As a theatrical costume designer at Valencia College in Orlando, Florida, Constance Lee’s livelihood has been on an intermission since the pandemic shut down the play she was working on. The Rhinoceros is an avant-garde drama written by Eugène Ionesco in 1959 about a town where residents slowly metamorphose into rhinoceroses, a metaphor for the spread of fascism. The aborted production seems an oddly fitting backdrop for the chaos of the past few months: first the pandemic, then the surge of Black Lives Matter protests.
Usually, Lee works as a professor of live entertainment design and production, but her class was cancelled before the semester started due to low enrollment. Now, with her play cancelled too, she is taking a pause to ponder her future in higher education. “I think the shutdown [has] brought up the conversation of how we teach things,” she said, “and how to better teach things.”
The shutdown has also renewed a longstanding conversation about unionizing Valencia’s adjuncts. Now as the economy tanks, adjunct faculty are campaigning for a union to advocate for fair pay, more job stability, and a greater say in how the college is run.
Lee, who has been teaching at Valencia for five years, is not just concerned about her own career path but about the glaring inequality in higher education. Black women like her make up less than 5 percent of the full-time higher education faculty nationwide. Although the faculty at Valencia are relatively diverse—more than 40 percent are people of color and immigrants—about 80 percent of the managerial personnel are white. And the racial disparities in the higher education workforce parallel systemic inequities among college students. Nationally, Black, Latinx, Pacific Islander and American Indian/Alaskan Native students all have lower college completion rates than their white peers. Valencia’s students are mostly people of color and immigrants, and the majority come from low-income backgrounds.
When she first started to discuss unionization with other faculty three years ago, she said, more senior professors counseled patience, saying that they had taught as adjuncts before eventually landing a full-time position. “I was, like, I’m out here starving,” she recalled, adding:
I really love teaching, and there’s a part of me that still does believe that education can be better—that we can fix education and make it way more accessible. We can collectively figure out how we can lower the drop-out rates of students of color . . . and specifically Black men . . . We can do something about that. Why do they feel so unsupported, or not get what they need out of these institutions?
Adjunct instructors make up about 70 percent of Valencia’s faculty—much higher than the national average proportion of adjunct faculty, which is around 50 percent. A typical professor hired on a per-course basis—the academic equivalent of sweatshop piecework—might earn less than $25,000 a year.
With her adjunct income—supplemented with other short-term gigs—Lee lives in a fifth-wheel trailer, with $60,000 in student debt. She is constantly straddling her teaching with other work, she said: “sometimes it’s building up a costume for a wedding, or building a piece for a commercial, or it’s doing some on-set stuff, while I’m also building Valencia’s show.” If she earned a living wage as a professor, she added, “I would be able to focus on just teaching, and just being there, and making sure that I’m at every meeting . . . [instead of] constantly juggling everything.”
Adjuncts have already successfully campaigned for a 5 percent wage and paid sick days for campus employees. But many adjunct professors still have to deal with the inherent instability of not having a set job from semester to semester, along with a lack of health insurance just as Florida is seeing a fresh surge in coronavirus infections. According to a survey by SEIU’s Faculty Forward, of the Valencia adjuncts with insurance, just 4 percent received healthcare through the college. About a third of adjuncts surveyed said they personally knew someone who had been infected with COVID-19. Yet a third also said they were “likely to forego seeing a doctor when sick because of the cost.”
Many of her fellow faculty members are reluctant to talk about unionizing. She said people have been intimidated by “fearmongering” anti-union emails they have received from the administration (Valencia argues that it “respect[s] the right of employees to express their views on employment-related issues.”)
Although the semester has been upended by the pandemic and adjunct faculty are not able to meet and organize on campus, Lee is heartened by the protests that have surged around the community, and hopes it reverberates in academia as well. When we spoke by phone on the eve of Juneteenth, she was planning her protest outfit: an umbrella painted black and emblazoned it with “Black Lives Matter,” with glittery pom-poms and stick-on Googly Eyes assembled to spell the word “FREEDOM.”
As an artist, she appreciated the symbolism of the toppling of racist monuments. “People have been asking for at least a decade to take these statues down. But the powers that be didn’t want to listen to them. . . . We’re taking back our community. Your reign is over. It’s about the people now. And so, it’s absolutely happening across the board. It’s a good time to be a radical person.”
Michelle Chen is a member of Dissent’s editorial board and co-host of its Belabored podcast.