Durham County

Unionization leaves Duke faculty with questions — and assurances — going forward

Duke University in the midst of implementing the new labor contract it signed in August with the union representing some of its adjunct faculty.
Duke University in the midst of implementing the new labor contract it signed in August with the union representing some of its adjunct faculty. The Herald-Sun

They have a signed and ratified labor contract with Duke University’s administration, but the leaders of the school’s adjunct-faculty union still see a need to firm up support for it among another key campus constituency: Duke’s tenured and tenure-track professors.

If their first public effort on that front is any indication, just because professors may support the deal or unionization conceptually doesn’t rule out the possibility of tension surfacing somewhere down the line as the collective-bargaining culture takes hold at the private university and begins affecting day-to-day academic operations.

But in talking to Trinity College’s Arts & Sciences Council, Duke union president Mike Dimpfl and Service Employees International Union negotiator Larry Alcoff stressed that they think the change will ultimately benefit tenure-track professors too.

The contract’s about making sure adjuncts are “included in the life of the faculty, understanding that teaching faculty play a particular role in the life of the university,” Alcoff said. “It’s not the same as research faculty, but it’s pivotal to the teaching and learning experience students have at the institution. And it also creates the conditions under which research faculty actually can do research, as well.”

Alcoff’s union is representing Dimpfl and somewhere between 250 and 275 other faculty members at Duke who hold non-tenure-track jobs in Trinity College, Duke’s graduate school and the Center for Documentary Studies. Most were hired for teaching-centric assignments, as opposed to the research-front-and-center focus that comes with a tenure-track position.

Trinity College is the umbrella organization for the bulk of Duke’s traditional basic-science, social sciences and humanities departments. Newer or more specialized degree programs are usually separate. For example, biology is a Trinity department, but a lot of biology-related research and teaching unfolds in units like the Nicholas School of the Environment and the Duke School of Medicine.

Union negotiators went into talks with the administration last year in hopes of securing pay increases and length-of-employment guarantees for their members, and in the ratified contract achieved them. Alcoff’s presentation to the Trinity council highlighted some of the less-than-top-line details.

Now that the deal’s in place, for example, union members who’ve been at Duke for a year or more will get a university-issued computer, and service for it on the same basis as other professors. While that might sound simple, it “has not been the case at the university for them” until now, Alcoff said.

He stressed that certainty of continued employment had been a key issue.

The contract promises full-time lecturing fellows like Dimpfl a three-year initial appointment, an interim two-year reappointment and then continued three-year reappointments absent “a disqualifying event” like poor job performance, big changes in departmental finances or priorities, or a decision to turn a job into a “regular rank” posting of the sort dominated by tenured or tenure-eligible professors.

While short-term appointments have a place at Duke, particularly when there’s need to fill in for a professor who has retired, taken a job elsewhere or gone on sabbatical, there should be limits to their use, Alcoff said.

“At some point, it is a little ridiculous to fire people 20 times in 10 years only to hire them again for the 21st time,” he said, arguing against semester-to-semester or by-the-course arrangements. “At some point, people have the right to know they have a job, not just a gig.”

But the negotiator faced questions about another point in the union contract that purportedly gives its members “preference to teach courses they designed or that they have satisfactorily taught in the past.”

Some council members noted their departments prefer to rotate course assignments, to keep both professors and syllabi from getting stale. One questioned whether the provision could deter department leaders from hiring adjuncts at all lest they become locked in to teaching particular courses. Another asked whether it would be an impediment to assigning a course to a tenure-track professor instead of an adjunct.

Alcoff offered assurances on both fronts. “It doesn’t mean they get to teach it forever,” he said, and the provision in any case applies only to “bargaining-unit members,” meaning the unionized adjuncts who are “given preference over other bargaining unit members who maybe have not taught that course before.”

Another provision that drew questions was one that specifies adjuncts “should be invited to faculty meetings” and other department functions where policy decisions are debated and made.

That speaks to the members’ desire to be “included in the life of the faculty,” but it’s a touchy point because tenure-track professors at Duke pride themselves on having control of the university’s curriculum and a big say in who their colleagues are. Alcoff faced a straight-up question about whether the contract threatens to erode the distinction between tenured and non-tenured faculty in that regard.

Though there’s language that says adjuncts “should be invited to participate and allowed to participate” in in-house policy discussions, “we did not address questions of governance at all,” he answered, adding departments can continue to decide for themselves whether adjuncts should hold voting rights like tenure-track faculty.

Alcoff also conceded that union members “don’t expect to be invited to meetings where decisions are made around promotion and tenure.”

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg