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Too Old and Too Female for Fashion Studies?

Departmental self-study at Columbia College in Chicago raises issues about gender and age of adjuncts, leading to charges of bias.

October 31, 2016
 

Part-time faculty members at Columbia College in Chicago say a department-level report, submitted to the administration without seeming to raise any eyebrows, demonstrates the kind of status-, age- and even gender-based bias they face on a regular basis.

The report suggests that fashion studies needs to diversify because there is a disproportionate number of female adjuncts “over 50,” and that the part-time faculty union contract is holding the department back because of new job protections for long-serving instructors.

The college disputes the adjuncts’ characterization of the report and says it’s committed to equal employment opportunity and diversity in every way.

“We really hate to see senior adjuncts treated with such disrespect,” said Nancy Traver, a part-time instructor of journalism at Columbia College and a spokesperson for P-fac, the independent adjunct union. “These are people who have put their lives toward teaching and they’re quite good at what they do. And yet it seems the college wants to get rid of them.”

That’s on the one hand, Traver added. On the other, the report is something of a “vindication,” since it represents a “spelling out” of biases that instructors have been sensing for years.

Columbia College’s fashion studies department has been in something of an uproar this year over plans to reframe it as the “Fashion Next” program and drop a technique-heavy bachelor of fine arts in favor of a single bachelor of arts degree. The changes are in part a response to a recent drop in enrollments in the department, reflective of a major drop in enrollment at the college over all -- from about 12,000 students in 2008 to about 8,000 this year.

Opponents of the changes -- students and some faculty members -- have started a petition saying that the proposed curriculum “will not provide Columbia fashion design students with the education they need for viable employment in their chosen field,” and that they’ve been given “no evidence/data to show the courses that have been proposed, altered, removed or renamed will improve our students’ educational experience and make them more marketable in their respective fields, which is what Fashion Next’s intended purpose is.”

Trying to track some of the changes for its members, the part-time faculty union requested from the college a copy of the fashion studies department’s recent self-study report, completed by Jeff Schiff, interim chair of the department and a tenured professor of English who specializes in poetry and communications.

Members did not expect to see the following: a section on diversity says that a “predominantly female student body is almost always taught by white women instructors” and that “noteworthy, too, is that 25 of them are older than 50.”

The report continues, “Sentiment is high about further diversifying our faculty -- in terms of age, ability, sexual orientation, philosophical bent, socioeconomic background, etc. Given the de facto hiring freeze and the strictures of our collective bargaining agreement, such will likely not come to pass any time soon.”

There are several other references to how the part-time faculty contract allegedly hinders departmental progress, including that “the collective bargaining agreement means that unless we substantially rewrite classes, and find those currently assigned lack sufficient expertise to teach them, we cannot seek the most appropriate credential/outcomes match.”

Columbia College signed its collective bargaining agreement with P-fac in 2013, after years of negotiations. In what was considered a major win for long-serving faculty members seeking some degree of job security, the contract says the college must offer two course sections to qualified adjuncts with 51 or more teaching credits’ worth of service, before moving on to those with 33-50 credits’ worth. (A typical course is three credits.)

It’s unclear exactly how long-serving adjuncts with expertise to teach even significantly redesigned classes would hold back the department. Traver suggested that some courses are minimally redesigned or renamed so that tenure-line faculty members may offer them to friends or less experienced adjuncts whom they may pay less.

In any case, job security is something adjuncts on many campuses seek, saying it’s poor practice -- with negative implications for both students and faculty members -- to wait until the approach of a new semester to tell an adjunct who’s taught on a campus for years whether they’ll be asked back. At the same time, administrators often say that part-time faculty members are a key part of maintaining institutional flexibility -- especially when enrollment numbers are in flux.

As for age, many adjuncts say they face discrimination, especially when applying for tenure-track jobs, because being older in a non-tenure-track position somehow signals failure to some, rather than experience.

Women make up a disproportionate part of the adjunct workforce, for a variety of reasons. But Traver said gender parity may be unrealistic in fashion studies, in particular, because it’s a female-dominated field. The department has 35 women and nine men teaching, according to the self-study.

Schiff, the interim department chair who prepared the report, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The college in a statement said it “strongly disagrees” with P-fac’s “attempt to mischaracterize select parts of a robust, departmental self-assessment written by faculty in the fashion studies department.”

The college and its faculty are engaged in a “comprehensive, deep and thoughtful review of its curriculum and of the institution’s current practices around diversity, equity and inclusion,” the statement says. “The self-study takes a candid look at the department in the context of collegewide priorities as outlined in the strategic plan, and includes contributing statements from all full-time faculty, giving multiple perspectives. The self-study is a conversation and is not a final document. To suggest that it’s one person’s perspective or that the college endorses such perspectives is deeply inaccurate.

P-fac has “either misunderstood or willfully distorted the content of the diversity section in the self-study,” the college said. “Although that section is written informally, it does advance a basic observation at the college, which is that our faculty are disproportionately less diverse than our student body. The college’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee and Universal Learning Outcomes Committee also recognize the necessity not only for diverse faculty representation, but for diverse curriculum, scholarship, perspective and practice so that Columbia students can be better prepared to engage in a highly diverse, global creative environment.”

The collective bargaining agreement “memorializes the college’s responsibility and obligation to both establish faculty qualifications and assess part-time faculty,” the college added. “Courses do not need to be rewritten in order to ensure that teaching faculty are qualified,” and courses will not be rewritten for such a purpose.

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