be invisible. They are meant to be opaque and difficult to navigate, and so students have very little way of knowing that these things are true, unless they have a very daring lecturer who’s like, by the way, I’m a lecturer. Or unless they stumble upon these issues in inadvertent ways. Like, where did your office go? What happened to you? How come I can’t email you? How come you can’t advise my senior thesis? I like you. I wanna work with you. You’re interesting. It’s motivating to me, right?

So students find out about these things in very inadvertent ways. Um, and if students don’t know, then certainly, you know, parents don’t know, taxpayers don’t know, many stakeholders in this, you know, project, have no idea that this is going on.

And so I think that is also a very, very important piece of it, right? There are perceptions of higher ed generally. Um, but then there are just these sort of like layers of opacity where people actually have no idea or no access to the sort of inner workings of what labor practices look like.

MEHLHOFF: Yeah, no, I, I agree that that’s very important to consider. And you guys have already kind of begun to touch on this, um, with the Yale grad students unionizing and also with the American Association of University professors. But what tools do people have to resist these trends?

GOPINATH: The broadest thing that people can do is first of all, organize themselves, and that’s, you know, one of our goals is to talk to other faculty who are in these situations to put together, you know, a kind of effort or campaign to try to change these situations. I mean, this is, um, something that we’re involved in with our AAUP chapter. Um, we have a kind of one faculty campaign where we’re talking about, you know, what does it mean to classify faculty in the way that they do here at the institution, at the University of Minnesota?

Which by doing exactly what Heather described, um, places many faculty in really, uh, difficult, often untenable situations. Um, there’s the question of the fact that their contracts are so short term and therefore creates anxiety just as Heather described in terms of what your next, you know, semester or year will look like.

And finally, the pay question that I mentioned. These are the kind of three planks that we’re trying to focus on as part of our particular campaign, but beyond a kind of pressure campaign where you can do all kinds of things, right? You can hold rallies, you can do, write petitions and letters, you can talk to legislators, you can occupy buildings, you can go on strike, you can do all sorts of things, right?

In principle, um, I think ultimately, organizing, uh, in the context of a labor union is one of the most powerful ways you can, you can actually fight for your own rights in institutions, um, in any institution that is, you know, structured in a hierarchical way and even some that aren’t right. I mean, even co-ops have unions.

Um, and it seems to me that like one of the things that we should be trying to figure out how to do is to as faculty advocate for ourselves so that we can ensure that our lesser remunerated and supported colleagues are supported in the way that they should be.

HOLCOMBE: Yeah, and I, I think I would add to that, um, I’m really glad that Sumanth brought up the AAUP campaign that we’re working hard to get in place.

Um, right? Which, like in the way that Sumanth has said, we’ve outlined sort of three areas that are really in need of transformation and one is longer, long-term contracts, multi-year contracts so people know where they are, um, renewable contracts, so that, you know, in the same way that you’d work in a normal job where you are an administrative assistant, you are hired with the expectation that you stay unless you like screw up big time, or like the company collapses, right?

With the expectation that you have a job once you get a job. So that’s a really important, and I think actually very foundational sort of transformation because then it makes these other kinds of organization more possible if people are there, if people know where they are, if they are, have time and bandwidth to talk to each other, and, you know, build the kinds of connections and institutional knowledge that make advocacy possible.

Um, you know, the other is, like, let’s actually pay people what they’re worth. Um, let’s make sure that they have benefits. Let’s make sure that we’re not gaming them out of benefits by hiring them in these sort of like part-time, you know, ways that they don’t qualify. Let’s make sure that their benefits don’t lapse, right?

I mean, people find themselves in positions where, you know, maybe they have a nine month contract at the U but there’s like a lapse in their contract for the the fall and then all of a sudden in the summer they have no health care and they’re scrambling in May to make sure that they have a health policy in place in, in June, and they may be paying exorbitant rates to put that health policy in place.

Um, so people experience all kinds of things. Even if they’re lucky enough to receive benefits, those benefits go away. They’re unstable. Um, they drop out, you know, for example, like I am teaching three classes each semester this year, but if one of them didn’t enroll, I would just be teaching two, two classes in the semester and then I would lose all my benefits, like on the spot.

Um, that’s really hard. Um, so again, better pay, um, reliable access to benefits. And then this also sort of, it’s this just issue of respect. Faculty are faculty, people who are doing research and teaching at this university are doing the work of faculty. Um, and one of the things that I value so much about the AAUP generally, our chapter and this organization, is this understanding that there are profoundly shared interests between tenure track faculty and non-tenure track faculty.

Um, and again, in terms of your question about, um, you know, what are po, what are the possibilities for organizing, that’s actually very, very crucial, um, to have allyship between these two groups of people who, who do have shared interests and should not be bifurcated into all these different categories at the, at the university. It helps all of us if we are a collective organizing body.

GOPINATH: Yeah. And in fact, that idea of shared interest came up in the failed unionization campaign about seven years ago, six, seven years ago when our own state labor board, the Bureau of Mediation Services argued that in fact the non-tenure stream and tenure stream faculty are, uh, a community of interest.

That is to say they are a shared community with shared interests and needs and, and contributions to the institution. And because our bargaining unit is defined in state law, um, that makes, uh, that made the university able to appeal the ruling and, and essentially the appeal court supported the university because, um, that law has to be changed in the legislature.

So, um, so, you know, organizing faculty currently as it stands at the university is really difficult, and I just wish the university would recognize that an organized faculty is also in its interest. It’s a, it’s organized faculty, um, advocates for itself, but it also supports the institution with the very stability and benefits that it brings to its employees.

And that’s, you know, it’s not a zero sum game as it is often viewed by administrators. Um, an organized faculty can advocate for the institution in ways that, frankly, the way we are right now, we can’t. And, um, that includes advocating at the legislature. It includes being able to connect to other institutions and to be able to build networks across them in ways that support the project of higher education as a whole, which we all believe in.

MEHLHOFF: Yeah, absolutely. Um, I appreciate all of that. Um, and you guys already touched on this in your article, but since most of our listeners are students, if students want to support their professors and their instructors, how can they do that?

HOLCOMBE: Yeah, I think that, um, hopefully we’ll be working toward really like more direct ways of supporting, but I think that this is really at a moment of consciousness raising. I think that, um, as students learn about these issues as they choose to care about them, one of the most powerful things that students can do is spread the word. Share it with your peers. Tell your if you have parents who pay your tuition, tell your parents, tell your legislature legislators that these things matter to you.

Um, I think that’s where we are practically right now, is that we are at the level of consciousness raising, helping people to be informed about these issues so that the next more concrete steps of our organization can have energy and momentum behind them. Um, do you have anything to—

GOPINATH: Yeah, I, I completely agree with Heather.

That’s a, a various astute assessment of where we are. Um, but that means that there are lots of avenues to spread, you know, these ideas. Yes. In addition to talking to your peers and talking to faculty members about what’s happening, um, they’ll have things to say which will be informative. Um, we have mechanisms for students to speak to upper administration, um, like the president or the provost.

We have mechanisms for, uh, students to often, uh, communicate with the regents who play a major role in, you know, sort of setting the, the sort of guidelines for, and policies for how the university works. There are lots of people who need to hear about this. Um, and I would say talk to students should talk to each other, but they also should, uh, connect to organizations that are on campus.

There are a number of them, um, that advocate for all sorts of, good policies, I think on the, on the part of the institution.I don’t have any specifically in mind. I mean, I guess there’s, um, there, there are certainly efforts to organize unions for, um, various, uh, student workers. The teamsters have been involved in, in that.

And I think to maybe a lesser extent the, also the AFSCME unions have been as well. Um, there’s an, a Students for a Democratic Society, uh, chapter, um, on campus. Um, there are other, um, I’m sure there are, uh, political party affiliated sorts of ways to get involved. Um, students would know better than certainly me. Uh, maybe you know more, but, but I think that’s a consciousness, consciousness raising is a like Heather said, really the place we are at this point.

MEHLHOFF: Yeah. Okay. Great. Um, and I see that we’re actually already approaching the, the 45 minute mark, so is there anything else you guys would like to share?

HOLCOMBE: Um, I think we’ve covered a lot of ground actually.


GOPINATH: I, I am curious to know if you are hearing from students about these issues or what things concern them?

I guess I would say one thing that comes up comes to mind is often that students are really concerned about tuition. You know, tuition continues to go up and it places an increasing, you know, profound burden on students in terms of what they’re facing. Um, and we know that the world of higher ed in the United States is going through this major sort of mental health crisis for students, also for employees. It’s not often as recognized, but we’re also struggling too.

Um, but um, but this, I’m just curious to know if students, how they think about some of these issues from what you’ve encountered. Because one thing I feel like we’re trying to also think hard about is how not to pit ourselves and our interests against those of students.

Because one solution will be just raise tuition, keep raising it, treat students like, you know, just sort of endless, you know, bank accounts or something that’s untenable and you know, for us, we’d like to see other ways, including increased state appropriations, including, you know, better, uh, and more equitable ways of putting together capital campaigns that don’t just build buildings but actually support, you know, employees and, um, and keep tuition down. I mean, there are all sorts of things one could imagine, but I’m curious to know if you’re encountering student comments and thoughts about these issues.

MEHLHOFF: I guess the only thing I can offer is general perceptions. I don’t have any like stats or specific encounters necessarily to back this up. I would say that students are generally interested in supporting their professors. I think they acknowledge that they get a lot of really valuable education and support from them. Um, and so I think most want to return the favor. Um, I know tuition raising is, is always a concern. Um, but based on kind of like what you guys have been telling me, I think, I think you’re doing a, a good job kind of presenting this cause as something that isn’t counter to students. But I would agree that, that a lot of students just aren’t very aware, um, that this is a problem or that it’s a problem that is as widespread as as it is.

HOLCOMBE: Yeah. Well, I think in a separate conversation, um, that you and I have had, what you have said previously is that this is actually not a money problem. It’s an allocation problem.

It’s a problem of like will and priorities, and I think, I think that’s very important to sort of keep in mind, right. This, I, I agree. This is not about asking students to bear the burden of this. This is an, this is a problem for the highest levels of administration to figure this out and right. So to bring it back to students too, like part of what’s in our article is this like mind blowing sort of like math of, you know, if someone’s teaching a 250 seat lecture, and that’s bringing in, I don’t know, this lowball estimate of like $400,000 in tuition, where is that money going? How are we prioritizing the money that we have?

Um, and I think it’s just clear that it is not being spent on teaching. And that is a real question. It is a real question that, that the administration, I think needs to answer, uh, earnestly. Um, and I think students deserve an answer to that question as well as the people who are receiving these low rates of pay.

GOPINATH: Yeah, just to, to bring it back to something the university does pay for would be, um, our football coaches salary. Um, he was just granted, uh, a one year extension on his contract and a $1 million per year increase and pay rate from like 5.1 million to 6.1 million a year. I mean, that’s a lot of money. imagine what, you know, a few million dollars could do in terms of dis, you know, uh, actually supporting the, the per credit hour rate for, uh, course instruction.
When the university, I have said this often before, but when the university wants to find money to pay for something, they do find it. And, uh, this is something that they should think about similarly.

MEHLHOFF: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. All right. Um, well I think we’ll wrap up here, even though I’m sure that we, we all have more things to say. Um, but I appreciate again, you both taking the time to speak for me. This was a great conversation.

Um, As always, for listeners, thank you for taking the time to tune in today. Um, if you like this, if you didn’t, if you have questions, please feel free to email us at [email protected]. this episode will be produced by Alberto Gomez and Abby Machtig. Again, thank you for listening. This is Stella Mehlhoff and this is In the Know.

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