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Nearly 600 adjunct professors at Columbia College Chicago walked off the job Monday morning to demand job security and health insurance.
Dozens marched at 600 South Michigan Ave. to a soundtrack of chanting, cars honking and house music. The faculty, along with students who joined them, chanted “healthcare is a human right,” and “stand up, fight back!”
Leaders of CFAC, the union representing Columbia College’s part-time professors, say members make up about two-thirds of the teaching staff at the arts-focused South Loop school. They estimate about 1,000 classes will be impacted, affecting many of the school’s 6,500 undergraduates.
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Jaxson Mishler, a sophomore studying fashion at Columbia, said all but one of his four classes has been canceled.
“I kind of feel like I’m paying for nothing right now,” he said.
But Mishler said he was out rallying beside his adjunct professors because he supports their demands for health insurance and for administrators to reinstate proposed cuts to course offerings.
“They’re asking for the students’ education to be invested in again,” he said.
The next bargaining session is scheduled for Tuesday. CFAC last went on strike in 2017 over contract disputes related to job security and benefits. That walkout lasted two days.
Union members voted in favor of the strike last week after administrators proposed cutting hundreds of course sections. College leaders say they are trying to minimize the impact on instruction but they also need to ‘ensure the sustainability of the college.’ Lisa Philip / WBEZ
The most recent conflict between the union and the college’s leadership began in August when administrators proposed cutting up to 350 course sections to address a $20 million budget deficit. That prompted the union to file a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board. The board has yet to rule on the unfair labor practice complaint.
Columbia College spokesperson Lambrini Lukidis said the administration is targeting under-enrolled classes. Lukidis said school leaders have already made $40 million’s worth of spending cuts, including eliminating 124 positions, to bridge a budget shortfall that she said began after the start of the pandemic.
“These efficiencies have been mostly on the administrative side, and now we must look at the instructional side and continue to look for additional administrative efficiencies as our Board of Trustees has directed the college [to] further address [the] deficit,” she said in an email. “Accordingly, given some decline in enrollment, the college is adjusting its course offering and some class sizes.”
Some adjunct faculty members and students dispute these claims, saying administrators have cut class offerings that are in demand, and increased class sizes to the detriment of student learning.
“They’ve been cutting courses left and right,” said Abigail Halla, a Columbia College junior majoring in art history. “I wish there were more classes available for me to take for my major instead of one every year.”
Halla marched next to her part-time teachers on Monday holding a handwritten sign that said, “Education is not a business.” She said she came to Columbia because her dad went to the school and liked its small class sizes and the opportunities it offered to learn from industry professionals.
But she feels college leaders are no longer prioritizing these qualities — or paying attention to students’ needs.
“I hope they come around because we do want to come to a solution. That’s why I’m here,” said Halla, who grew up in Bolingbrook.
CFAC President Diana Vallera estimates about a third of the union’s members would be impacted by the proposed course section cuts through decreased workload and reduced pay — or through increased class sizes and workload without additional pay.
“They went after the most marginalized of faculty, right after a pandemic,” said Vallera, who has taught photography at the school since late 2006. “And they went after our students right after a pandemic, after everything that we’ve been through.”
Adjunct faculty are paid between $4,700 and $5,600 per 3-credit course, according to the most recent agreement posted on the CFAC website. That agreement expired at the end of August.
Union leaders announced plans to begin their strike on Monday after an unsuccessful bargaining session on Oct. 26. Leaders say nearly 9 out of 10 voting members authorized a strike before voting closed on Oct. 25. About 8 in 10 members took part.
In a statement last week, Columbia College officials said they “are disappointed that the union’s leadership has called a strike. We remain committed to good-faith bargaining with the union, and hope union leadership will remain at the table with concrete proposals. We are committed to minimizing impact on instruction where possible, and to protecting students’ academic progress, while meeting our responsibilities to ensure the sustainability of the college to serve its students.”
According to an update posted on the college’s website, students will not be held accountable for attendance or progress in classes canceled because of the strike. But they will be marked absent for missing classes that meet as scheduled.
The CFAC strike appears to be part of a recent upsurge in labor organizing on American college campuses detailed in a new report from the City University of New York’s School of Labor and Urban Studies.
Researchers found that almost a third of all higher education-related strikes that took place in the last decade occurred in 2022 and the first half of 2023. They noted that successful unionization efforts picked up in particular among graduate student-workers and contingent faculty, like the members of CFAC.
CFAC was organized in 1998.
Columbia College has a long history of hiring working professionals to teach students because they “bring the most contemporary, innovative thinking to the structure and delivery of our curriculum,” according to the school’s website.
Full-time faculty members at the school are barred from unionizing by a 1980 Supreme Court decision.
“They put posters with many of our members up, advertising, ‘Work with this working professional,’ ” said Vallera. “But yet, they’re discarding those working professionals.”
College leaders argue the course section cuts are necessary to make a $2 million dent in a $20 million budget deficit. But Vallera and other union members reject these claims, saying other measures should be taken to rein in expenses that do not compromise student learning.
In response, John Holmes, chairman of the Columbia College Board of Trustees wrote in a letter to Vallera, “I must stress in no uncertain terms that the measures you seek to reverse, chief among them changes to some course offerings and to the enrollment of some courses, are the direct result of Board mandates to the college administration.”
Holmes is chief executive officer of AAR CORP, an aviation company, and was elected Columbia College’s board chairman in July. He has served as a trustee since 2012.
“This is a top priority for me as incoming Board chair, and we will not deviate from this direction,” Holmes wrote. “I am concerned that your proposed approach would aggravate, and not ameliorate, the problems we are required to solve.”