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UMass NTT Rising

A few weeks ago, I noticed an announcement that some folks were organizing a meeting of Non-Tenure-Track (NTT) faculty from across the UMass system. I checked with my local (to ask whether they were aware this was happening -- they weren't) and to get an announcement out. Although several people expressed interest, in the end, I went by myself.

I decided to take my bike along with me and left early so I could explore the area a bit. There's a Harbor Walk that runs along the harbor both north and south of the campus. I arrived in time to explore south first. The Harbor Walk was in poor repair in that direction, with big expansion gaps in the pavement, which made riding not much fun. After exploring, I picked up my computer from the car (although I ended up not using it) and found the meeting in good order.

There was a big group -- more than 40 -- but I think I was the only representative from Amherst. The largest contingent came from UMass Lowell, which is in the middle of a bruising bargaining period. There were also a fair number from UMass Boston (unsurprisingly) and a good showing from Dartmouth. There was no one from the Medical School. There were also a handful of folks from the community colleges.

A main goal of the meeting was simply for people to share experiences about the nature of employment for people from different institutions and categories. It was pretty sobering.

When I arrived at UMass Amherst, there was little language in the contract regarding non-tenure-system faculty. A few years after I arrived, the union organized a working group to develop a set of priorities and we began to bargain to improve the conditions for NTT faculty. We haven't gotten everything we want. (In particular, I would still very much like to get a sabbatical for NTT faculty. Years ago, NTT appointments were generally short. The point of a sabbatical is for long-term faculty to maintain currency. But with NTT faculty appointments now lasting 20 and 30 years, we have as much need as anyone -- maybe more.) But we have gotten much of what we've sought. We've established that someone teaching four 3-credit sections is, minimally, a full-time employee. We gained, first one and then two, promotion opportunities. We regularized the lengths of contracts and subsequently developed a system for "continuing employment" which has replaced term appointments for most NTT faculty. We also established that current part-time faculty must be offered any newly available sections before additional part-timers can be hired. And many more gains. But it's not so nice everywhere.

The adjuncts at UMass Lowell are unbenefitted: no health insurance and no pension. In spite of the fact that many are working more than 4 sections. It's really appalling. The administration has been stonewalling them and it now appears that they have not been bargaining in good faith. They have a petition which everyone should sign.

It doesn't sound much better at UMass Dartmouth.

The MSP -- the faculty union at UMass Amherst -- was smart: the tenure-system faculty organized the non-tenure-system faculty and adjuncts into the same union. Not everyone agreed with this idea. At Dartmouth and Lowell, the adjuncts have ended up in a separate union and its clear that there are divisions between the two groups. The adjuncts feel that they are not welcome in faculty meetings and that the full-time faculty are part of the problem. I tried to explain the situation as I understood it: many tenure-system faculty watch as tenure lines are converted into multiple non-tenure positions. They fear this because the scholarship of the department is being threatened. Non-tenure-system faculty are too busy teaching to participate in scholarship except in a volunteer, hobbyist kind of way. Tenure-system faculty wish that everyone would hold out for a "real" tenure-system job and they don't want the NTT jobs to look attractive. But this is an inhumane way of thinking about the problem. The MSP got it right: by insisting that the NTT faculty were professionalized and treated well, it reduced the incentives of the administration to replace tenure-system faculty with NTT.

I offered some encouraging words: we didn't have any of these things when we started 12 years ago and we gained them all through solidarity and hard bargaining. Not without difficulty and compromise, to be sure. But I assured them that they -- that WE -- could do the same. The group agreed to meet again this summer (although I probably won't be available that day).

I made one other small contribution: they began wanting to organize officers or leaders and I suggested waiting a bit. We're still a small part of what I believe will become a much larger group over the coming months -- as the word gets out regarding what the adjuncts are trying to do. I suggested we wait until we have that larger pool of members before trying to organize a steering committee.

After the meeting, I took a longer ride north along the harbor. I rode past the JFK Presidential Library and up toward Boston. It reminded me a bit of harbor at Fredriksted. But it was colder, not as blue -- and it sure didn't smell as nice. Still, it was a lovely spring day. I'll need to take my bike more places so I can get out and explore.