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UIC instructors say they’re held ‘hostage’ as they wait to hear if they will have jobs every fall

About half of all faculty at UIC don’t have tenure and instead work on fixed-term contracts, leading to much uncertainty, their union says.

Non-tenured track faculty at the University of Illinois Chicago say they want more job security. They’ve taken their demands to the institution’s board of trustees. | Sun-Times file photo.

The 600 or so full-time faculty who aren’t on a tenure track at the University of Illinois at Chicago are being “held hostage” by the administration, a union leader for the group said Thursday.

Year after year, those contract workers — who make up slightly less than half of the university’s total faculty — face worrying uncertainty about whether they will be hired back in the fall, the union says. And if they aren’t hired back, they often have to scramble to apply for jobs elsewhere. The pandemic has only made things worse, they say.

“We are simply serving at the pleasure of the administrators, and they’ll kick us to the curb without a second thought,” said Jeff Schuhrke, a union representative and a visiting lecturer in history.

The UIC United Faculty on Thursday held a news conference, listing the demands they’ve presented to the UIC board of trustees, calling for, among other things: no layoffs of non-tenure track faculty for the fall; a June 1 deadline to let faculty know if they are being hired back; more transparency about how budget decisions are made; and a suspension of the current three-year limit on contracts for visiting non-tenure track faculty.

UIC forwarded a statement Chancellor Michael Amiridis sent to the union Wednesday responding to the union’s demands, saying campus leaders “stand in awe at the efforts and commitment” of both tenured and non-tenured faculty during the pandemic, and pledging to take the challenges of the last year into account when making personnel decisions.

But Amiridis said he couldn’t agree to “a blanket waiver of the carefully negotiated retention and reappointment provisions in the labor contract that UICUF approved. Such decisions relating to the size of the workforce are historically and legally a key responsibility of the leadership of the university.”

The union held the event to coincide with the board of trustees’ meeting, which is held every other month.

Janet Smith, a UIC professor and president of the union, said the administration is sending a confusing message.

“Every year, despite evidence of sufficient — and even increasing enrollment — the non-tenure track faculty hear much more about budget cuts and uncertainty than they do about how important they are in the university’s teaching mission and in the retention and the lives of thousands of our students,” Smith said.

Last fall, UIC announced its sixth consecutive year of record enrollment, with 33,518 students.

Smith called the non-tenured faculty the “front line” staff of the university because they teach a majority of the freshmen.

“Today, I ask the board of trustees to shift its investment intention from Wall Street to Halsted Street,” she said.

Smith also said part of the budget problems stems from “decades of disinvestment” in Illinois’ public higher education, as well as a lack of tuition hikes. Tuition rates have been frozen for in-state undergraduate students in six of the last seven years.

UIC officials did not respond to a request for comment.