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MICA’s Part Time Faculty Union Negotiates Over Pay Scale by John Barry

Last April 27, the moment arrived: part time faculty at Maryland Institute College of Art and the MICA administration met to count the ballots for the petitioner. Out of 344 eligible voters, 247 voted. Of those, 163 voted to create a union, 75 against. MICA part time faculty won the right to bargain at the table with the MICA administration.

Since then, the part time faculty bargaining team has been meeting on a regular basis with the MICA administration to draw up a contract. These negotiations started last August, and they’ve reached a critical moment this June, as the two sides work to draw up a contract for a pay scale that both sides can agree on. A large portion of the tentative contract has already been agreed on: addressing issues such as the establishment of a part time faculty management team, a grievance process, and a reappointment process. Those are the nonfinancial portions of the contract. More on these at the MICA website: micaadjuncts.org.

The financial portion of the proposed contract involves what seems to be a simple issue: how much should a part time faculty member make? The Union and the administration may not have starkly different ideas of what fair pay should be – but they claim to have very different ideas of what the college can afford.

Currently, seventy percent of the adjunct faculty is being paid about a quarter of what regular faculty are paid to teach a course. An adjunct might teach four courses and make 16 thousand; a full time professor earns about 70 thousand. This structural difference has become defining at the university. For the part time faculty, a new pay scale contract needs to represent a significant step towards equity. The principle: equal pay for equal work.

The administration, in its response, has stressed the primacy of the market. Part time faculty at MICA, the argument goes, are paid on a level equivalent (or in some cases, higher) than part time faculty at other universities in the area.

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In addition, as is frequently the case, a decline in freshman enrollment has become an important issue. MICA ties prospective increases in part time faculty salary directly to student enrollment. In the latest round, the negative publicity created by the Baltimore riots has, according to President Sammy Hoi, caused a decrease in projected freshman enrollment by about 40. That “reality check,” according to the administration, is also reflected in their response to the proposal.

Since the proposals go back and forth, the details of actual terms are flexible. The essential issue is this: the MICA administration feels that the market adequately reflects the pay rate of part time professors. The part time faculty bargaining team insists that the adjunct community – now about 70 percent of MICA’s faculty – have an active role in determining that pay rate. Until now, the “market” has been entirely determined by employers.

As discussions proceed, it becomes clear that the issue is deeper than the amount of an increase. MICA’s entire budget for 2014 was about $75 million. Would a moderate increase in adjunct pay going to make or break the college? No, But the phrase “bond rating” comes up repeatedly.

When a college represents its viability by corporate bond ratings, that should give any part time faculty member a clue about their position in the financial plan of the college. MICA’s bond ratings are stable.  Bond ratings are measured by growth. For the moment, according to Fitch – a bond ratings agency which gives MICA a solid BBB+ (stable) bond rating – while it has debt, it’s stable financially. Fitch also notes in its report that, on the minus side, it’s monitoring the impact of unionization at the university:

MICA’s approximately 300 adjunct faculty voted to unionize in April 2014, due to concerns over job security and insufficient wages, creating the first union representing part-time faculty members at any four-year college in the state. Negotiations have not yet started. While it is too early to assess any financial impact, management expects compensation costs may grow out of the negotiations but not in fiscal 2015. Fitch will continue to monitor the overall impact of the unionization on the university.

Clearly, that’s an important factor in the response of the MICA administration to the union. It has also been a decisive factor in the responses of many other debt ridden colleges across the country: where, in a huge increase in capital development over the last two decades – at MICA and elsewhere — a good bond rating can keep a college solvent. The debate over pay scale involves money, but it’s about the market, and how MICA and its faculty should respond to this market.

The phrase “corporatization of higher education” should not be taken lightly. An economic culture has been created where, in universities, a relationship has developed between bond ratings and teaching quality. The huge pool of part-time faculty has become a quick fix in this culture, giving schools financial flexibility that they wouldn’t have with a full time staff. Having an expendable, low paid part-time faculty paid at 25% the rate of full time faculty is a financial tool that increases a school’s bond ratings.

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In effect, the MICA part-time union isn’t arguing so much with the administration about their value (the administration has repeatedly explained that it values its part time faculty) as with Fitch. That’s a tough argument: you can argue with the Dow Jones, too, but that’s not going to stop it from becoming a standard by which stock value is measured. For the school’s financial office, those bond ratings are, to some degree, a measure of performance. Stability in the marketplace is a goal.

From the perspective of those part time faculty, though, their market value as a flexible spending tool is an inaccurate measure of their contribution to the students. Moreover, corporate bond ratings are a dangerous measure of financial viability. There are a lot of institutions and companies that have driven themselves into bankruptcy by focusing on improving their market positions so as to finance capital growth: there is a trail of dot com collapses and real estate busts to testify to that.

The negotiations present a few clear points. First, the college isn’t sitting around deciding whether to pay a faculty member or fund a large window in Brown Center. It’s paying back its debt. Bond ratings help it do that. But that’s a slippery slope; the college suddenly involves itself in the swings of a marketplace which, ultimately, will defy quick fixes.

Recessions, riots, annual swings in enrollment become credit-rating disasters that the school tries to control by tools that are now familiar: mandatory on-campus housing, an increasing pool of full tuition-paying foreign students, and a dispensable pool of faculty. All of those tools actually drive away the base of middle class students that have traditionally been MICA’s bread and butter.

There are few who don’t believe that this system is broken. Across the country, colleges are graduating a debt-ridden generation (many of them adjuncts waiting for a permanent teaching position) who have no hope of sending their children to the private colleges that they went to. Eventually, that market-driven scenario will come home to roost. It will create institutions that have no services to offer, and no customers to serve them to, along with top heavy administration to deal with its expanding infrastructure. That is the bubble that is starting to reach its limit at some of the colleges in the area.

No one at the table wants that to happen at MICA. As the two sides search for common ground, it  seems to be a good starting place. Should teachers be treated as a quick fix in a self-destructive marketplace, or should MICA begin reevaluating its economic relationship with its central mission? The answer is still up in the air. Fitch is waiting to see how this debate plays out. So should artists, adjuncts, and, indeed, full time professors in Baltimore who are facing some of the same issues. As Fitch notes, this is the first time any part-time faculty in Baltimore has done this. The outcome will make a difference.

Author John Barry is a Baltimore based writer and part time faculty member of MICA.

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