Durham County

After nine months of talks, Duke and its adjunct-faculty union are split on two issues

Duke University student guides lead a group of undergraduate prospects and some of their parents on a walking tour of Duke’s West Campus, replete with its gothic-style architecture.
Duke University student guides lead a group of undergraduate prospects and some of their parents on a walking tour of Duke’s West Campus, replete with its gothic-style architecture. News and Observer file photo

Apparently, Duke University and union negotiators representing a key portion of its adjunct faculty have reached tentative agreement on 23 issues that will go into their first labor contract.

The rub’s the last two, according to the Service Employees International Union.

So far, Duke and the union haven’t agreed on matters involving “compensation and professional development,” 41 union members said in an open letter to Provost Sally Kornbluth that offered their perspective on “what currently separates us.”

The already agreed-to points signal the potential conclusion of “a fair contract,” but the remaining ones are highlighting “a basic issue of principle,” namely that “no faculty member at Duke should be forced to live in precarity,” they said.

The letter surfaced ahead of bargaining sessions that union officials said will begin Friday and continue through Sunday.

Duke’s chief spokesman, Vice President for Public Affairs and Government Relations Michael Schoenfeld, said the two sides have met twice a month since September and university officials “remain optimistic that we will finalize a contract with the union soon.”

An election in March 2016 gave the SEIU authority to bargain on behalf of full- and part-time “non-regular rank faculty” at Duke who work in Trinity College, the Graduate School and the Center for Documentary Studies. It won the representation vote 174-29.

Essentially, that covers people with teaching duties who aren’t in a tenured or tenure-track job, either because they’re not involved in research, they only have a short-term appointment or they’re moonlighting from another job in the private, governmental or nonprofit sectors. It also excludes people in such major units as the School of Medicine, the Pratt School of Engineering, the Nicholas School of the Environment and the School of Law.

Trinity College, however, is a key unit on campus for housing undergraduate programs and most of the traditional disciplines in the arts and sciences.

Pay scale

On pay, the union members said there are remaining disagreements between them and Duke about the pay scale for full-time adjuncts, and the pay scale for “applied music” instructors who give lessons on playing an instrument and eight “instructors B” who teach lab sections. The two sides also are still talking about the per-course fee for part-time faculty.

They estimated that on the pay scale, the two sides are about “$150,000 to $180,000 per year” apart, but disagree on how to handle full-time adjuncts who teach fewer than three courses a semester.

On the other hand, the offer for applied music teachers and instructors B – the latter being people who lead lab and discussion sessions, without being “the principal person responsible for the course,” a union official said – would translate into “poverty level pay scales,” they said.

As for the per-course fee, the two sides are $277 apart, they said.

Expense accounts

The professional-development issue appears to be the union negotiating team’s request that Duke give 40 to 45 full-time adjuncts expense accounts for research or travel, so they can “remain current in their respective disciplines.”

They didn’t elaborate on the disagreement, but Duke like most universities draws distinctions between adjuncts and tenure-track professors who by definition have to teach and do research.

The letter’s authors – 23 of whom work for Duke’s Thompson Writing Program, a special unit that offers writing courses but not a degree program – complained that the university’s negotiators “are working with an abstract financial ceiling,” or what others would call a budget constraint.

What the union’s asked for is “a fractional percentage – equivalent to a rounding error – of Duke’s total non-hospital operating budget,” they said.

Duke’s 2015-16 financial report says the university-only side of its operation, not counting what goes on in its hospitals and health system, took in a bit more than $2.6 billion that year and spent a bit less than $2.6 billion. A $97.9 million subsidy from the Duke University Health System went a long way to allowing the university side to claim a small surplus. It paid out about $1.5 billion in employee salary and benefits.

The university that year had 3,427 regular-rank faculty on the payroll, almost evenly split between tenure-track and non-tenure track posts. By definition, none were eligible for SEIU representation. Duke doesn’t report how many non-regular rank faculty it has.

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg