Op-Ed: What Sort of Community Is Seattle University?

I write this from a place of raw emotion in response to Seattle University President Fr. Stephen Sundborg’s announcement that the University is continuing its anti-union fight by refusing to bargain with non-tenure track (NTT) faculty. As The Spectator reported just two days before the President’s announcement, NTT faculty voted to join the Service Employees International Union local 925 in May of 2014, though our votes were only counted September 9th and the results certified on September 23rd. We now know that our wait and fight must continue as the President and the Board of Trustees have decided to pursue our disenfranchisement in the courts on specious religious grounds. The announcement came as a video, sent via email, addressed to “Members of the Seattle University Community.” Presumably I, NTT/adjunct/contingent instructor of Film Studies, received this email because I am a “member” of this “community.” In what follows I’d like to inquire about what belonging to this community means and, thus, what this community itself means.

In his statement Fr. Sundborg points out that the “issue” of unionization “has been a challenging one for the university community.” Indeed, it has, though given the use of the past tense here it is apparently no longer a challenging issue to the Administration. Nonetheless, for some of us it still is. Obviously, for the adjunct/contingent/precarious faculty (academic temps?) who voted to form their union, this remains a challenging issue. It is challenging on multiple levels. There is the principle challenge by which we must confront the fact that as “members” of this “community” our votes here are not recognized as legitimate; there is also the practical challenge that we will have to continue to advocate for our right to realize this principle; then there is the continuing challenge of carrying out our function—THE primary function of a university—of educating students despite lacking basic support for or control over the manner and content of the curriculum we teach; and, finally, there is the material challenge of working for a meager wage far below livable in Seattle (especially those of us relegated to part-time, piece meal work), with little-to-no job security or path to stable employment. These are the challenges not only to our place in the Seattle University community, they are the challenges of belonging to this community as it is currently constituted.

These challenges leave me asking: are we, adjunct/contingent/precarious/NTT faculty, truly “members” of this community? If so, what sort of “members”? (Part-time? Expendable? Unequal?) And, thus, what sort of “community” exists here at Seattle U? In statements like President Sundborg’s and others from the Administration, words like “community” and phrases like “social justice” are uttered but rarely considered. Certainly any grouping of people can be called a community; here we might think of the ways police refer to the “communities” they patrol. But here, at a university, shouldn’t we, full and partial members of this community, seriously consider and participate in defining what, exactly, we mean by and want in a community? Is this a community that sees some of its members, those who currently carry out half of all instructional duties, as expendable, easily shrugged off for expedient budgeting? The answer from the Administration is yes; yes, they, the President and Board of Trustees, must have the right—a constitutional right apparently akin to the one Mario Savio and the students at Berkely fought for during an earlier iteration of campus politics—to unilaterally dictate the terms of employment for certain members of the community. That, yes, this campus community is comfortable with inequality, to the point that maintaining the current (economic) order should be conflated with the university’s mission itself.

By supporting and advocating for unionization I refuse to accept this vision of community and instead choose to pursue the vision of a university community devoted to equality and liberation in the face of fiduciary control and austerity politics. Make no mistake, even as the University’s legal claim flies under the cover of religion, this is about the right to manage costs through employment flexibility; they are fighting for the right to expel certain community members when convenient for the Administration. Now the final question must be addressed to the rest of the Seattle University community. You know where I and those who voted for the union stand. We know where the President and the Board of Trustees stand. But what of you other community members? What about the tenure line faculty, whose role is more and more converted into middle management, filing reports and shuffling staff while desperately justifying your cost? What about the students, whose steadily increasing tuition, itself often supported by federally funded loans, is funneled away from the teachers that deliver instruction? What sort of community do you want? What sort of community will you speak for? If community, like social justice, is to mean anything other than a platitude and marketing slogan, its members must make the effort to publicly affirm what this community stands for, otherwise silence becomes an endorsement of the community offered up in the President’s statement. Some have already done this in actions like the MRC student occupation, Occupy SU/Fight for 15, and National Adjunct Walk-out Day, and I hope more of you will join us in the days to come.

— Benedict Stork, PhD
Precarious Faculty, Film Studies