Students and adjunct professors at Columbia College joined forces Friday night — staging a sit-in outside the college president’s office to protest planned curriculum and class size changes that the adjuncts’ union says could cost 100 jobs.
School officials say they need to cut classes and increase class sizes to meet their budget. But adjunct professors say Columbia is disregarding a contract guaranteeing the Part-Time Faculty Union prior notice of and ability to negotiate staff cuts.
A social media campaign organized by the union, #SaveColumbia, on Friday led to direct action that saw adjuncts and students stage a sit-in outside President Kwang-Wu Kim’s office that only ended when police arrived to close the building at 11 p.m.
“After four years of contentious negotiations, we signed a contract where finally, our faculty was supposed to be valued,” said Diana Vallera, president of the 900-member PFAC union, among the nation’s oldest representing part-time college educators.
“We get a new president in fall 2013 — he and I are meeting regularly and it’s looking pretty promising, then everything changes in fall 2014,” she said. “We started seeing a reversal happening. All of a sudden, the contract’s not being implemented. The amount of harm that there would be to our membership by Columbia not honoring this contract is great.”
PFAC on Friday issued a vote of no-confidence in Kim and Provost Stan Wearden, also filing a charge against the college with the National
Labor Relations Board. PFAC seeks an injunction forcing Columbia to halt the changes it says could eliminate 100 jobs and reduce course loads and salary for up to 400 others.
Columbia College spokeswoman Cara Birch denied that the college is violating the union’s contract, saying that, as with any university, the college’s adjunct jobs are dependent on demand. Regarding the union’s estimate of the jobs potentially impacted by the changes, Birch said neither the union nor college could know the total until fall registration is complete.
“Columbia College Chicago continues to honor its contract with the part-time faculty union,” Birch said in a statement. “While the College does not eliminate part-time faculty union jobs, only a certain number of part-time teaching positions are available every semester based on curriculum, enrollment and class registration. This is the same process the College uses every year.”
Adjuncts, who now make up the majority of the nation’s higher education work force, have been organizing at several Chicago area universities around issues of better pay and job security. A nationwide movement spearheaded by the Service Employees International Union has seen very public efforts underway at the city’s Catholic Loyola and DePaul universities, with more low-key efforts initiated at the private Northwestern University and University of Chicago.
Among PFAC’s complaints at Columbia are changes to the college’s freshman seminar department — where the average class size was under 17 — for a new lecture hall course serving 100-120 students, called “Big Chicago.” That change axed six jobs and left some 40 others with a reduced course load/salary scrambling to find new teaching assignments, Vallera said.
Wearden said the elimination was a result of student feedback. The university-wide hike in class sizes — to 18-20 students per class — will save the college up to $1.6 million annually, he said.
But the union and students complain that despite his arguments about budget constraints, Kim has hired several new vice presidents — a charge Birch denies, saying the new vice presidents simply replaced outgoing school leaders.
“Students are fed up,” Casey Walker, a student leader at the sit-in said Friday evening. “Part-time faculty are being cut without warning. Programs and classes are being cut, as well as a lot of student work positions, while tuition is rising. We feel that raising class sizes goes against the core of what the university is about, and we plan to be here until our demands are met.”