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Will Art School Adjuncts Unionize?

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Weekly Vote Winner Artbound's editorial team has reviewed and rated the most compelling articles. After putting two articles up for a vote, the audience chose this article to be made into a short-format documentary.

OP-Art: Opinions and editorials about art, institutions, and the relationship between them.

UPDATE: May 15, 2015 10:30 AM: The entire first year MFA class at USC has dropped out in protest of treatment of students and faculty. In a letter they state: "USC tuition has increased an astounding 92 percent since 2001,[1] compensation for USC's top eight executives has more than tripled since 2001,[2] and Department of Education data shows that "administrative positions at colleges and universities grew by 60 percent between 1993 and 2009."[3] Adjunct faculty positions -- the jobs that freshly minted MFAs usually get, if they're lucky -- are paid at a rate that often does not even reach the federal minimum wage, while these adjuncts are paying off tens of thousands of dollars of student-loan debt."

Los Angeles performance art venue Human Resources doesn't have a regular curator, so it wasn't out of character that the organizer of Art, Education & Justice! was an outsider. What was irregular was that the organizer of the October 12 event was an actual full-time organizer, an SEIU (Service Employees International Union) employee and artist named Adam Overton. And while there were sculptures on the floor, art on the walls, and several performances, the whole to-do didn't add up to a show. Instead, it was a rally.  

Adjunct educators up and down the West Coast and across the nation are self-organizing. In the last two years, part-time and adjunct faculty at most of Washington DC's higher education institutions have unionized. On October 3, adjuncts at San Francisco's California College of the Arts announced they'd succeeded in voting for union representation following in the footsteps of the venerable San Francisco Art Institute. Now adjuncts are gearing up to hold elections for contractual representation by a union, a vote to be certified by the National Labor Relations Board, at the three big name private Los Angeles art schools: Art Center, Otis, and CalArts.

With around 150 attendees, the Human Resources event succeeded in raising consciousness and energy among art professors, current art school students, and the wider Los Angeles artist community. It's "part of a vital push towards reforming the education system," said artist and Scripps College Visiting Lecturer Elana Mann. "My students talk about the breakdown of the education system and even make artwork about it... unionizing adjuncts is only the first step in this larger struggle."

The stakes for teachers and students are high. 45-years ago, undergraduate tuition, fees, and board cost the equivalent of $9,461 per annum, and 78 percent of higher education faculty were on tenure track (an employment status that protects academic freedom and provides an annual salary with benefits). Today, an average student pays over $20,234 p.a. for tuition and board, rising to $42,224 for private institutions, where institutional spending on administration has increased 36-percent since 1989

The three-decade "trend to invest in non-instructional student services" identified by the  American Institutes of Research is coupled with a shift away from the tenure system. Today 70% of faculty does not have tenure. A full 50 percent, the National Center for Education Statistics reports, are part-timers, many of whom work at several institutions at once. Contracts are frequently semester-to-semester, with low salaries, and few or no benefits. Speaking to the impact of "adjunctification," artist Devon Tsuno, Cerritos College adjunct and Cypress College's Outstanding Adjunct Faculty of 2011, said: "Most adjuncts want to do everything they can for their students, but on a temporary contract, it's harder to develop relationships and programming, being contingent compromises quality."

For artist Bebe Beard, who travelled from Massachusetts to speak at Human Resources about the recent unionization of Northeastern, Tufts, and Leslie Universities, "it was painful to realize that, while my university professed, its mission of educating tomorrow's enlightened citizens, the reality is that the administration's goal is to maximize per credit profits." 

Ideologues and reformers on the left and right acknowledge an increase in instability among the middle class as a byproduct of the restructuring of the labor markets, which has taken place in the decades since the 1970s. These changes have been brought about by an increase in efficiencies and cost cutting in hyper-competitive global systems. Commentators discuss a similar effect in academia, referring to the implementation of corporate strategies within colleges and universities as the "neoliberalization" of academia. For Beard, who teaches at Boston's Wentworth Institute of Technology and Suffolk University, the corporatization of higher education... [is] "a key contributor to the undermining of the middle class. I want to change that for the coming generations." 

The change won't be straightforward, suggests artist, U.C. Riverside lecturer, and CalArts adjunct Ken Ehrlich. He organized a "book bloc" workshop at the Human Resources event. Initiated by Italian student-demonstrators in 2010, the book bloc uses handmade lightweight panels painted with scaled-up book covers as simultaneous banners and shields. They "take poetry and knowledge onto the street to say this is what's at stake," says Ehrlich, "but they also signal our understanding that in resisting neo-liberalization we'll need to defend ourselves."

Although the authors' requests for comment from the respective Presidents of Art Center and Cal Arts went unanswered, Dr. Kerry Walk, Interim President of Otis College of Art and Design, wrote that: "while Otis respects the rights of faculty members to organize... the College believes that the presence of an outside entity with the sole and exclusive right to represent faculty on employment issues will benefit neither faculty nor the College. Union representation of faculty by SEIU should be of special concern to faculty, given this union's stated focus, not on educators, but on healthcare workers, property service providers, and public employees."

For artist and Art Center Faculty Council member Cindy Bernard: "A whole array of social, structural and financial implications would come into play if Art Center faculty unionize, and we're just starting to examine what that might mean. Whatever happens, it has to be productive for the faculty and good for the students."

The detrimental impacts of unionization foreseen by Dr. Walk could include the addition of "a cumbersome and inherently adversarial process to [Otis] operations," which, she says may limit the College's ability to work directly and collaboratively with faculty. By necessitating new staff positions and legal fees, Walk says unionization may also cause "a diversion of scarce resources that would be unfortunate for all concerned." 

Observing that unionization might require all faculty, "regardless of their personal preference," to abide by union-negotiated contracts and pay union dues of "typically 1.6 percent of annual earnings," Dr. Walk also noted that: "a union can make promises, but at the end of the day, will only be able to negotiate terms that the College agrees to."

In the last ten years, tuition at California Institute of the Arts has risen dramatically. Today's dance, film, theater, writing, and art students can expect to pay $41,700 a year in tuition alone. With few scholarship opportunities available, it's one of the nation's highest. Feeling like they are treated as "profit centers" rather than young scholars and artists, frustration with what tuition buys is coalescing among students. Olga Cosme, a third year undergraduate art student says: "if we're paying them this much, we want them at the very least to do their job." Her comment was specifically addressing an Al Jazeera America story, posted by the news source on October 14th, about the administration's inadequate response to student rape.

Asked about the possibility that a unionized faculty could increase the cost of tuition, second year MFA art student Cori Redstone said: " I don't believe paying faculty what they are worth should raise tuition. We need to pay faculty what they are worth and take down the level of bureaucrats sitting in that office," referring to the administrative area of the school. Cosme and Redstone say they feel faculty is stretched, given their own experience in over-enrolled classes and with a lack of ability to connect with over-burdened professors. Cosme adds she supports adjunct unionization because as an art student today "that's gonna be us in the future."

Matias Viegener has taught at CalArts for 28 years, first as an adjunct and now as full-time faculty in the Critical Studies Program. He's been involved with two previous unionization drives. The first in the early 1990's occurred before adjunct labor was much of an issue in higher education. A vote to unionize all professors with the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) failed, Viegener suggests, because at the time some faculty wouldn't, as artists, simply identify as workers. Again during the summer of 2001 CalArts faculty organized towards a second unionization drive. They were set to kick-off the campaign, says Viegener, on the morning of September 11th. The events surrounding that date ended up sidelining attempts.

Of the current campaign Viegener says: "CalArts, like every higher education faculty today, is taught by an increasing number of adjuncts. Not only should they consider their own jobs, but the future of their field." He adds that along with the adjuncts all CalArts faculty might do the same.

"A union will strengthen our bargaining rights and help us get benefits," says Ben Huff, a film school adjunct, "so someone like me isn't exploited for their work and  taken advantage of." Huff has been adjunct teaching three to six classes a year, for over six years. He feels that he's become an important fixture in CalArt's well-regarded Character Animation program. In his six years he says he's gotten no substantial raise. With an academic workload close to his permanent peers, he's asked for both a raise and a real position.  He was told there was no money for that. Beyond paid student instruction time, and because of his love for CalArts students, he takes on mentors. He also does final sound mixes for student films at a rate he characterizes as far lower than that any sound studio in Hollywood would find acceptable. 

Jen Hofer too is considered a "perma-adjunct" at CalArts; a fixture in the Critical Studies MFA Writing Program since fall 2004, teaching at least one class per semester, and mentoring graduate students. Hofer says it's a quality of her students intellectual and creative curiosity, asking how art can  "relate to the most pressing social concerns", compelling her to stay. Hofer says they value the experiences of instructors who are active working artists bringing real-world experience into the classrooms. She believes fiercely in the power of collective bargaining and wants to see all faculty and staff organize to have a strong voice in making decisions that will be in their own best interests, and that of CalArts students. Referencing the cutting edge founding vision of her school, by- and-for-artists, she says,  "this should be an institution that believes in the power of the humans who make up that institution, to have a strong voice in shaping what that institution imagines itself to be, and puts that imagination into practice."

"I was energized," said Elana Mann of the Art Education and Justice rally. "The organizers really tapped into the creative community to find a variety of ways to light the fire in people's hearts." By refusing the traditional separation of "art" and "life," and orienting artists toward collaboration and participation, the "social turn" of recent years has readied Southern California's cultural landscape for collective action in pursuit of social justice. "People like me and [other faculty]," concluded Devon Tsuno, "our lifetimes are invested in education. We're looking for that spark of hope that will let us know that we can continue what we love. We're ready for this not to be forever, for us and our students and it's happening really quickly."

Clarification: Of the three L.A. art schools mentioned in this article, only Otis College of Art and Design currently has a date set for a vote on union representation. At Art Center College of Design and California Institute of the Arts faculty are campaigning to achieve such a vote.

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