BURLINGTON -- The Colchester teachers' strike has been getting a lot of ink these days. Far less attention has been paid to Chittenden County's longer-running labor dispute -- the one in higher education. The University of Vermont administration and United Academics, UVM's faculty union, have been in contract talks since January for both full- and part-time professors. Those negotiations have hit an impasse and, barring a settlement, are headed to mediation this week.
UVM spokesperson Enrique Corredera says the administration's policy is to not discuss the details of its negotiations with the media except to say, "We remain optimistic that the process will lead to a mutually satisfactory contract."
But many UVM teachers aren't optimistic. The university's full-time faculty has been working without a contract since the last one expired on June 30; the part-time faculty union, which voted to unionize last year, still hasn't signed a contract despite 10 months of talks. Unlike public school teachers, UVM teachers are prohibited by law from going on strike.
UVM's full- and part-time faculty belongs to separate bargaining units, but their negotiators say they share many of the same concerns. In particular, they contend that UVM isn't offering high enough salaries and benefits to make UVM competitive with comparable universities around the country. As a result, they say, recruitment has been difficult for many departments.
David Shiman is president of United Academics and chief negotiator for the full-time faculty unit, which includes 650 instructional and research faculty, some librarians, UVM extension staff and clinical instructors. About 400 of them are union members. Shiman cites data from Oklahoma State University, which compiles annual statistics on salaries in higher education. He cites OSU figures that put UVM salaries 7 percent below the national average. Other statistics, such as those from the American Association of University Professors, rank UVM in the second-lowest percentile for salaries, behind comparable schools like UMass Amherst and SUNY Albany.
"I had a [potential recruit] last year with three children who said that the only place he could afford to live on the salary he'd be paid was 40 or 50 miles away," Shiman says. "And he just couldn't afford that."
The situation is worse for part-time faculty, according to the union. For them, the issue isn't just pay and benefits, which can vary widely depending upon the department, area of specialty and year of hire. The part-timers complain that they have no job security. That goes for the 32 who have taught at the university for 10 years or more.
"We have some people who have no health care whatsoever," says Michele Patenaude, lead negotiator for UVM's 85 part-time faculty members. "The university wants you to think that we're some part-time force who are just teaching for the love of it and have spouses who are giving us health care. What we found out is that's not true for most of us."
The part-timers also complain that those who teach a full combined workload of regular and continuing education classes are not treated the same as other full-time faculty, even when they teach the same number of credits. Part-time professors are seeking other concessions from the administration, including workspace to meet with students and a cancellation fee if their classes are dropped due to low enrollment.
Union spokespeople readily acknowledge that UVM faculty salaries are higher than those of other educators in Chittenden County. Nevertheless, they point out that UVM President Dan Fogel has often spoken about his desire to boost the university's level of academic excellence and attract top-flight faculty.
Nancy Welch, an associate professor of English, says part of the problem is the rapidly growing number of administrators. "In 2001, UVM had three vice presidents," Welch says. "Today, there are 20 that we know of." All but one earn $100,000 per year or more. On average, their salaries have risen by nearly 27 percent. in the last four years. UVM spokesperson Enrique Corradern disputes Welch's numbers. He says the university has just nine people on its "top administrative team," and their salaries have risen on average only 6.2 percent since 2002. Regardless of how you define "administrator," Welch says the school's top-heavy approach takes its toll on students' educational experiences.
"I'm not sure that most students going to UVM come away after four years and say, 'Wow! That associate vice president for undergraduate education really made a difference for me!'" she says. "But they do remember the professors and lecturers who taught their classes."