Interview with SBU United University Professions (UUP)

Stony Brook Worker Editorial & Andrew Solar-Greco

SBW= Stony Brook Worker; 

ASG = Andrew Solar-Greco

SBW: Can you introduce UUP, who you represent, the structure of the union, and how many members you have? 

ASG: We represent the faculty and staff at the main campus, Stony Brook West Campus. We have about 2,400 members, and we represent full-time faculty, part-time faculty, faculty who are not tenured or on the tenure track, and the professional staff in academic departments advising, athletics, et cetera. 

United University Professions (UUP) Organizers

SBW: Can you talk about some of the main issues your members are facing right now, the main issues you’re trying to address, and the campaigns you have going on? 

ASG:We’re trying to advocate for folks’ telecommuting rights—the ability for those workers to telecommute at least once a week. We’re trying to win more job security for our members who are in non-tenure track or part-time faculty positions; we’re trying to increase their pay and increase the base stipend for adjuncts. We’re also trying to help establish a kind of formalized promotion structure for those non-tenure track faculty, similar to the one that tenured faculty or tenure-track faculty have. And we’re trying to address the swelling course sizes that a lot of these faculty are dealing with. There are really poor wages—not a living wage for Long Island. 

SBW: You’re talking about contingent faculty.

ASG: Correct. Contingent faculty defined as faculty who are not on the tenure track and are ineligible for tenure. 

SBW: Can you tell me more about the conditions they’re facing? What is their financial situation and what are the ideal goals for addressing this problem in more concrete terms? 

ASG: They’re struggling with those swelling class sizes. If their class size surges, they’re sometimes given a tiny bit more money that does not even remotely address the extra workload that having more students entails—more papers to grade, more emails to answer. They’re not given additional teaching assistance. It’s a big challenge. We have some folks that have worked here for five, ten, fifteen, twenty years, and they’re still in a very precarious level of employment that doesn’t reflect what one would expect in higher education. We have some adjuncts who make only $3,750 per semester to teach a course, which is just baffling—so incredibly low.

A lot of students think that they’re being taught by a full-time faculty member who is on the tenure track or tenured, when in actuality they’re being taught by someone who’s being paid a poverty level wage. We’re trying to get the administration to raise the base stipend for these adjuncts to $7,000, which is still far too low for the amount of work it takes to teach a course and the amount of value they give to those students and the university. 

SBW: Right now this is $3,750? 

ASG: The minimum that a department can pay us for our contract is $3,750. We’re hoping to get that significantly increased, because that was a poverty level wage even before inflation, even before all the new challenges that we’re facing financially in society right now. 

United University Professions (UUP) Organizers

SBW: How many courses do your adjunct faculty usually teach to be able to get by during a semester?

ASG: Part of the problem is that they’re also teaching at Suffolk Community College or Farmingdale or St. John’s or all these other schools to just cobble together a livable income. And when you’re trying to be there for students and give them the best education possible but you’re having to work at multiple institutions — juggling multiple user interfaces and systems and traveling to all these different places, adjusting to different classrooms — it affects the quality of education that our students get. Our admins care deeply about the work they do in serving our students, but it’s a major, major challenge to be able to do your best when you have to endure these horrific conditions. Most of these folks would absolutely leap at a tenure track position, or would leap at a full-time lecturer position, or would love to have the option to be able to say, I only work at Stony Brook. But they aren’t given that choice. They don’t have that option because they’re stuck in this part-time loop.

There are some adjuncts who teach here who have the same teaching load as a full-time professor, which would be a two-teaching load. They’re told, “well, you’re not doing research, you’re not doing service.” But they actually are, they are doing service for the university in one form or another. They are doing service for their department. They are doing research and writing books and doing all the same things that full-time faculty do, and they’re making a tenth or even sometimes a fifteenth of what those full-time faculty are making. And they bring just as much value to the university and to the students. This is really a problem in all higher education. But if we’re a flagship university, if we are claiming to be the number one public university in New York State now, then this administration needs to invest in its part-time faculty. It needs to pay them a much fairer wage and help set up the structures that enable them to grow and promote themselves within the university. That just doesn’t really exist right now. Or if it does, it’s some form of a provisional policy, which, like anything that is not in our contract, can be selectively applied.

SBW: What are some of the different pathways to promotion you are working toward? What kind of demands do you have there? How can these positions be made more secure?

ASG: For someone who’s a full-time lecturer, they can get promoted to a senior lecturer, and then they can get promoted to an advanced senior lecturer. That’s nice, but no wage increases come with these title changes. When you get those promotions, you don’t get an increase in the length of your terms, and you don’t get a salary increase at all. If someone is an assistant professor and is promoted to an associate professor, they obviously get tenure and they get a salary increase also when they become full professor. A lot of those full-time lecturers are also writing and doing research and doing service to the university. The classic three-legged stool that a faculty member is responsible for—service, teaching, and research—a lot of our non-tenure track faculty, whether they’re part-time or full-time, are doing that work too. They contribute to making us the number one public university in New York State, but they’re not being rewarded for that. And it’s really, really unjust.

SBW: What happens when a lecturer is promoted to these positions? Is it just a status? Is it just a name?

ASG:Yes. It’s pretty much just status—it’s just a name and that’s obviously not enough.

SBW: So, are you asking for these promotions to be accompanied by salary increases and longer terms?

ASG: That’s correct.

SBW: Do you see this trend towards “adjunctification” on our campus too? Are tenure-track positions increasingly being replaced by contingent faculty?

ASG: Yes. And it’s not something that’s been happening in the last two years—it’s been happening for the last twenty-plus years. This trend is absolutely happening in all of higher education, and Stony Brook is no different. In the same period, we’ve seen upper administrative growth, so we know the university has the money. If you have an adjunct who’s making more than that minimum of $3,750, and some but not all of them are, let’s say they’re making $5,000, we’re asking the university to invest another $2,000 in them. It would not be a hardship for the university to invest this kind of capital in what is roughly 400 people. It’s not that significant of an expense, and it would make such a difference in the lives of our members who are not earning a living wage right now—it is completely within the university’s power to rectify. The cost of living in general, but especially Long Island, is preposterous.

SBW: What do you think is the ultimate goal, then? How should higher education unions strive to solve this problem of “adjunctification”? Would it be for these positions, not to exist as they are, to go back to a time when the vast majority of the positions were tenure track?

ASG: Yeah, going back to the vast majority of the tenure track, ultimately. There are some adjuncts out there who sincerely want to teach just one course. They might have a day job and this is just a fun thing that they do on the side, or this is just something that they enjoy doing. But the vast majority of them want a full-time position or want the ability to have that as an option. So, we’re hoping to get people that choice—to have the choice to be promoted, to have the choice to be full time. But right now they don’t have that choice. Right now, their only option is to rely on the goodwill of their department or their supervisor in the hope that they will get a promotion, in the hope that they will be considered for a full-time position, if one is even being offered. Often management in these areas—the deans—are very, very intentional with those decisions. There could be someone who’s been a non-tenure-track faculty member in the department for five, ten, fifteen years, and an assistant professor position will open up and that faculty member won’t even be considered, that’s not right.

SBW: What do you think will be the most effective way to achieve this goal?

ASG: We’ve approached the administration with a memorandum of understanding to try to address this issue, and it’s currently being reviewed. I think they’re crunching the numbers, but we’re hoping for an answer soon. We understand that one has to force the hand sometimes. If they don’t respond in a timely fashion or make no effort to rectify this major inequity, we’re going to have to get much more public and engaged with this campaign. For now, we’re letting the process play itself out, but if we must, we will put ourselves in the position of increasing our mobilization and our outreach and our statements about these conditions.

And like I, like I said earlier, we have how many of our students realize that they’re not necessarily being taught by someone who is actually a professor, who is actually being paid a fair wage for the work that they do. How many of our students don’t realize that their instructor is someone who’s also an instructor at six other campuses and is absolutely struggling to make ends meet. And maybe that’s why they might feel like they’re not succeeding as much as they should because neither the instructor nor the students have been set up for success. How many students realize that? I don’t know. But that’s something that we need to talk about more. And we’re hoping we don’t have to necessarily be as explicitly public about this, but if we have no choice in the matter, then so be it. But right now, management is completely within their ability to rectify these issues.

SBW: I understand that you are in contract negotiations. Are there general things you can share about that?

ASG: We’re trying to address a lot of these same issues in our statewide negotiations as well at the big table in Albany. I’m not at that table, so I’m not privy to all the details.

SBW: How can our members support your campaigns and help you resolve these issues?

ASG: As TAs and GAs, they can talk to their faculty and the PIs that they work with and say, “Hey what’s going on here?” They can figure out, how could we help? You know, are you aware of this campaign? Some TAs might not realize that the person they’re a TA for earns less money than them, right? They might think, “oh, they’re a professor.” So, figuring out how to manage that and learn who they’re working with and say, “Hey TAs working on this, are you aware, are you a part of these efforts? You should think about getting involved seeing what we could do together.” Encouraging their involvement and then of course, thinking about how they can potentially help out.

SBW: How do you think we can develop labor solidarity at Stony Brook, not only among us, but with other labor unions?

ASG: Having that frank conversation about what we’re paid and about our job security is important. And doing the best we can to try to overcome the silos we find ourselves in—breaking down of departmental isolation and establishing actual interdisciplinary solidarity. This also requires trying to think about how we can overcome professional hierarchies—graduate students versus adjunct faculty. It doesn’t matter to me what they’re dealing with; we all face challenges with the university. We need to bring people who have some shared experiences into dialogue together and into solidarity and think about how we can address issues holistically as one broad, powerful labor movement.

SBW: Thank you so much. Is there anything that you want to add for our readers?

ASG: The main thing is to think about how we can come together as one labor movement with broad mutual interests to address all these issues. How can we holistically work together to improve what it’s like to work at SUNY—whatever your job is?