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Duke Faculty Union alleges that University violated bargaining agreement

After years of frustration over their pay and benefits, Duke's adjunct faculty members thought they had finally reached equanimity with the University via a Duke Faculty Union contract created last summer. 

But the wound has been reopened—several adjunct faculty members claim that Duke has breached their recent contract, leaving some professors without their expected resources, healthcare and even jobs. Adjunct faculty members are asking campus community members to sign a petition of support that says the University has not honored the agreement with DFU. 

"For the majority of the people in the bargaining unit, Duke has done good by the contractor,” said Mike Dimpfl, president of the DFU and lecturing fellow of Thompson Writing Program. “However, the institution is dragging its feet for 10-12 people." 

Dimpfl is adamant that no professors in the DFU get left "behind."

According to the DFU's website, the union consists of more than "250 non-tenure-track Duke faculty members." These include professors from almost all of the Writing 101 classes and from many foreign language courses. Classes that tend to be smaller and that are held in close-knit settings are often taught by DFU professors.

Universities around the country, including Duke, have increasingly relied on non-tenure or tenure-track contract workers, such as adjunct faculty, to teach classes. The faculty are generally paid less and given fewer privileges and benefits than their tenured colleagues. 

However, Duke created a new contract with DFU in July 2017 to address three major issues, which, according to Dimpfl, include the stability of members' contracts, low pay and the inclusion of DFU members in faculty life.

Since the new contract, many DFU members have said they found themselves in substantially better situations than before.

Cathy Shuman, a lecturing fellow of English, shared that prior to the updated contract, “anybody’s whim” could end her job after her personal three-year contract was up.

“Now we have specific causes for why a contract can’t be renewed…I’m feeling more secure,” Shuman said.

However, other professors said they have not been so lucky. 

Leslie Maxwell, an instructor of the Thompson Writing Program, still fears she will lose her job. In a mass email to her former Writing 101 students Feb. 20, she said that she should be receiving a three-year contract since she has now been at Duke more than four years. 

“Yet, the university has told me that they are not renewing my contract,” she wrote. “Under our union agreement, there are very specific reasons why they might not renew someone’s contract, including performance, but none of these apply in my case. Other faculty in the Thompson Writing Program, the Center for Documentary Studies, English for International Students, PE and other departments, are affected.”

Maxwell also shared that many non-tenure faculty members have been on semester-to-semester contracts for years and that “people went on and off health insurance or would have insurance one semester and not the next.”

But the Duke administration disagrees with DFU’s interpretation of the faculty members’ situation. The Chronicle emailed Provost Sally Kornbluth to schedule an interview with her. Instead, Antwan Lofton, assistant vice president for staff and labor relations, staff and family programs, responded with the following statement:

“Duke continues to honor its agreement with the members of the Workers United Southern Region, Service Employees International Union. To that end, all questions or concerns should be addressed through the processes that both the union and the University agreed upon, specified in the union contact.”

Shuman said the condition and disagreement with the administration has not stopped most professors from doing great work. 

“Despite the fact that they’ve been worrying about their jobs...that they’ve been drastically underpaid and have had no job security, [they have still] been giving 100 percent to their students, to their classes—for decades,” Shuman said. 

She said she believes this is proof that the University should reward those non-tenured professors.

“Duke has the resources, understands the value of and could very easily produce a stable, effective, diverse faculty right here,” Dimpfl said.

Dimpfl also mentioned that DFU members play a big part in the student experience. He said he believes that the administration fails to link adjunct faculty treatment to student success.

“There’s a little bit of a bureaucratic wall that is slowing down this process. We know that Duke could resolve these issues tomorrow if they wanted to,” Dimpfl said. “It’s not that many people, it’s not that much money, it’s not major changes. We are not asking for the moon, we are asking for a very realistic, equitable, fair treatment.”

“Nothing we want is not in Duke’s interest,” he added. 

In the meantime, DFU is not idle. They have focused on growing membership, supporting one another, creating awareness with the online petition and in showing solidarity with other unionized groups.

“We’re ready to sit down [with the administration],” Dimpfl said. “But we are going to organize and advocate with people until that happens.” 

Katherine Berko contributed reporting.