Duke Contingent Faculty Speak Out for Fair Wages in Open Letter


We have been asked by organizers from Duke University’s union for contingent faculty to publish this open letter, which speaks to Provost Sally Kornbluth about their frustration with ongoing negotiations with the university administration. Many of us at Tropics of Meta have experience with the labor movement, including the efforts to gain union representation for graduate student employees and adjunct instructors at a number of universities.  We believe strongly that the crisis of both academic employment and quality higher education can only be solved by workers themselves having a strong voice.  Otherwise, college and university administrators will continue to take advantage of academic labor and pay the lowest wages possible, making it difficult for instructors to enjoy anything resembling a livable wage or maintain the highest quality of research and teaching. (It’s not easy to do your best work when you’re schlepping between five courses at five different campuses only to make poverty wages.)

The current system is a lose-lose for both students and faculty, and it must change. We are heartened to see the robust movements that have either emerged or reignited at places like Northwestern, Columbia, NYU, and indeed Duke. Please read the union negotiators’ letter and see for yourself the outrageous situation that continues to exist in the compensation and work rules for contingent faculty at Duke. And circulate to your friends and neighbors!

June 13, 2017

Dear Provost Kornbluth,

The Duke Contingent Faculty bargaining unit is writing to update you on our contract negotiations with the University.  Over the last nine months, we’ve worked hard with university negotiators and have agreed to all articles except for compensation and professional development. We’d like to offer our perspective on what currently separates us.

From the beginning of bargaining, we’ve been committed to rationalizing contingent faculty processes with an eye to ensuring two things: that current members of the class have clearer frameworks for job security and that no faculty member at Duke lives in precarity. We’ve addressed the latter by arguing for realistic pay and benefit scales for the lowest paid members of our class. This is an issue of principle that pertains not only to our bargaining unit. Setting an example of a fair work climate does credit to Duke.

Over the last two bargaining sessions in May and June, we have attempted to work towards a reasonable compensation scale. The issues break down into three broad categories: 1) negotiations about the pay scale (and salary increases) for full-time salaried faculty; 2) negotiations about the pay scale for the lowest-paid full-time faculty members (i.e., applied music instructors and eight “Instructors B” who teach lab sections); and 3) negotiations over the per-course pay for part-time faculty.

Regarding the first category, the difference between the University’s proposal and ours is roughly $150,000 to $180,000 per year over the course of the contract. We currently differ on the base salaries for newly hired/newly reclassified lecturing fellows and instructors. We also differ on the way pay increases would be offered to current faculty making more than this base pay.

The University’s bargaining position has been irrational. For instance, our full-time salary structure is based on a per-course rate times six; the University’s number is lower than this, which means that faculty who currently teach six courses would actually receive less per course and/or would have greater incentive to be paid on a per-course basis. While some faculty currently teach less than a 3-3 load, our position is that 1) the pay scale should reflect the per-course rate established as a multiplier and 2) it is incumbent on the University to contractually stipulate additional duties if they so desire for employees teaching less than a 3-3 load. Working with a more rational number will bring the University and the union closer together with respect to overall costs per year.

Regarding the second category, the University’s proposals leave both applied music  faculty and Instructor B faculty at poverty-level pay scales. The current administration proposal offered starting rates for applied music faculty that, if adjusted to a full-time salary, would be below the Federal Poverty level for a family of four. University negotiators have been unresponsive to repeated requests to spell out the math on this. Given the place of applied music education in a liberal arts education and the evidence for the educational benefits of applied music proficiency, it is difficult to understand why compensation for applied music faculty is not adjusted to match that of other teaching faculty.

The situation for Instructor B faculty is even more irrationally grim. The current proposal offers full-time instructors with more than five years’ experience $27,000 a year in fiscal year 2020. This sets a pay scale for future hires that is $7,000 a year less than the University currently pays a comparable person today. It is our position that the pay scale should at least reflect current standards. Moreover, we feel that by 2020, no full-time faculty member at Duke should earn less than the $35,000 starting rate that a full-time teacher in the Durham public schools with a bachelor’s degree is paid in 2016-17.

The third category of deep concern is the per-course rate for employment categories (lecturing fellows and instructors). At this time, our proposal is $277 more per course than the University’s. University proposal numbers have actually gone backwards. We believe this reflects an attempt to develop a number that addresses the kinds of differences that exist between class members and meets an overall cost adjustment. Our approach has been to generate numbers that reflect the principles laid out in the second paragraph: regularization of job categories and pay for full-time faculty, and redress for the lowest paid members of our class. We believe per-course rates should be driven by a recognition that no faculty member at Duke should be forced to live in precarity.

Lastly, 40 to 45 full-time faculty members do not have a research or travel account.  The best teaching faculty inarguably engage as both consumers and producers of current scholarship in their fields.  It makes sense that the University commit to supporting each full-time teaching faculty member in the work they must do to remain current in their respective disciplines.

Bargaining unit members are discouraged and frustrated by the approach taken by University negotiators. Upwards of fifty Duke faculty have taken part in extended negotiations for a contract that will ultimately benefit Duke University and strengthen student learning by rationalizing its management of contingent faculty. While bargaining is necessarily a contentious process, we are frustrated by the extent to which that basic principle appears to divide us from the University negotiators. We have used the bargaining process to tell our stories and lived experience as members of the Duke Faculty.  We tell these stories to clarify realities at Duke that directly concern issues on the table. It seems clear, based on shifting and irrational proposals, that the University negotiators are working with an abstract financial ceiling; this means they are content to ignore these realities.

Our requests are both modest and realistic. The idea that we as faculty are somehow trying to break Duke’s bank is frankly absurd — it’s the kind of thing people used to thinking in terms of game theory might believe, but it in no way reflects the approach we’ve taken in bargaining. The overall cost of what we’ve proposed regarding compensation and benefits remains a fractional percentage– equivalent to a rounding error– of Duke’s total non-hospital operating budget. We’ve consistently bargained to get proper pay for the lowest-paid members of our class, and we have not requested exorbitant raises for those of us who are more rationally compensated. We are proud to work for Duke and believe Duke can get this right.

The bargaining process has generated a fair contract with respect to almost all of the initial issues of concern. At the same time, as negotiations have extended this basic issue of principle has resurfaced. As chief academic officer of the University, we assume the University negotiators keep you apprised of the bargaining process; we write to clarify our position and to restate the principles that have driven our positions. We are not going to accept a contract that treats the people in our current and future unit as second-class members of the Duke faculty.


Jennifer Ansley, Lecturing Fellow, Thompson Writing Program

MJ Sharp, Center for Documentary Studies

Nancy Kalow, Center for Documentary Studies

Bill Fick, Visiting Assistant Professor Art, Art History and Visual Studies

David Heid, Department of Music

Amanda Pullum, Thompson Writing Program

David Need, Religious Studies

Gregory Herschlag, Mathematics and Biomedical Engineering

Kelly Goyette, Instructor, Thompson Writing Program

Mike Dimpfl, Thompson Writing Program

Rene Caputo, Instructor, Thompson Writing Program and The Graduate School

Jed Cohen, Instructor, Thompson Writing Program

Margaret Swezey, Instructor, Thompson Writing Program

Christopher Shreve, Instructor, Biology

Miranda Welsh, Lecturing Fellow, Thompson Writing Program

Steven Kaufmann, Instructor, HWPE

Marion Quirici, Lecturing Fellow, Thompson Writing Program

Jim Haverkamp, Instructor, Arts of the Moving Image

Kevin Casey, Instructor, Thompson Writing Program

Sandra Cotton, Department of Music

Nathan Kalman-Lamb, Lecturing Fellow, Thompson Writing Program

Sachelle Ford, Lecturing Fellow, Thompson Writing Program

Matthew Valnes, Instructor, Thompson Writing Program

Gary Hawkins, Instructor, Arts of the Moving Image & Center for Documentary Studies

Leslie Maxwell, Instructor, Thompson Writing Program

Brenda Baletti, Thompson Writing Program

Sandra Sotelo-Miller, Thompson Writing Program

Matt Whitt, Thompson Writing Program

Cathy Shuman, Lecturing Fellow, English Department

Lisa Chinn, Lecturing Fellow, Thompson Writing Program

Abdul Sattar Jawad Shakhly/ Professor, AMES

Janine Rose/Thompson Writing Program

John Orr, Instructor, HWPE

Patrick Herron, Senior Research Scientist, Information Science + Studies

Lindsey Smith, Thompson Writing Program

Eileen Anderson, Lecturing Fellow/Cultural Advisor, Romance Studies

Jamie Browne, Instructor, Thompson Writing Program

Matteo Gilebbi, Senior Lecturing Fellow, Romance Studies

Diane Bryson, Instructor, EIS, The Graduate School

Stefania Heim, Lecturing Fellow, Thompson Writing Program

Peter C. Pihos, Lecturing Fellow, Thompson Writing Program