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Professors blast UVU re-application as 'purging policy'

Published May 14, 2012 9:14 am

Higher ed • Administrators defend requiring adjuncts to re-apply for their posts each spring.
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Utah Valley University adjunct professors are pushing back against a requirement that they re-apply for their posts each spring, saying it disrespects the part-timers who do most of the teaching at the Orem campus.

UVU officials have billed the requirement as a housekeeping measure that has little bearing on actual hiring decisions, which remain with department heads. But some professors — tenured and adjunct alike — are making no secret of their displeasure of what they call a "purging policy," devised without faculty input.

"Instead of recognizing our essential contribution, the university not only discriminates against us, it humiliates us," wrote adjunct Edwin Firmage in a recent opinion piece published by UVU's student newspaper. "Regardless of our expertise and experience, and mindless of actual contributions made by individuals to their departments over the years, the university treats us as mere at-will employees."

The first-year adjunct, who is the son of a University of Utah law professor by the same name, taught Latin and humanities last semester and hopes to keep teaching. He holds a master's degree from Berkeley in Near Eastern studies and makes his living as an outdoor photographer.

Firmage said he learned of the procedure only in February in a memo human resources officials circulated to adjuncts. The deadline to re-apply is Tuesday.

The memo cited "federal requirements regarding fair hiring practices and labor standards" and a need to keep track of adjunct credentials.

Ian Wilson, UVU's vice president for academic affairs, said the re-application procedure arose because procedures for hiring adjuncts needed an overhaul. Positions had not been advertised, people had been hired haphazardly or on an ad hoc basis, and information on current adjuncts was out of date.

"They don't need to be re-interviewed," Wilson said. "They aren't in the same pool as new applicants. We aren't trying to making life difficult."

Firmage's bigger beef is over the flagrant disparity between full-time faculty and adjuncts in terms of pay, benefits and job security. He believes the new policy will only make the equity issue worse, leading to a "permanent academic underclass of wage slaves."

UVU adjuncts are paid a flat rate of $2,200 per three-hour section they teach. By university policy, adjuncts cannot teach 12 or more credit hours in a semester. A load that big would qualify the adjuncts as full-time employees entitled to benefits.

Many adjuncts would like to teach more hours and their departments would like to have them, but the university cannot afford to treat them as full-time employees, Wilson said. Approximately 700 of UVU's 1,260 instructors are part-timers. No Utah university relies more heavily on adjuncts.

While Wilson acknowledged adjuncts are key to the university's functioning, some faculty said the procedure will discourage the best from remaining at UVU. The most pointed criticism came from the campus chapter of the American Association of University Professors.

"To require these additional administrative hurdles for [adjuncts] to continue working is a slap in the face to our colleagues whose pay is least proportionate to their level of education," wrote Scott Abbott, then-chapter president, in an open letter to Wilson and President Matthew Holland. "The new rule requiring reapplication for all adjuncts will drive some people away, irritate and depress those who remain, and increase bureaucratic frictions. This, in turn, diminishes the one thing we really hope to do well: offer high quality university education."

A literary scholar, Abbott directs UVU's integrated studies program and once led the humanities and philosophy department.

Firmage fears annual re-application can be used to quietly rid the university of adjuncts who criticize administration, organize colleagues or otherwise become "a pain in the ass." But if Firmage fears his activism is putting his adjunct position in peril, he isn't showing it.

"We have academic freedom here. That's part of his job, to speak out. We would defend anyone who got in trouble," Abbott said.

bmaffly@sltrib.com