Letter To The Editor

The Single Greatest Challenge to Our Community

It is with a sense of urgency that I write today about what I believe is the single greatest challenge to the community of Seattle University that I have experienced in my 30 years here—unionization of the adjunct faculty.

There is good reason for adjuncts to want more. I know because I was one of them. In my case, it took more than 20 years for my starting salary to double. My husband and I went into debt while we raised our four children. Many nights I struggled with sleep, and to this day, I feel trepidation speaking (my) truth to power without the cover of tenure.

But no one held a gun to my head when I signed that first contract in 1984, nor when I signed my 31st contract last month. I knew when I followed my calling to be a teacher that when it came to payment for services, Seattle University followed the industry model: a two-tiered system of tenured and non-tenured faculty. There was no bait and switch. I got what I signed up for.

But that isn’t the whole story. Over those same decades I have also realized unimagined benefits as an adjunct. In addition to the singular privilege of helping shape young minds and of collaborating with intelligent, gifted colleagues, I also received a tremendous benefit for my children who were given a tuition-free college education that added up to just under $500,000. As if that were not enough, my life has been enriched beyond measure: I have taken advantage of the intangibles offered to all Jesuit educators, not the least of which is meaningful work.

Perhaps I owe an apology to my adjunct colleagues. I extend this because if Provost Crawford could initiate a market equity adjustment program within the first 18 months of taking office, a program that has some of my faculty enjoying a 50% raise in less than three years, then maybe I could have said something during my 27 years as an adjunct about the struggles we faced. Fortunately for our community, the inequalities were not ignored by Seattle University. Today all full-time adjunct and tenured faculty pay less for their health care; they take home a paycheck that is in line with peers at universities across the country; and in the case of some, full time adjunct faculty now enjoy the consolation of multiyear contracts. Part time faculty today also receive compensation in line with their peers at other schools. Part time faculty can also receive benefits if they teach the equivalent of four courses or more during the academic year, which is something their part-time peers at other schools do not routinely get.

But enough about faculty. What about the student, the most important stakeholder in our mission? What has unionization to do with you? At Seattle University, where 85% of the budget is tuition dependent, students will bear the cost of adding another layer to the administrative tasks. Unions drive up the cost of operations, and this increase is NOT due to a bump in faculty wages and benefits. The rise in cost is a direct result of a contract-driven, lawyer-driven process. These expenses accrue to the university with no guarantees of any benefit, financial or otherwise, to individual faculty, but the students will pay regardless. Furthermore, a union is an entity that neither knows nor cares about the mission of the university, which is to prepare you for a just and humane world.

How we solve the inequalities that remain is what most defines our community. Should we bring in a permanent outside representative whose cost students will have to shoulder by paying higher tuition fees—or—true to the culture of a university, should we engage in frank dialogue among professionals who are united not only in resolving particular injustices, but also in upholding the mission of the university?

For all our sakes, I endorse a frank dialogue. I extend an invitation to faculty and students to explore together the questions that haven’t been asked. What are the inequalities that remain? Who are the stakeholders? How is it that we could tolerate an election in which a majority vote wins but not everyone gets to vote, including a fair number of part-time adjunct faculty in the schools named by the NLRB? What role should the minority voice have at a Jesuit university? What are the implications for our students?

Please join me in conversation – I’ll bring the lunch.
Thursday, May 15 – 12:30-1:30 – Casey 117
Not available that day? Give me a date, I’ll make the time. I can be contacted most easily at [email protected].

Dr. Jodi Olsen Kelly, Dean of Matteo Ricci College