Jonathan H. Westover: Utah colleges take advantage of part-time faculty members

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) Students at Utah Valley University head towards the Sorensen Student Center in this 2016 file photo.

Following the direction of Gov. Gary Herbert and the Utah Coronavirus Task Force, all Utah institutions of higher education (both those in the Utah System of Higher Education, as well as our private universities), made the prudent decision to move courses online for the remainder of the semester.

University administrators, staff and faculty across the state have worked tirelessly to prepare for the online transition and I applaud them for these herculean efforts. We have much to be proud of as we have come together to protect the health and well-being of all in our communities and as we work towards a seamless transition for our students across the state.

However, despite all of the good that has occurred, I am deeply saddened by the decision of the leadership at USHE institutions to not provide adequate compensation to their part-time faculty for additional work performed during the COVID-19 crisis. Not only do I believe this to be a legally dubious decision, but I think the decision represents a clear ethical and moral lapse of our university leadership across the state.

I am not oblivious to the larger institution-wide structural, organizational, cost and legal issues at play here, as university leaders wrestle with this and a variety of other complicated issue. (In fact, this happens to be my area of academic and professional expertise.) Whether we can legally “get away with it” or not, I think the decision is a slap in the face to the part-time faculty that we rely so heavily on, who do so much for our students each and every semester, already for very little pay.

It is no secret that there is a broader problem in higher education related to the exploitation of part-time faculty on our campuses, and this most recent decision just furthers that exploitation and fails to show “exceptional care” to our part-time faculty (who often are among the most economically vulnerable of our university employees). Furthermore, this decision sends the clear message that we do not truly value them, their time, or their sacrifices to our universities or for our students.

While normal curriculum development and course modification is part of a faculty member’s workload (including part-time faculty), I think we can all agree that we are currently in a very unique situation. Everyone is putting in a lot of extra work in a very short time window, in addition to all of the normal course preparation, curriculum development, student mentoring and grading that goes into a typical course. The normal semester pay for part-time faculty does not begin to cover all of this extra work required to change course delivery modalities mid-semester.

Additionally, consider the amount of intellectual property that part-time faculty across the state are creating for our universities over this brief window of time (easily valued in the millions just at my home institution). At my home institution alone, we will be going from a relatively small overall percentage of online courses to having nearly all courses (some 4000-plus) at least one third online (for the last third of the semester) in a matter of a little more than 1.5 weeks. This demanding work and the contribution of intellectual property to our universities should not be overlooked and should be adequately compensated.

I believe it is at times like this that we have to look after the most vulnerable among us, and our part-time faculty are among those most vulnerable. We already take advantage of their goodwill towards our students and our universities. If we fail to compensate them for all of the extra work they have to do in the coming weeks (which our universities clearly benefit from in both the short and long-term), that is pure exploitation, plain and simple. Moreover, it certainly does not signal that we adequately value them or their contributions.

I believe we have a rare opportunity to truly demonstrate exceptional care in a time of crisis to those who teach a major percentage of our university courses across the state and I hope we do not squander it. The goodwill of our part-time faculty will only go so far and eventually it will dry up. And without our part-time faculty, universities across the state of Utah will be in immense trouble. We need to do better and we can do better.

(Jay Drowns / UVU Marketing) Jonathan H. Westover, Ph.D., Utah Valley University

Jonathan H. Westover, Ph.D., is associate professor of organizational leadership in the Utah Valley University Woodbury School of Business, academic director of the UVU Center for Social Impact and faculty fellow for ethics in public life in the UVU Center for the Study of Ethics.