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Opinion

SUNDAY, FEB. 13, 2005

Colleges exploiting part-time professors

For the past decade, the higher education buzzword in our state capital has been “access,” that is, providing new funding for adding more students to our public colleges and universities. There is little doubt that, with only four undergraduate colleges and two research universities, Washington state has built a bare bones higher educational system.

To take up the slack, the state built 34 community and technical colleges to handle hundreds of thousands of students each year. For the next biennium, the state Board for Community and Technical Colleges is asking the Legislature for $85 million to fund 5,000 new students.

But is access really the most important problem facing our community and technical colleges? Is there really no room at the community college inn?

In fact, the colleges have been scrambling to fill seats with high school students under the Running Start program, and with international students as well. Granted, the two-year colleges have managed to offer quality goods at Wal-Mart prices, and there are lots of customers.

The colleges have followed the Wal-Mart employment model of hiring a skeletal crew of 3,300 full-timers, and staffing their courses with 10,000 low-paid professors. Large numbers of these profs work full-time schedules but must suffer the discrimination of being labeled “part-time.”

In this case, the state of Washington is evading its responsibility to acknowledge the excellent efforts of 75 percent of our community college professors. The state is abdicating its responsibility to ensure academic freedom — which protects both professors and their students — and instead is giving a stamp of approval to exploitive labor practices that endorse a model of oppression to the entire community.

Erroneous State Board statistics try to gloss over the facts by boasting that these “part-time” professors now earn $27,406 annually, or about 57 percent of an average full-time salary of $48,303 if they were to teach a full load.

But this rosy picture masks what the average part-time faculty member actually earns. The two faculty unions, contracted to represent the part-time faculty, have collectively bargained barriers to limit how many courses part-time faculty teach. In order to keep the “part-time” faculty subservient, lower than “full-time,” the unions limit “part-time” workloads to 66 to 80 percent.

Assuming that most part-time faculty average teaching 50 percent of full-time, then it is more likely that part-time college professors are earning 50 percent of $27,406 annually, or $13,703, which is about 28 percent of what full-time faculty earn. This is pretty close to the state poverty level for a family of four. How can the state of Washington be proud that 75 percent of its community college professors are risking poverty? Is the state afraid that these professors will be able to buy groceries and pay for housing?

The part-time faculty in the two-year colleges may very well be the state’s most mistreated and exploited employees. In addition to poverty wages, most community college professors do not receive increased pay for their years of experience. They teach with no job security, working for years on quarterly contracts that may be cancelled at anytime. Most do not have health care or retirement benefits. They are ineligible for sabbaticals, professional development and travel funds that are limited to “full-time” faculty. Few have individual offices.

It took a state law, initiated by us, to give them pro-rated sick leave.

All of these practices are forms of discrimination, designed to keep 75 percent of the professors forever subordinate to the whims of the few but powerful “full-time” faculty and administrators who are running state-funded feudal systems.

Should the two-year colleges, who have refused to pay their nearly $60 million annual debt to their part-time faculty professors, be adding more students to the system? Should a family with too many unpaid bills decide to take on more costly projects?

State Sen. Ken Jacobsen, who has repeatedly called the community colleges our state’s “chain of academic sweatshops,” has sponsored legislation abolishing the two-tiered salary schedule and paying all our fine faculty equal pay for equal work. Faculty labeled as “part-time” would be placed on the same salary schedule as the full-time faculty. The same criteria for degrees and experience would apply, and adjuncts’ pay would be pro-rated for the percentage of the full-time load they teach.

The two faculty unions — the American Federation of Teachers-Washington and the National Education Association — which long ago initiated the two-tiered wage and benefit system that divides the part-time and the full-time faculty, have decided to divide the part-time faculty further. At the unions’ request, legislation has been proposed that might pay some part-timers equal pay, but would leave at least 50 percent of them earning only three-fourths of a full-time salary for teaching full time. Such proposals appear to violate a union’s duty to provide fair representation to all members.

It is past time for the Legislature to pass Sen. Jacobsen’s bill and direct the state Board for Community Colleges to eliminate the discrimination and exploitation of part-time college professors. We must demand something better than a Wal-Mart community college system. The Legislature should fund equal pay for equal work before it allocates funding for additional students. Otherwise, we are only comedy colleges, a cruel joke played on the public and not true community colleges.



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