At the Board of Trustees retreat on Wednesday, January 22, both President Easter and Trustee Pam Strobel explained that the purpose of their retreats was to ensure that the U of I system fulfilled the promises of the land grant college mission. (For those of you not versed in the history of land grant colleges, they were founded in the 19th century as an alternative to traditional higher education, which focused on the liberal arts and was the privilege of the very wealthy. Many land grant colleges specialized in professional training: agriculture, mining, engineering, and the sciences.) One of the central premises of land grant colleges is that a practical post-secondary education would allow poor Americans to enter the middle class. UIC, in particular, was moved from its original location on Navy Pier to its current location because Richard J. Daley believed that expanding the university would improve the lives of Chicago’s working class and their children.
Certainly, a lot has changed since the land grant system was started over 150 years ago and since UIC moved to the Circle Campus in 1965. But, UIC’s historic commitment to a practical education for all, regardless of their economic background, should not change. Increasing tuition (30% since 2007) and shrinking faculty numbers and pay threaten this mission. If the Board of Trustees is truly interested in fulfilling its historical mission, a good way to start would be to pay its faculty fair wages.
United Faculty, the union that represents full-time faculty at UIC, has been in negotiations with the University since September 2011 and have had over sixty negotiating sessions. They entered federal mediation in November 2013. UF and the University have come to a number of tentative agreements; the sticking points are, no surprise, mostly financial. Here is what UF is asking for:
Shared governance with administration over curriculum and budgeting.
Tenure track (TT) employees will be given a 3.5% raise. The University has offered them a 2.75% increase. To put these numbers in context, non-union UIC employees (including non-unionized faculty in the Colleges of Dentistry and Medicine, academic professionals, and administrators) received 2.75% to 3.25% raises in 2013. And downstate at UIUC, faculty received 4.15% to 4.65% raises. The faculty’s demands are by no means extravagant.
Non-tenure track (NTT) employee minimum will be raised from $30,000 to $45,000 a year. This works out to a raise from $5,000 per class taught to $7,500 per class.
The raise in the NTT minimum sounds like a lot, and the University keeps claiming that they simply don’t have the money to pay the increased salaries. Independent audits of the University’s budget, however, indicate otherwise: a June 2013 report stated that the University’s financial position is strong. There are now over $1 billion in unrestricted funds, having grown $287 million in the past year; UF’s salary increases would cost approximately $3.5 million per year. It’s clear there are the funds available, but paying instructors seems not to be the University’s highest priority. The conclusion I draw from the University’s unwillingness to pay instructors living wages is that education is no longer their highest priority. Perhaps the new face of land grant colleges is one that values home redecoration over undergraduate education. That, at least, UIC is willing to invest money in.
UF authorized a strike in December, with over 95% of their members voting to strike. A walk out is anticipated soon if the University doesn’t begin to take UF’s demands seriously. Hopefully, today’s action sent a message that UF is going to fight for a good and fair contract. If not, the University is in for a shock when its core employees refuse to teach classes, grade papers, meet with students, or serve on committees. No matter what, GEO stands by UF: their fight is our fight.