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Midlands Voices: Colleges are failing faculty in the age of COVID

Midlands Voices: Colleges are failing faculty in the age of COVID

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This spring was not the way I imagined my teaching career ending. Iowa Western Community College in Council Bluffs had vastly expanded over 20 years, starting in the late 1990s when the college’s president spearheaded construction of new student suites, followed by a fine arts building, student union, sports complex, science and robotics facility, and multimillion-dollar rec center. A football team was added, as were competitive cheer, wrestling, golf, soccer, even bowling and shotgun sports. The school fields more varsity teams (20) than Creighton (14) or UNO (15), Omaha’s two Division I-A schools. Note that Iowa Western is a community college, though its athletes are recruited from all over America and the world.

Amidst the construction boom there were practices over the past decade at IWCC that are familiar to many in higher education. The school amassed layers of student services and a bloated administration, while retiring full-time teachers were often replaced by part-time adjunct instructors who were not eligible for insurance, retirement benefits or union-negotiated contracts. While athletics and enrollments increased, Iowa Western sunk to near the bottom of the state for both employee pay and student graduation rates. (According to Community College Review, in 2020 it was in a three-way tie for last place among the state’s 18 community colleges). Like so many colleges nationwide, beautification and athletics apparently glossed over academic and financial strength.

As Joy Castro and Julia Scheck clearly point out in their poignant World-Herald opinion essay this week, these are definitely rough times for adjuncts. However, misplaced priorities and shortsighted political trends have made higher education problematic for full-time faculty as well. In Iowa the 2016 election results included ousting the Iowa Senate’s majority leader and longtime education advocate Mike Gronstal, thereby turning the full Iowa government Republican-red. Within weeks the state had followed Wisconsin’s lead in slashing the power of teacher unions and collective bargaining, which invalidated the contracts that protect teachers with policies that had been gained slowly, sometimes over decades.

Changes for faculty at Iowa Western were swift. Mandatory on-campus hours and professional development days were increased without additional compensation, and performance reviews increased from once every three years to annually. In my department, faculty in Arts and Humanities were permitted to teach only courses for which they had a history of high pass rates and were denied overloads if too many students failed. Faculty promotions were no longer funded (no faculty member has been promoted since 2017), and while the administration always has the option to bargain yearly with the teacher’s union over important issues like performance review criteria, contributions to retirement funds, health insurance and others of concern to faculty, the administration instead addressed no more than the minimum required by law (employee wages).

One former contract provision required that when reductions in faculty took place due to funding shortfalls, adjuncts and full-timers who were lower in seniority would be let go first, thereby protecting the most experienced (and therefore expensive) teachers from the short-term financial whims of the administration. With no contract in place, seniority ceased to be a factor and anyone could be let go at the end of each year. This is what school without union protection for teachers looks like.

COVID opened the door for the college to dismiss me despite my high seniority and being the only faculty member in the English Department with a Ph.D. Heading into this fall I was able to find new, rewarding work at the state’s flagship university, but many will not be so fortunate.

My experiences, I suspect, echo what many faculty have undergone or are fearing this year — a time so clearly proving how government matters, that good government is essential, and that the way we vote has consequences. Because voters elected anti-labor conservatives to the Iowa Statehouse, bargaining and worker rights were shredded, and education is worse off for it in a state whose official quarter in 2004, interestingly enough, featured a schoolhouse.

Jeff Kosse, an Omaha resident, has a Ph.D. in English from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

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