Once hailed as the "Great Equalizer," public higher education today has arguably become a driver of inequality.
Earlier this year, hundreds of faculty members at the University of Illinois-Chicago canceled their classes and went on strike. In the first faculty walkout in UIC history, they picketed the campus for two days.
What could professors possibly have to complain about?
Nearly everything. And it might not be what you think.
Today, more than half of all faculty are part-time, or adjunct, instructors. Many of them lack employer-provided health insurance coverage and job security. When accounting for temporary, full-time positions such as lecturers and visiting faculty, a whopping 76 percent of all instruction in American higher education is provided by contingent, temporary, or part-time educators.
But professors are not only worried about income and job security. The UIC faculty strikers, for instance, have broader concerns about a trend of declining investment in American public universities and a related rise in crippling student debt.
Nationwide, public investment in state universities — previously made possible by progressive taxation — has declined sharply over the last 30 years. To make up for lost state funds, universities raised tuition.
What used to be a collective burden borne by taxpayers was transferred onto the backs of students. Now at a staggering $1.1 trillion, student loan debt has surpassed Americans’ total credit card debt.
Meanwhile, the richest 1 percent of public university employees are doing better than ever. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, there has been a sea change in executive compensation, with pay packages for some public university presidents surpassing $2 million. Hiring of administrative staff has exploded, growing more than three times the rate of faculty hires.
UIC’s Dr. John Casey, a lecturer and leader in the faculty union, has witnessed these developments firsthand since he started as a UIC graduate student 13 years ago.
“There is a sense that the school is being taken away from us,” Casey said. As he described it, a build-up of administrative staff at UIC has led to “corporate management” making unilateral decisions about the welfare of faculty and students, usually to the detriment of both.
Not surprisingly, the faculty members who went on strike are demanding higher pay and better working conditions. But as Casey explained, they also feel that something bigger is at stake. “This is not just about the money,” he said. “We want the entire city to understand that this is their school.”
The sense that public higher education itself is under attack has led to remarkable unity among among both permanent and temporary faculty. They’ve become so unified that the faculty members created a localized union for the cause. A unique aspect of UIC United Faculty is that it is evenly comprised of both groups. “This aspect of our union is special to us,” said Casey. “We know what we’re fighting for.”
While the rise of inequality has become a familiar story, inequality in the university is a lesser-known — and more ironic — tale. Once hailed as the “Great Equalizer,” public higher education today has arguably become a perpetuator of inequality. This stark reality at UIC fueled the rise of the faculty union. Underlying their demands is a collective sense of urgency to save a great public university.
UIC professors have set a powerful example. Other faculty around the country should follow their lead. The rest of us must stand behind them. Together, we can take back our public universities.