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Precariat Professors: Where SAIC’s Part-Time Faculty Stand

Recent strike measures at Columbia College Chicago have highlighted a need to check the status of SAIC part-time faculty, after the fizzling of unionization efforts in 2016.


Illustration by Rohan McDonald.

The Part-Time Faculty Association of Columbia College Chicago (P-Fac) went on strike for two days last December, picketing the school’s 600 S. Michigan Avenue building for job security, academic freedom, and respect for senior part-time faculty. P-Fac’s dissatisfaction highlights the precarious position of part-time instructors throughout the city and across the nation. Columbia College neighbors the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). Like Columbia, more than half of SAIC’s instructors are part-time faculty.

Adjuncts recently scored 2nd place in “The 20 Most Powerless People in the Art World: 2017 Edition” on Hyperallergic. The year before, Kevin Birmingham — an adjunct instructor in the Harvard College Writing Program — won the Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism. He used his speech to decry the exploitation of part-time and adjunct faculty at academic institutions.

Columbia College describes its faculty as “industry leaders”; SAIC calls its staff “experienced practitioners.” At universities nationally and internationally, such accomplished experts work part-time to retain space for their artistic practice. But the pay offered to part-timers is often disproportionately low; part-time faculty do the work of a full-time faculty member without the benefits, wages, and job security that accompany a full-time position.

“A typical salary for a full-time Assistant Professor nationally is around $60,000 a year and usually involves teaching four classes a year plus service. At SAIC, a part-time Lecturer teaches one class for $5,000 and an Adjunct teaches a class for $6,000. … The school pays the same teachers, often with the same or even better qualifications, substantially less. $60,000 versus $20,000 and $24,000 respectively. Compare this to the living wage it costs to live in Cook county — $27,664,” Christopher Meerdo — an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Photography and Part-Time Faculty Senator at SAIC — told F Newsmagazine.

“Most students would probably be shocked to learn that their teachers qualify for, and frequently use, programs like SNAP (colloquially known as food stamps) to make ends meet. This is particularly poignant given the recent release of the overall class assessment at SAIC and the cost to attend the school in general,” said Meerdo.

Columbia College’s P-Fac was the first part-time faculty union in the country. In 2016, SAIC experienced a drive to unionize its adjuncts and lecturers. Part-time faculty raised a number of concerns, including pay discrepancies, the negotiation system for multi-year contracts, and the hiring process’ opacity. But to date, SAIC remains un-unionized at all levels.

Jeremiah Hulsebos-Spofford, an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Contemporary Practices, was a co-organizer of SAIC’s unionization drive alongside a number of part-time faculty members.

“It continued an ongoing and very necessary conversation about what labor practices should look like in higher education and at SAIC, and the widespread use of underpaid and precarious faculty members,” Hulsebos-Spofford told F News.

In response to questions regarding SAIC’s unionization efforts, SAIC created a website about the unionization process. Though the drive has ended, the site is still viewable here. According to the site, SAIC believes “that union representation for a segment of our faculty is unnecessary and potentially counterproductive to our academic mission.” 

When asked about how SAIC’s unionization drive ended, Hulsebos-Spofford said, “After the administration gave raises and implemented the multi-year contract, the unionization momentum slowed and there wasn’t a vote. There’s still organizing happening.”

Meerdo was also involved in the union drive. “During the unionizing process,” he told F, “we were able to have some very open and respectful meetings with the administration. As the process unfolded, we found that the school was very supportive, listened to us, and helped us improve our situation. I personally can attest to to the fact that unlike other schools I have looked at and worked for, SAIC is very open and willing to consider our perspectives, and the full unionization push wasn’t necessary in the end.”

In the current system at SAIC, if part-time faculty have an issue, they approach the four part-time faculty representatives, who then act as mediators between faculty and administration. As a Part-Time Faculty Senator, Meerdo is one of these representatives.

Speaking about his role, Meerdo explained “I serve as one of four part-time teachers who represent the majority part-time teachers at our school. It is a two-year elected position and I’m in my first year. We participate with the administration by sitting in on things like budget and planning meetings, and bring concerns that part-time teachers have to the administration. We spend a lot of our time strategizing about ways we can advocate for a very large pool of teachers who are not afforded a living wage by the school. My title, more specifically, gives me the privilege to vote at weekly Faculty Senate meetings. … We work to give agency to the direction and vision teachers at SAIC would like to see.”  

“Historically speaking, The School of the Art Institute has prided itself on faculty-led governance. This means that the teachers take on the majority role in shaping what the school looks like — from the types of classes offered, to administrative decisions that affect our community. With the growth of the school, some argue that this is unfortunately no longer the case,” said Meerdo.

Though Meerdo is one of only two part-time faculty senators, he does not see the workload as a burden: “I am passionate about advocating for the 650+ teachers I represent, so I find the job satisfying and don’t feel like it is ‘work’ in general. We could always use more representation, but the problems are well known and can only be solved by the school’s leaders.”

Last year, the part-time faculty representatives negotiated the introduction of two- and three-year contracts for part-time faculty, an increase in course pay, the establishment of part-time departmental liaisons, and some promotions for part-time faculty that include access to some healthcare and retirement options.

“While it is not a perfect fix, it has shown that the school is willing to recognize our labor and commitment to SAIC,” Meerdo told F News. However, Meerdo is concerned about the current representation of part-time faculty in the school’s Strategic Plan: “As a community, we are all tasked to imagine what our school will look like in the next five years. We, as parttime teachers, have collectively responded to this prompt by asking for SAIC to take responsibility for the adjunct crisis in America and at our school. Should SAIC choose to fix this problem, they would make national headlines and be seen as the premiere art school with regards to compensation and care for its teachers — which directly translates to the quality of education for students. We want to see SAIC’s teachers have more breathing room in their lives so they can be more creative, innovative, and successful as teachers and artists.”

Meerdo advises students to stay educated about part-time faculty’s working conditions: “It directly affects the quality of their education, and the reputation of the school they carry their degrees from. We as part-time representatives welcome student solidarity, input and any questions.” Up-to-date contact information for part-time faculty representatives can be found on the left-hand column of the SAIC part-time faculty homepage.

Requests for comment from the SAIC Press Office have not yet been returned

Up-to-date contact information for part-time faculty representatives can be found on the left-hand column of the SAIC part-time faculty homepage.

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