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What Do Professors, Walmart and Pig Nutrition Have in Common? The Faculty Strike at University of Illinois at Chicago

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Today is the second day of a strike of unionized faculty at the University of Illinois at Chicago [UIC]. This is the first major strike of faculty at a top-tier research institution since the 1990s, and there is a great deal of excitement about a pushback from professors over what has come to be called "the Walmartization" of the university system.

Even the New York Times just joined in the discussion condemning how adjuncts and non-tenure-track professors are being used as disposable labor in a desperate managerial game that involves raising student tuition, increasing class size, and having more than 50 percent of courses taught by underpaid instructors who have no benefits or job security.

At UIC some of these faculty members are being paid $30,000 a year -- slightly above the poverty level for a family of four. The amazing thing is that the administration is crying poverty while they have accrued a startling surplus of $1.3 billion dollars in unrestricted funds, according to their most recent accounting report.

Provost Lon Kaufman's defense of what amounts to financial mismanagement -- "The University has relatively small amounts of reserves" -- makes one wonder how it was possible that he and others allowed what is obviously terrible exploitation of a class of professors? In allocating funds for a wide variety of activities, including creating 90 new administrative jobs in the past five years while eliminating 14 tenure lines, who made the decision to permit this ongoing abuse of students and teachers? And why is there no accountability?

The "economic explanation" -- we just don't have the money -- proposed by the administration could be used to justify anything from slavery to unsafe factory conditions. But it doesn't wash because money is allocated based on priorities, and let's face it, paying a fair wage to Walmartized faculty has not been uppermost on the minds of administrators.

President Bob Easter, the head of the University of Illinois system and the one calling the shots in these contract negotiations is actually a professor of pig nutrition. I kid you not. What you do with pigs is keep them in cages, feed them the bare minimum to keep up profits, and then you send them to slaughter. Is he thinking that what you do with adjunct professors is keep them in the cage of non-tenure track, pay them the bare minimum, and then dispose of them as you see fit? If so, we aren't talking of only Walmart but perhaps more McDonald's.

We aren't going to get excellent public education by raising student tuitions and downsizing on quality teaching. As experience has shown from other sectors of the economy, cutting back on the main function of your organization, while bloating management, is poor policy. So, to the administration I'd say, "Don't nickel and dime us at the bargaining table. If you want quality education, then pay for it -- not just because it makes economic sense, but because it is the right thing to do."