Revealing the financial implications of union negotiations
When I asked a staff member of the union SEIU Local 200United about the implications of the faculty union’s proposed 1.2 million dollar expense increase for the college, he told me this wasn’t my story. He said the real story was in how the administration was exploiting part-time contingent faculty at my own college.
But increasing the college’s salary expenses by this much is a very real story. Why? Because students have a right to know how a substantial increase in compensation affects them.
Let me be clear — I support the right of Ithaca College faculty to unionize, to speak freely and to challenge the institution’s practices. But they must be honest with students and with the campus community as a whole about the implications of their demands, instead of holding the college’s reputation hostage in order to threaten their student enrollment and funding.
“One of the best things we can do is to generate pressure, not just from within the school but from the outside as well and to make the college think, ‘This is going to threaten our enrollment and our bottom line and we need to make a change to avoid that,’” a member of Students of Labor Action said.
Lecturers, instructors and adjunct professors at the college have little job security, limited health benefits and are paid only by the credit hour. If they have a part-time position, they can teach no more than 24 credits per academic year, which amounts to an annual salary of 16,800 dollars at best.
Let’s back it up a second here: Why would the administration pay some faculty 16,800 dollars per year to teach a limit of 24 credits?
The answer is because contingent positions were never intended to sustain long-term careers or compensate a living wage. They are a college’s solution to the ebbs and flows of student enrollment.
At a small private college like IC where tuition and student fees provides over 90 percent of the revenue, the budget must allocate money where the students enroll. You’d think with over 6000 students and a tuition of $41,776 the college would be swimming in cash. But with the current financial aid rate of 68 percent the school loses almost of its tuition revenue.
When the college offers a class, it means enough tuition-paying students have enrolled for the college to support the class and the professor. Similarly, if the college does not offer a course — and decides not to renew a professor’s contract — a reason for this could be the class was not demanded by students and the college can’t support the class. In short, the college can’t offer a class that isn’t supported by tuition.
“Corporatization” is a term used to describe the changing climate of the campus lately, as we have seen tuition rise. Yet, despite these changes adjunct professors still make much less than tenure track professors. However, Ithaca College has no financial incentive to compensate its faculty at the cheapest cost in order to maximize profits because accumulating profit is not the top priority at the college.
As the union points out in their teach-ins, colleges and universities across the country are gradually depending more on part-time contingent professors and less on full-time tenure track professors. The current nationwide average for part time faculty is at 49 percent of all faculty positions, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Ithaca College is currently at 39 percent.
Additionally, on October 18th, the Office of Human Resources at Ithaca College released a report on detailing the issues raised by the union. After taking a survey of surrounding institutions, the office reported only two institutions paying part-time faculty at a higher rate than the college.
At $4,200 per three credit course, Ithaca College already pays part-time professors the same or far greater than institutions with faculty that have already reached a contract settlement with the aid of the same union IC faculty are using. After a contract settlement, faculty at the College of St. Rose now receive $3,000 to 3,500 per three credit course, according to a report from SEIU Local 200United. Another report from a different SEIU union shows part-time faculty at George Washington University with terminal degrees still make $600 less per four credit course than any part-time professor at Ithaca College, prior to a contract settlement with the administration.
Still the union urges the college to be “trendsetters,” to reverse the 50-year trend of hiring faculty at lower compensation rates at the teach-ins, despite the college already being ahead of the curve. But how much would this crusade cost and what would that mean for the operating expenses of the college?
The faculty union says not to get “bogged down” with the estimated $1.2 million increase in yearly expenses because they were afraid it would prevent students from adequately understanding and spreading their cause.
“I think things are getting confusing with numbers, like, with the message we’re trying to get out,” one of the members said. “There’s too many numbers and we need just like five bullet points.”
But let’s take a serious look at the budget, which is made public on the college website. How would the $1.2 million salary increase and benefits be funded? Cuts to civic engagement? Financial aid? Or thousands from all across the board?
The union has offered a couple sources of revenue to subsidize this salary increase: The contingency fund and the “meals and entertainment” budget. Dipping too far into both of these funds would cause harrowing detriment to the long-term finances of the college and the college itself.
The contingency fund is the college’s safety net, the two percent of the budget reserved only for when the college doesn’t bring in enough tuition revenue. At the end of the 2009 fiscal year, following the financial crash, the administration had to use its contingency fund when enrollment numbers dropped below their projected amount and the college’s endowment funds diminished in their market values by one-third. After all their expenses, the largest portion of which included financial aid, the college was left with only a couple million dollars above having no money.
In reality, meeting the union’s demands for parity would have to come from tuition increases, Nancy Pringle, senior vice president of Human and Legal resources, said. With over 90 percent dependency, tuition is the most abundant source of funds. Nothing else even comes close. Other colleges with larger endowments that receive more charitable donations can perhaps afford the union’s demands inhibits IC’s goal of remaining accessible to students of diverse socioeconomic backgrounds.
The aforementioned local SEIU organizer made things very simple and clear at the teach-ins when he said the administration is simply “unethical” for paying the faculty members at the current rate. If this is a discussion about ethics, it must be one of ethical trade-offs. Is it more ethical to cut other expenses like academic programs or raise tuition in order to increase a part-time pay rate?
Nothing in life is free. Every year, the budget committee is burdened with the near-impossible task of finding the delicate balance between the financial health of the institution and IC’s mission statement. Because as long as the college is working with limited resources, there will always be groups that feel the college has spent too much on one thing and doesn’t substantially value another. But in the game of budgeting, there are never any final solutions, only trade-offs.
Justin Henry is a third-year English major who can’t sleep at night when thinking about tuition rising. You can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org.