Punished for Winning?

Mills College adjuncts, fresh from winning a union vote, protest job eliminations and program changes that seemed to kick in just as collective bargaining was won.

September 17, 2014
Mills College's adjunct union organizing committee, David Buuck, Kate Robinson, Ben Brown and Julie Nicholson, before the election.

Some colleges actively oppose union drives for their adjuncts or other faculty members, and sometimes the fights get ugly. None of that happened at Mills College last year. By all accounts, adjunct faculty members’ campaign to form a union associated with the Service Employees International Union was civil, as was the college’s response: it pledged to remain neutral, and did so.

So what’s happened since the union announced a 78 percent “yes” vote in May is puzzling to some at Mills. Various adjunct faculty union members and tenure-line professors who are not part of the bargaining unit say that recent personnel actions and program changes feel retaliatory toward adjuncts, and out of line with the college’s social justice mission. Several adjunct faculty and staff members involved in the union drive have had their workloads reduced or have been laid off, and the college recently announced that it is enforcing a longstanding but rarely followed policy of canceling classes that enroll fewer than 10 students. Adjunct faculty members and their tenure-line supporters say that’s bumped adjuncts out of their assignments at the last minute, at an institution that charges high tuition -- some $41,000 -- in exchange for unusually low student-faculty ratios: an average of 10 to 1, according to Mills.

Union members and tenure-line faculty and student supporters are protesting these actions today on campus, and plan to deliver a petition condemning them to Mills's top administrators. Beyond immediate concerns about Mills, SEIU leaders say they fear that such late-in-the-game opposition to unions -- in which common contract negotiation items are changed before collective bargaining can begin -- could become a new strategy for colleges dealing with a recent crop of adjunct unions. Many of those unions are associated with SEIU's Adjunct Action campaign, which is organizing across the greater San Francisco area and in other cities nationwide. Mills is in Oakland.

The college, meanwhile, denies any retaliatory action against its employees but won't comment on specifics. In the backdrop looms Mills’s $5.5 million budget deficit for this fiscal year. That's a significant portion of the college's budget, which was about $85 million in 2013.

Stephanie Young, an adjunct professor of English who was a vocal supporter of the union bid, can’t say for sure that she lost the half-time English graduate program director position she’d held for 10 years due to her activism. But it feels that way, she said.

“Everything that happened after I was fired and the ways in which the department fought for my position, even offering a budget-neutral position to bring me back, makes me feel like a symbol in certain kind of struggle,” she said.

Several tenured professors in Young’s department, including two who resigned as incoming co-chairs as a result of the provost's decision to lay off their colleague, agreed. They say they weren’t notified of the move in advance and have since asked the provost about rehiring Young to do her administrative work in a different capacity, including during course releases. They say they need someone to help them complete the enrollment, outreach and co-curricular planning work she did. But so far, they’ve been given several different reasons as to why they can’t hire Young in particular, including that she is an adjunct; none of it sounds quite right, they say.

“We’re floundering,” said Juliana Spahr, one of the would-have-been co-chairs, of the void left by Young and another full-time staff member who were laid off in June, just weeks after the union election results were announced.

Addressing her decision to step down, Spahr added, “At that moment, we tried to argue that the cuts happened without consultation and that faculty should have some control over budget lines, but we were not successful. The labor issues were too complicated, and I didn’t feel I’d be able to be successful in that moment doing that.”

In an email, Diane Cady, Spahr’s co-chair, criticized the university’s handling of the layoffs, particularly in a department that houses 10 percent of the college’s students – an unusually large portion for English at most colleges.

“There was no transition plan put in place, and the Office of Graduate Admissions, the office who would then pick up a part of this work, was unsure how it was going to be done, too,” she said. “What has happened is especially puzzling given [our] robust numbers [and] given no other graduate programs experienced similar losses and I believe has led some to speculate that it is retaliatory.”

Ben Brown, an adjunct professor of history, has a similar claim. He said that he has taught the same course at Mills for approximately 10 years, and back in the spring he verbally accepted an offer to teach it again this fall. But the day after his picture appeared on an SEIU flier promoting the union drive, prior to the vote, he was told by a faculty member in his department that the class was no longer his. It was unclear why, he said.

On Brown’s behalf, SEIU submitted an unfair labor practice complaint to the National Labor Relations Board. Within weeks, he was told by another faculty member that the job was his again, and that there had simply been a “misunderstanding,” he said; the professor withdrew his complaint. Brown said he admits that his evidence for retaliation is “all circumstantial,” but his case and Young’s demonstrate why adjuncts need a union after all, he said. Last year, 64 percent of Mills College's faculty were adjuncts.

“This is one of the problems with being non-tenure-track in general,” Brown said. “Everything is at the discretion of the department. Until you actually sign a contract you don’t know what your teaching load could be – I don’t even know if I’m going to be offered a course that I’ve taught regularly for the last 10 years. So how can I plan my life?”

The SEIU also submitted labor practice complaints on Young’s behalf, along with two more general complaints about program and personnel changes being enacted without notifying the union. All three were rejected

Jennifer Smith-Camejo, an SEIU spokeswoman, said the union disagrees with the NLRB’s decisions. She and several faculty members said the most troublesome program change is that the college has begun enforcing the 10-student policy for class enrollment. Some 75 percent of classes at Mills have fewer than 20 students, and the average class size is 16, so faculty members worry that this policy will result in significantly fewer classes being offered for students -- particularly in certain programs, such as art, where small class sizes are expected. Adjunct advocates also worry that courses enrolling fewer than 10 students will be canceled at the last minute, worsening concerns about job security.

Smith-Camejo also said that Mills’s move to make program and personnel changes before the start of contract negotiations was rare among colleges and universities. But she said she worried it could become a kind of strategy for colleges dealing with the many adjunct unions that are forming as a result of Adjunct Action.

Neither Mills’s provost, Kimberley L. Phillips, nor its president, Alecia A. DeCoudreaux, was available for an interview Tuesday, a spokeswoman said. But DeCoudreaux sent the following statement via email: “The college is meeting regularly with SEIU representatives in an effort to collaboratively negotiate in good faith. The college’s policy is not to comment on individual personnel matters.”

Internal memos sent from DeCoudreaux to faculty members this summer -- after the election but before collective bargaining got rolling -- and obtained by Inside Higher Ed reveal a plan to shed numerous faculty and staff positions by consolidating student services, canceling current job openings, and laying off several part-time and full-time employees, including Young and her colleague in the graduate English program. DeCoudreaux says that the college is abandoning a current five-year budget plan in order to balance the budget now, due to lower-than-expected revenue this year. The president blames drops in bequests and student attrition for the crisis. The memos do not provide precise data on declining enrollment, and the college did not provide any upon request. But in the memos DeCoudreaux expresses concern about retention in particular; faculty members estimate the drop to be several dozen undergraduate students. The college last year enrolled 997 undergraduates.

Stephen Ratcliffe, a professor of English who is a member of the college’s Faculty Executive Committee, said he didn't necessarily think it was a bad thing to enforce the college's standing 10-student rule in light of the $5.5 million budget shortfall. But he said that concerns about class sizes and recent personnel decisions had reached the small shared governance body. Ratcliffe said he didn’t know how much of the recent changes to attribute to the budget and the general economic climate and how much to something more troubling. But he said the circumstances surrounding Young’s departure as graduate program coordinator were concerning, and that she was “the one” for the job.

Spahr also said she wasn’t sure how much to attribute to the union connection or the “bigger story” of smaller, private, tuition-dependent colleges struggling to maintain their financial footing. But the way these recent changes have been enacted – unilaterally, without broad faculty input – are troubling to Mills students and alumni, as well, she said. Spahr noted that many are “committed” to the all-female undergraduate college’s social justice mission. She said one graduate student already had dropped out of the English program in protest.

That graduate student, Denise Benavides, said via email that she was taking a leave of absence from Mills because of the current circumstances; she said she'd decided to attend after studying with Young as an undergraduate. "[As] someone who has already invested thousands in Mills, not only as a graduate, but as an undergraduate as well, I can't justify investing any more in these present conditions," she said. "It doesn't feel right. It's all not right."


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