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Class Conscious

CCV's adjunct faculty are thinking union


Published September 1, 2004 at 6:17 p.m.
Updated September 16, 2016 at 3:28 p.m.

Catherine O'Callaghan doesn't fit the usual profile of a union organizer. A full-time mother and part-time comparative religions instructor at the Community College of Vermont, she's more accustomed to talking Celtic folklore than collective bargaining. In fact, until last winter, she'd never been involved in a union or led a political cause.

But in the last eight months, O'Callaghan has been helping to organize 500 or so faculty members at CCV, Vermont's only state college that doesn't have a collective-bargaining unit. As union drives go, this one is unique because CCV is the only community college in the nation staffed entirely by adjunct, or part-time, professors.

Approximately two-thirds of CCV instructors teach just one course per semester while working other jobs or, like O'Callaghan, handling family responsibilities. And although CCV courses are taught at 12 different sites around the state as well as online, technically speaking there is no "workplace" to organize. Instructors come in just once or twice a week, teach one to three classes, and then leave. And therein lies a prime motivator for forming the union.

"The nature of part-time teaching is very isolating," O'Callaghan explains during a recent phone interview from her home in Brattleboro. "You tend not to know anybody else because all you do is go in and teach your class... A culture of collegiality or community of scholars is not promoted."

First accredited in 1975, CCV was initially set up as a way for nontraditional students -- adults who've been out of school for years, low-income folks, laid-off workers and so on -- to earn a college education, change careers or acquire new workplace skills.

Since then, however, CCV has grown into one of the largest institutions of higher learning in Vermont, each year serving more than 5000 traditional and nontraditional students. CCV recently signed agreements that allow its students to transfer their course credits to other colleges around the state, including the University of Vermont, and count them towards a four-year degree.

In the classroom, the difference between an adjunct and a tenure-track professor can be all but imperceptible. Tenured and other full-time professors usually have Ph.D.s or some other terminal degree, while adjuncts are usually required to have just a Master's degree. Even so, some adjuncts have at least as much teaching experience as their full-time or tenured colleagues.

From the instructor's point of view, the biggest differences between adjuncts and full-time faculty -- besides their professional credentials -- are in their job security and compensation: wages, health benefits, retirement packages and so forth. Full-time faculty have the added responsibilities of acting as student advisors, serving on institutional committees and publishing regularly in professional journals.

When the adjunct faculties at other state colleges were unionized back in the early 1990s -- UVM's nearly 200 adjunct professors unionized last year -- CCV professors were excluded from the process by the state labor-relations board. This has led to dissatisfaction among some CCV instructors, who say that many of their professional concerns around job security, employee benefits and academic decision-making aren't being adequately addressed.

"Everybody who's involved in this [union] loves CCV and loves our student population," O'Callaghan emphasizes. "But we've found that the basics of how to treat instructors aren't really in place at the college."

O'Callaghan started CCV's union drive last winter by calling other instructors to gauge their interest. The grievances she heard most often involved what she describes as "issues of professional respect." For example, CCV profs are not paid for keeping office hours, even though many do so. In fact, CCV teachers don't even have offices -- O'Callaghan says she usually talks to her students after class in a hall or nearby cafe.

Likewise, CCV instructors aren't compensated for preparing for classes that are later canceled due to low enrollment. "We prepare a class, order the books, do all the prep work, create a syllabus and block out that time in our lives," O'Callaghan explains, "and then you may not get that class at the last minute." Some adjuncts have even complained about not being notified about cancellations until the day before classes were scheduled to begin.

Another concern is their lack of benefits and job security. Although many CCV professors work at other jobs and teach for the love of it or to supplement their incomes, community college earnings are the sole income for a growing number of instructors. But CCV offers no tenure or seniority based on teaching experience. Hired on a semester-by-semester basis, CCV instructors can teach the same class for a decade and then not be asked back, with no explanation, O'Callaghan says.

Heather Luden's entire income comes from teaching at CCV. For the last six years, the Brattleboro English instructor has been teaching three classes each semester, plus a writing lab. At most colleges, her course load would be considered a full-time job. But Luden receives no benefits and gets her health insurance through the Vermont Health Access Plan, just like low-income Vermonters.

Luden worked for years as an adjunct at the Community College of Philadelphia, which is unionized, and at Wake Tech Community College in North Carolina, which is not. "Here, it feels more like a business model than it ever did before," she says. "And for a community college, I've never worked in a place that has so little to do with the community."

O'Callaghan has taught at St. Lawrence University, and at Western Maryland and Gettysburg colleges. She says it's unusual for professors not to be more involved in decisions that are fundamental to their students' education experience, such as determining course objectives, curricula and class size.

One subject that hasn't become a hot-button issue yet is pay -- perhaps because CCV recently made a concerted effort to increase faculty compensation, says CCV President Tim Donovan. The college has upped the flat rate it pays for teaching a three-credit course from $1461 in the fall of 1999 to $2475 this fall -- an increase of nearly 70 percent over five years. Donovan explains that this increase was an effort to achieve parity with other Vermont professors' earnings. "I don't know exactly what everyone else in the state pays," he admits. "I suspect this is less than UVM, but I know it's more than some of the private colleges."

In fact, adjuncts are paid quite a bit more at some local colleges. An adjunct starting at St. Michael's College in Colchester this fall will earn $1025 per credit hour, or $3075 for a standard three-credit class. An adjunct who has worked 19 or more semesters at St. Mike's can earn $1225 per credit hour, or $3675 for a three-credit course.

But making direct comparisons between adjuncts' pay is tricky, because part-time professors at schools such as UVM can receive vastly different pay depending upon their credentials, experience and the department in which they teach. Donovan notes that CCV tries to balance offering a fair wage with keeping the school affordable. "We're all striving in this state to pay as livable a wage as we can," he says. Tuition at CCV is roughly half that at other state colleges.

Donovan first learned of the union drive in April. When five CCV instructors sent a letter to their fellow CCV professors inquiring about their interest in joining a union, the school's administration sent faculty a seven-page mailing explaining their rights and responsibilities under the law. Since then, Donovan has heard nothing more on the union effort, he says -- nor has CCV's administration staked out a formal position. Donovan won't speculate about what effect the drive might have on tuition. "This is a college that serves a lot of people and keeps it affordable and close by to a lot of people around the state," he says. "And that will remain our goal, regardless of how we're organized."

Others are less convinced that CCV has found that healthy balance. Roy Vestrich is president of the United Professions of Vermont/ American Federation of Teachers, the Burlington-based union that CCV faculty first approached about a year ago. A full-time professor at Castleton State College, Vestrich says CCV faculty are grossly underpaid compared to their counterparts at other state institutions.

Assistant professors at other state colleges now start at about $30,000 per year, not including the value of their benefits package, Vestrich points out; a full professor starts in the $40,000 to $50,000 range. However, a CCV professor with comparable classroom experience who teaches three courses per semester earns just $15,000 a year and gets no benefits, retirement or job security.

"This is a way to do education on the cheap," Vestrich says. "That sounds good when you're a lawmaker trying to balance the state colleges' budget, but... there are other ways of making education accessible and affordable without creating a system that depends on the exploitation of the faculty." Vestrich sees what's happening at CCV as a reflection of a larger trend in higher education: "the de-professionalization of the professorate."

Nationally, the number of tenure-track positions at institutions of higher learning has been in sharp decline. According to figures from the American Association of University Professors, both the percentage and absolute numbers of full-time, tenure-track faculty fell from 30.5 percent in 1998 to 25 percent in 2001. During that same period, the number of full-time, non-tenure-track faculty positions increased by 35.5 percent.

With the lack of good salaries, benefits or an institutional voice comes another condition: reluctance to openly discuss a union. "Frank-ly," O'Callaghan says, "there's a lot of fear because of the fact that our jobs are not secure."

That said, the union drive has also been an empowering experience. CCV faculty have met in Benning-ton, Rutland, Brattleboro, Spring-field and Burlington, and a union election may be held as early as late fall. Connecting with other CCV instructors throughout Vermont has not only provided an outlet for grievances, but also addressed some of the isolation that comes with teaching at a college with no campus. "It's creating a community," O'Callaghan suggests. "We are a community college, so obviously our faculty want to be, too."

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