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'We're here because we care': NIU tenured faculty union appeals to board of trustees

NIU faculty union wants wage increases, pay equity, academic freedom

DeKALB – Frustrated at going more than a decade without a pay raise, members of the union representing tenured faculty at Northern Illinois University took their concerns directly to the NIU Board of Trustees on Thursday.

A standing-room-only crowd was on hand at Altgeld Hall as Mark Schuller, vice president of the United Faculty Alliance and a tenured professor of anthropology, told the board the time had come for higher wages, and said cultivating a strong faculty would increase student retention.

“We are here because we care,” Schuller said. “Investing in our faculty as leading researchers, scholars and artists is one of the best ways to attract and retain a high quality, diverse student population.”

The United Faculty Alliance, representing more than 500 tenured and tenure-track faculty from NIU’s six colleges, was formed in 2017. Its members have been seeking a labor contract – advocating for wage increases, fair workloads for professors and clearer academic policies – with the university since then, to no avail, Schuller said.

In a statement from the board regarding Thursday’s union showing, the board members said they looked forward to continuing talks.

“NIU shares the union’s desire to finalize a contract that meets the needs of both our faculty and the university,” the statement reads. “We look forward to continuing negotiations and hope for a swift and fair resolution.”

No contract was up for a vote Thursday, but Schuller said the UFA wanted to appeal to the board ahead of what he said could be a contract resolution by the end of September.

The board did vote and approve another piece of policy which was a priority for the union: parental leave. According to an email sent by President Lisa Freeman to faculty and staff, the policy will expand parental leave and nonaccumulative sick benefits to offer 25 days of paid leave to employees who welcome new children into their families.

Former UFA President Virginia Naples, a tenured professor of biology, called for changes to university policy including what she said was salary discrimination based on sex and race. She said investing in faculty would help student enrollment, a day after data released by NIU that showed fall enrollment had dropped to its lowest in 50 years.

“The faculty have not been paid raises more than one 3% raise on average for at least 10 years,” Naples said. “But the issue that I’m talking about goes beyond that. I’m talking about the sex and salary discrimination that has been present at this university probably since its inception.”

Naples said she’s appealed to the board multiple times about those problems in the past.

“We’ve had about half a dozen Faculty Salary Equity Task Force reports, all of which have reported that,” she said. “Nothing has been done. My first address to the BOT about the sex-salary discrimination was in 1988.”

A 2015-16 report by that task force concluded that “qualitative and quantitative studies reveal patterns of potential discrimination relating to sex, race, and Hispanicity in salary and other resource allocations.” The same report noted that academic fields may have their own factors, and that there is not enough racial diversity among NIU professors to properly assess pay equity when employees were negotiating salary.

“Faculty salary is a part of ongoing union negotiations, in which we remain committed to negotiating in good faith,” the board statement reads.

Schuller said problems such as academic freedom (not being fired for conducting research deemed controversial or unpopular), a transparent management process and transparent decisions about grant allocations also are priorities for union members.

“They’re looking at their priorities, and for them it is about money, and that’s understandable,” Schuller said in an interview after the meeting. “It’s definitely not clear that the board is aware of the details, and they shouldn’t be at this stage. President Lisa Freeman probably isn’t aware of the details, but this is just one last chance to say, ‘Take this seriously. We’re members of the team.’ ”

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