The independent news organization of Duke University

Faculty diversity: An argument for a faculty union

All eyes were on President Brodhead and Provost Kornbluth last Friday as they took the stage in Page Auditorium to address the racism and homophobia on campus. Over the course of the assembly, administrators reiterated their assertion that they are doing everything in their power to create a safe and accepting environment for students of all backgrounds. While President Brodhead struggled to outline precise actions that Duke will undertake to change the campus culture, there is at least one substantive action Duke can take that will improve the campus community with respect to faculty diversity. Duke should guarantee the right of contingent professors to organize their union free of intimidation. Having a faculty union on campus would greatly improve the diversity among professors that students repeatedly demanded over the course of the forum and empower professors to address racism, homophobia, transphobia and sexism in their classrooms and their departments.

In response to the concerns of students, Provost Kornbluth asserted that Duke’s goal is for students to “see themselves in the face of their professors.” However, the racial makeup of Duke’s faculty is far less diverse than its student body. 10 percent of Duke students are African American, 7 percent Latino and 21 percent Asian, compared to a demographic breakdown of professors that is 4.2 percent, 2.6 percent and 14.8 percent respectively. Given these numbers, it is clear that a large gap in racial representation is still present. Consequently, minority faculty is overburdened with the demand for mentorship among students of color, leading many professors of racial minorities to report feeling overworked.

In addition to this pressure, professors of color are more likely to be underpaid and experience job insecurity at Duke. Minority professors are more likely to be contingent faculty, non-tenure-track faculty that work without benefits or long term employment contracts. 54 percent of Hispanic faculty, 54 percent of Asian faculty and 52 percent of African American faculty are non-tenure track, while only 40 percent of Duke faculty as a whole is contingent.

The precariousness of these non-tenure-track positions has serious implications for the ability of professors to address racism, homophobia and sexism within their classrooms and within their departments. Confidence and security are necessary prerequisites to speaking out. They allow us to take a strong stand for an issue and demand change. However, contingent faculty do not have access to this privilege, and thus it is more difficult for them to address the discrimination occurring in class or elsewhere.

The case of Professor Jason Mendez is a clear example of the need for institutional protections of contingent faculty. Last spring, he filed a complaint with the Office of Institutional Equity after his two-year contract was not renewed after he criticized the Department of Education for micro-aggressions and cultural insensitivity that faculty of color experienced. The ensuing investigation cleared the university of the charge that the dismissal was racially motivated; however, the office interviewed no faculty of color over the course of their deliberation.

Instead of resigning themselves to powerlessness, contingent faculty have decided to form a union. They have come together to organize for better job security, transparency and a voice on campus. Today, many contingent professors have no idea when or even if they will be put on the tenure track. Right now, non-tenure-track faculty cannot speak freely without the fear that their contracts will not be renewed next fall.

Duke responded to the unionization effort with a webpage called “One-to-One” that declared, “you are your own best representative.” Duke wants professors of color, queer professors and female-identified professors to confront their heads of department alone and isolated. When these professors see micro-aggressions and discrimination within their departments, they call it out at their own risk.

If Duke is serious about faculty diversity, as it proudly proclaimed last week, one tangible thing it can do is allow contingent faculty to organize their union free from interference. But the administration has been openly hostile to the union organizing, sending out ominous emails and convening closed meetings to discourage professors from joining the union. These tactics are designed to keep contingent professors, largely professors of color, isolated and disempowered to take a stand against injustice in their workplace.

This affects us all as students. If our professors are prevented from confronting racism and homophobia in the classroom, then how can we?

Zoe Willingham is a Trinity junior and the President of Duke United Students Against Sweatshops.


Share and discuss “Faculty diversity: An argument for a faculty union” on social media.