On Nov. 29, students proudly stood with adjunct and non-tenure-track faculty to kick off the campaign to establish a union at Elon University. At the end of the demonstration, as the faculty delivered their request to the president’s office asking the administration to remain neutral, students accompanied them in delivering a petition of solidarity that was signed by 270 students and alumni. These students from all across campus are uniting with faculty because we are inspired by their commitment to making Elon better by standing up for the rights of faculty, who for far too long have been hurt by the university’s policies.
Since then, student support for the union has only grown. Student advocates attended and engaged in the Dec. 6 SGA meeting; students and alumni participated in a call-in day to the university administration to voice their concerns; an alumni petition with 153 signatures was delivered to the administration and students have continued to add their names to the petition. But growing student recognition of the deplorable conditions our adjunct and non-tenure-track faculty face is being accompanied by a stream of misinformation and denouncement from university administration.
A particular concern for students is the dissemination of a narrative that says being “pro-union” means being “anti-student.” In a Dec. 4 email to faculty, Provost Steven House wrote that “without hesitation,” he believes “a union is not in the best interest of faculty, our students or the future of our university.” In her video response to the formation of a faculty union, President Connie Book heavily implied that any system other than Academic Council does not place students “at the center of [Elon’s] mission.” This could not be further from the truth.
From the onset of the campaign, faculty have made it clear that the well-being of students is at the center of this fight. In a column written for Elon News Network, the Organizing Committee characterized its desire to form a union as stemming from the aspiration to be “the teachers, mentors and scholars that our students deserve.”
There is strong evidence of the benefits of faculty unions for the entire university community. In their seminal book “What Do Unions Do?” Harvard University economists Richard Freeman and James Medoff explain that unions play a vital role in improving the workplace for workers by reducing inequality, increasing productivity, improving retention, reducing discrimination and providing workers with a happy workplace.
As the Organizing Committee poignantly captured, the working conditions of the faculty are also student learning conditions. The system as it stands bars many adjunct and non-tenure-track faculty from obtaining research grants, engaging in departmental service, formally mentoring student research and participating in professional development activities. Apart from the quantifiable benefits of unionization, it is imperative for students and faculty alike that all faculty be allowed to engage fully with these pinnacles of higher education.
We students must take seriously the grievances that drove faculty to pursue the formation of a union. At the November demonstration, faculty — faculty we know, love and respect — described working multiple jobs, struggling to pay medical bills and living in fear of losing their jobs and being unable to care for themselves and their families.
Elon states in its mission that it is committed to “preparing students to be global citizens and informed leaders motivated by concern for the common good.” We know the questions being raised are bigger than Elon. Nationally, the trend toward the commodification of higher education threatens faculty and students alike. Recent articles published by ENN have brought to light that Elon has sued three former students over unpaid loans. Unlike national trends that show student loan recovery civil suits are at their lowest levels in years, Elon has continued to weaponize the legal system in ways that unfairly affects low-income students (“Student Loan Default Recovery Continues to Drop in FY 2018,” Syracuse University). If we are truly to become “global citizens and informed leaders,” we must be willing to not only discuss or confront national or global issues but also recognize when injustice threatens our own community.
Elon students have demonstrated they are willing to have difficult conversations about where our university falls short. On Martin Luther King Jr. Day this year, students came together to assert that all students deserve dignity, respect and inclusion in their “Privilege Check” action. We must extend the same concern for justice to all members of the Elon community, including our faculty. Adjunct and non-tenure-track faculty deserve fair working conditions and a say in their workplace, including the decision to unionize.
As students, we have immense power to demand that Elon ensure the fair treatment and compensation of all their employees. Students can take action today by:
- Engaging in this discussion with professors, parents and peers.
- Calling the Elon University administration to demand the anti-union campaign be dropped and to allow for a democratic election free of university interference. Voice concerns for the treatment of adjunct and non-tenure-track faculty. Reach President Book at (336) 278-7900 and Provost House at (336) 278-6647. If you cannot reach Provost House or President Book, ask their assistants to deliver the message to them. Include your name and number so they can call you back.
- Signing the student petition of solidarity to let our adjunct and non-tenure-track faculty know we stand with them and to let Elon’s administration know we are paying close attention.
We can work to build a campus community that lives up to the high standards we set for ourselves, but only if we as students remain engaged and hold the university administration accountable for their actions. By supporting the faculty in forming a union, we show we really do care about all members of the Elon family — both in our words and in our actions.