Duke adjunct faculty members file notice of union election

Concertgoers were given a spectacular sunset if they ventured near the Chapel as they left the Sarah P. Duke Gardens on the campus of Duke University in Durham, NC Wednesday, June10, 2015.
Concertgoers were given a spectacular sunset if they ventured near the Chapel as they left the Sarah P. Duke Gardens on the campus of Duke University in Durham, NC Wednesday, June10, 2015.

Adjunct faculty members at Duke University have filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board to hold an election on whether to unionize.

The petition was filed Thursday, showing that at least 30 percent of employees in the group support the effort. For months, a group called Duke Teaching First has discussed the idea of a union to improve pay, benefits and job security for part-time and non-tenure track faculty.

“I just feel as though it’s a historic moment,” said M.J. Sharp, who teaches photography at Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies. “We just can’t let it keep going along like this.”

Sharp, who has taught at Duke for three years, said she feels supported by her colleagues, but many others aren’t in such a good position. She said the growing non-tenure track faculty across the nation constitute a “massive, permanent underclass.”

“Academia has been trying to solve itself for 20 years, and nothing really happens,” she said. “For those of us who’ve been watching, we know that more good intentions will get us nowhere.”

The Service Employees International Union is seeking to represent non-tenure track faculty members in Duke’s Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, the Graduate School and the Center for Documentary Studies, said Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations.

“We are assessing the petition now and will abide by the federal guidelines outlined by the National Labor Relations Board for responding to it,” Schoenfeld said. “We also respect the rights of our faculty members to seek information, review the implications and decide whether to seek union representation or not.”

The action at Duke follows a wave of adjunct unionization around the United States. But it is rare in the South. At dozens of universities – University of Chicago, Tufts and Georgetown among others – faculty have voted to join SEIU in the past three years.

SEIU also has launched a campaign to advocate for adjuncts to receive $15,000 per course, well above what many now make. The efforts have been dubbed Faculty Forward.

As the Duke campaign gained steam, the administration launched a website warning about tactics of union organizers. “You are your own best representative,” the site said.

The communication from the administration is intended “to confuse and dissuade,” said Chris Shreve, an instructor at Duke.

Shreve has taught at Duke for 12 years and holds two degrees from the university. He now teaches lab sections for a large biology course that is offered every semester – something that has given him some predictability in his income.

He said there has been steady support from tenured and tenure track colleagues. In December, dozens of faculty took out an ad in the Duke Chronicle with an open letter to Duke President Richard Brodhead. More than 80 faculty eventually signed the letter.

The ad said more than 40 percent of faculty members at Duke aren’t on the tenure track, and contingent faculty have increased by 67 percent in the past decade. Schoenfeld said Duke has about 3,500 faculty members, 80 percent of whom are tenured, tenure track or on multiyear contracts.

Faculty who signed the Chronicle ad said Duke had the resources to improve compensation for adjuncts.

“While Duke makes significant investments in building projects and a new campus overseas, the university spent only 9.5 percent of its total expenditures on salaries for teachers in 2013,” the letter said. “Duke relies on non-tenure track faculty to teach a steadily increasing percentage of its courses. It is time to offer our ‘contingent’ colleagues fair working conditions. The university needs their work, and has the resources necessary to raise standards.”

Shreve said support for a union has been building for months.

“We’ve had a generally very positive response from the faculty at Duke,” he said. “It’s very encouraging to see tenured faculty and tenure track faculty recognize the fundamental inequalities present in higher education right now.”

Students also joined in the effort. They hung banners, baked cookies and held a flash mob to support their nontenured teachers, some of whom are part-time and some of whom are full-time.

Ashlyn Nuckols, a sophomore from Essex, Vermont, said she had been part of that effort.

“From a moral perspective, we want to go to an institution where all the employees feel like they’re being treated fairly,” she said. “But also, for a lot of us, these professors are mentors and life counselors. How they’re feeling really affects our academic experience as students.”

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill