December 9, 2016

Students rally around instructors, plan for possible protest

Correction: In the article “Students rally around instructors, plan for possible protest, The Journal states eight professors were terminated from the university. That is incorrect. Four, not eight, other instructors in the College of Arts and Sciences were told their positions would be re-defined, not terminated. The Journal apologizes for this error.

In recent months, unionization for adjunct professors and other non-tenured faculty has been a topic on St. Louis area campuses, and Webster may be the next university to confront the controversy.

Following the possible demotion of Lecturer Andrea Miller (see story) from a full-time to part-time instructor and the elimination of several other positions, Webster students are following the example of Washington University and organizing to demand change. 

Advocates for Adjuncts

Kalani Seaver, Evelyn Whitehead and Emra Okanovic are three of Miller’s former students who formed a group, Advocates for Webster Adjuncts, to call for solutions to what they see as the problems Miller’s demotion represents.

Seaver said she feels the university has focused more on trying to appeal to prospective students and increase revenue than on the experience and retention of students who are already here.

“If they really wanted to focus on making money, raising tuition rates is not going to help if you can’t get students to stay here and pay the raised tuition rates,” Seaver said.

The students feel the demotion of Miller, along with four other instructors in the College of Arts and Sciences and possibly, they say, several other professors, is an indication of that.

“It’s starting to look like the administration is making decisions that aren’t in the best interests of students,” Seaver said.

All three said Miller had been a formative part of their educational experience at Webster and they felt she was an exemplary member of the faculty.

Whitehead, a human rights major, said Miller has been an extraordinary instructor.

“She’s willing to answer any questions, she’s there for you at any time,” Whitehead said.

Okanovic said that she believes Advocates for Webster Adjuncts is about urging Webster to see faculty as a valuable asset to the university, as much as new buildings or new academic programs.

“To cut someone like her from Webster, I feel like it’s losing a gem,” Okanovic said.

The group is still working on a strategy for what to do next, but they hope to collaborate with adjunct professors and possibly stage a protest.

Seaver said they felt that the group was about giving back to Webster faculty as much as Miller had given to them.

“This isn’t even the first time that students here have seen their teachers get walked on by the administration,” Seaver said.

Okanovic said the group sees Webster’s cost-cutting measures as short-term solutions that will ultimately lead to lower rates of student retention, and believes new construction projects would be the best place to start cutting costs.

“You have to look at where else this money is going,” Okanovic said. “Something doesn’t sit right with me when it comes to administration.”

Seaver agreed, mentioning on-campus sports as an example of an area where money is spent that is unlikely to bring new students or revenue to the campus.

“We just want reasonable facts and decision-making that the administration can sit down and explain through a discussion,” Seaver said.

Webster University Student-Worker Alliance

The Webster University Student-Worker Alliance (SWA) is modeling after a similar organization at Washington University which advocated for the the ultimately successful agreement between adjuncts and administration. The group is attempting to bring faculty issues back into the spotlight after adjuncts voted not to unionize.

Jerome Bauer, a member of the group who is an adjunct professor at Washington University and Webster, said adjuncts are valuable members of the faculty at any university because they have a passion for education and are willing to work despite poor conditions.

“That’s why we need a union so much, because we need some protection for ourselves,” he said.

Most adjuncts, he said, devote more of their time and energy to mentoring students than full professors do.

“We shouldn’t be second-class or third-class faculty,” Bauer said.

Graduate student Margarita Solis and undergraduate senior Alex Magrath got involved in SWA due to their advocacy around the issues of disability rights on campus. Solis is the founder of the student organization Disability Rights Action, which seeks increased accommodations for disabled students.

Magrath said as a student with bipolar disorder, many instructors have not understood he needs accommodations, but his best experiences have been with adjuncts. 

“I’ve had some professors, including Andrea Miller, who are more open, and it infuriates me when the university targets her,” he said.

Solis also had positives experiences as Miller’s student.

Solis said when instructors don’t have union protections “we lose good teachers. If they can’t get what they need here, they’re going to go somewhere else or stop teaching altogether.”

Bauer said issue was part of why Washington University eventually reached an agreement with their adjunct faculty.

“We ultimately did win because people realized the status quo was creating a brain drain – really smart, talented people with the passion for teaching are not getting into it,” he said.

Matt Drew, a Washington University student who was active in advocating for adjunct faculty with their Student Worker Alliance, said their movement became more effective when they started creating more disruptive protests, such as interrupting a speech by the school’s chancellor during a Diversity Day event.

The administration ultimately came to an agreement with the group the day before a planned walkout from classes.

“It was only these big events that really drew outside media attention,” Drew said.

Drew said when he talked to his instructors about pursuing a career in academia, most of them discouraged him, telling him he would not make much money or have a stable job. By advocating for adjuncts, he hopes to change that.

“What does the university represent if it’s not about knowledge?” Drew said. “I think it’s following this model of universities being run more like a business.”

Magrath, who is also considering a career in academia, agreed and said the university has prioritized other concerns above retaining a faculty composed of high-performing teachers.

“So what kind of message does that send to the student body?” Drew said.

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