Part-time faculty members at Columbia College Chicago have been striking since Oct. 30, a highly unusual, perhaps unprecedented, duration for a contingent faculty walkout.
The Columbia College Faculty Union, which represents these part-timers but not the full-time faculty, has described it as history’s longest adjunct strike. Some other media reported that part-timers at the New School in New York City set the previous record a year ago.
William A. Herbert, executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College, part of the City University of New York, said his center’s data show that the Columbia College Chicago strike is the longest among contingent faculty members for at least the past decade. He said his center doesn’t have specific-enough data to test the claim further back.
Record or not, now that the strike has reached the one-month mark, administrators are moving to get students through this semester without the strikers.
Neither the union nor the college have provided clear figures on how many adjuncts are currently on strike.
The union says the college recently locked strikers out of their Canvas online learning management system accounts and called students back to classes with new instructors. The union says it’s filed unfair labor practice charges over, among other things, allegations that the college is illegally stealing strikers’ intellectual property by using their course materials.
In an email to Inside Higher Ed, a college spokesperson referenced “alternative instructional arrangements.”
“Classes have resumed for students and are being taught by some part-time faculty who are choosing not to strike, full-time faculty, chairs, and qualified staff and other substitute instructors,” the email said. “Approximately 60 percent of classes were meeting before the Thanksgiving break, and with alternative instructional arrangements kicking in this week, we expect instruction will have resumed in nearly all courses by the end of the week.”
Madhurima Chakraborty, as president of the Faculty Senate, represents only the full-time faculty, which isn’t unionized.
“People are telling me about their nightmares, you know,” Chakraborty said. “It’s an incredibly high-stress, -anxiety situation. People are sad. Nobody, nobody is happy or—like, forget happy—nobody I’ve talked to is anything but deeply conflicted.”
She said she doesn’t know how many full-time faculty members are filling in, but the situation has strained them and the college more broadly. She said full-time faculty members are divided between wanting to help students and not wanting to undercut the part-timers’ strike.
“Overwhelmingly, the singular word that I’m hearing from full-time faculty in this situation is ‘powerless,’” Chakraborty said. “We’ve been thrust, I should say, into this incredibly divisive situation.”
She said she told her department chair she wouldn’t fill in if asked.
“I couldn’t figure out a way to reconcile with myself the fact that I would undermine the strike,” she said.
Diana Vallera, president of the part-timers’ union, CFAC, wrote in an email to Inside Higher Ed that she couldn’t provide an exact number of classes that remained canceled as of this week.
“When we went out on strike, all courses by CFAC members were not being taught (except a few that were taught by scabs crossing the line—but very few,” she wrote, emphasis in original. This week, the first full week of the institution’s fill-in plan, she wrote that “we have not been given the information regarding how many of the classes are actually being held.”
“We have seen evidence sent to us by some students that full-time [faculty members] have taken on 5 or more sections and have switched the modality to asynchronous,” she wrote. “We’ve also seen faculty conducting workshops combining several class sections.”
The union said one department chair, whom it didn’t name, was covering 54 sections.
Callie LaVanway, a junior comedy writing and performance major, said she is taking six classes, one of which has always been taught by a full-time faculty member and another of which has been taught by a part-time faculty member who isn’t striking.
“I’m a very pro-union person; it felt wrong to me to cross that picket line,” LaVanway said of that class. So she didn’t go, she said.
Recently, she said, she began attending her history class, where a new instructor is filling in. LaVanway said this new instructor is “using all the quizzes and has us learning through my own professor’s PowerPoints and stuff like that.” She said another of her classes, a performance one, also has a replacement instructor—but she’s not going, saying “it felt extra wrong to even attend that.”
“It’s very tough to understand my feelings on the situation, to be honest,” she said. “All I know is I want what’s best for my teachers … I would like to teach one day, and it’s kind of disheartening to see that this is how educators are being treated.”
‘On the Chopping Block’
The striking part-timers say working professionals have historically been central in teaching at the private, arts-focused institution. A union spokeswoman said nearly 73 percent of the college’s 805 faculty members are part-time.
The college, citing continued annual deficits, is increasing class sizes and cutting class sections—threatening their jobs.
“If we stop fighting, then we are laying our necks on the chopping block,” said Andrea J. Dymond, a union bargaining team member and a part-time faculty member in the theater department.
Lambrini Lukidis, a college spokesperson, wrote in an email to Inside Higher Ed that the college canceled 34 sections this fall, almost all “substantially under-enrolled,” and had planned to nix 317 sections in spring 2024 that had run in spring 2023. The college has floated bringing that 317 number down to 267.
On Oct. 28, the provost’s office sent students an email saying, “Students filled 28,422 total seats in classes in Spring 2023. There are 28,975 available seats for Spring 2024.”
The email said 55 percent of the sections “are seeing no increase in class size over spring 2023,” with average growth of 5.7 seats for those seeing increases.
“Our studio classes remain small as appropriate to the subject matter,” the email said.
Atop the job threat, the union is arguing that these cuts will harm students’ education.
“They want us to water down the education the students are getting rather than meet the expectations that we know, as professionals in the field, are necessary,” Dymond told Inside Higher Ed.
She further said union members are “unwilling to agree to terms that would, in effect, break our union.”
“The administration is unwilling to offer any level—any reasonable level—of quote-unquote job security,” she said.
The college has accused the union of demanding “quasi-tenure,” something Dymond denied.
“The union has refused to end the strike because it insists on a guarantee of employment for nearly all members of this contingent group of faculty, and has sought veto power over class sizes and course offerings,” the college said in an email to Inside Higher Ed.
“The college has proposed pay increases, new benefits, and new avenues for input on college decisions for part-time faculty,” the college said. “Despite these proposals—made in the context of an ongoing $20 million structural deficit—the parties are deadlocked because the union’s demands would jeopardize the college’s long-term sustainability by dictating which measures the college can and cannot use to restore its fiscal health.”
Chakraborty, the Faculty Senate president, said the strains between full- and part-time faculty mean “institutionally, it’s bleak.”
“Frankly, the thing I’m worried about is the divisiveness—and is the legacy of the divisiveness,” she said.