Saint Mary’s professors fear for the preservation of their jobs following the College’s proposal to have graduate students teach undergraduate classes.
By Victoria Vidales
Saint Mary’s has created a reputation for providing a high quality college education taught by experienced professors. In a small school environment Saint Mary’s professors are able to establish close relationships with their students, watching them grow over four years. These intimate bonds between students and faculty are a highlight for the attraction to Saint Mary’s. However, professors are now concerned that these mentorships will diminish as the College moves to implement the Graduate Student Teaching Fellow program, which would allow for graduate students to teach undergraduate college classes in the place of faculty.
“I believe [as a Union] when we are trying to raise awareness about this we are speaking for a large majority of the stakeholders at Saint Mary’s College who are either not as close to the event, or are close to the events but are afraid to speak up,” Professor Colin Chan Redemer, Chief Steward of the Campus Union, said.
According to the Senate Resolution, Graduate Student Teaching Fellows will be defined as “graduate students enrolled full time in a Saint Mary’s College graduate degree program who have been selected to participate in an approved teaching pathway program for professional development within a Sponsoring program and been assigned by a Chair or Program Director within a Supervising program to teach a course at Saint Mary’s College, either as an assistant, co-teacher, or sole instructor of record.”
The purpose of this program is to provide graduate students with the opportunity to teach a college class before entering the professional world. If passed, this program would provide for a significant increase in graduate students teaching undergraduate courses which could continue to grow over time. Unionized professors fear that this increase in graduate student workers in the place of faculty would eliminate their jobs with the College relying on graduate student workers in the place of unionized faculty members.
“Once you have been teaching at Saint Mary’s for a while you see not only the department’s best practices but you are involved in helping find those best practices. Those thought processes graduate students don’t necessarily have the path to,” Vice President of the Campus Union, Tony Panlilio said.
In response to this development Professor Redemer created a virtual petition to gain support for unionized faculty’s opposition to this proposal, and to bring attention to the matter. The petition states that the administration is “forming a new grad-student teaching policy which will determine the future of unionized labor on campus, as well as the future of undergraduate education at Saint Mary’s College.This policy may reverse the college’s long and widely respected tradition of staffing core classes with highly qualified adjunct faculty, and allowing departments to replace us with temporary graduate students.”
Furthermore, the petition explicitly calls upon Saint Mary’s administration to not grant this program, writing that “we ask that the Administration adopt a position which leads with the following phrase: Saint Mary's College will not replace any unionized employee with a graduate student worker.”
“If you were to replace three highly trained faculty members with 18 graduate students or more. The Senate proposal makes no limit on how many graduate students could be teaching. If you replaced faculty members with graduate students how many students would have a new trainee teaching their classes. What value does that place on a Saint Mary’s education?” Professor Redemer said.
To be clear, this petition is not in response to graduate students assisting or being mentored by experienced professors. These roles exist and are encouraged by unionized faculty. The petition is in response to graduate students teaching a course alone in the place of a unionized faculty member, thus eliminating the faculty member’s job.
“I really believe in the students that we produce at Saint Mary’s I think that they are a cut above. [However,] there’s an awareness they know that they have gotten from their professors that they are not quite yet ready to provide. They need more formation, they need a bit more steeping in the great tradition of thought of whatever it is that they are studying,” Professor Redemer said.
The majority of Saint Mary’s faculty are not tenure or on the tenure track but are adjuncts. This means that they are at risk for less employment security and benefits. With the help of a labor union they are able to receive more legal protections in the classroom. Although the Graduate Student Teaching Fellows would not be a risk to tenure faculty, they would be to adjunct faculty.
“A union is not the same thing as tenure but it does make you an at-fault employee rather than an at-will employee, that means that if you make a mistake, if you are not doing your job, you can still be fired but the employer has to prove you've done wrong. There is a slightly higher level of protection. It provides for things like academic freedom, it allows for professors to teach within the discipline without pushback. Adjunct faculty that are unionized have access to benefits,” Professor Redemer said.
Saint Mary’s is one of the few universities that does not rely on graduate students or undergraduate teaching assistants to teach introductory classes. Most, if not all, Saint Mary’s classes are taught by experienced faculty members. Unionized faculty members not only fear for the loss of their source of employment, but also a decrease in the quality of education that students at Saint Mary’s expect to receive. Undergraduate students will no longer be taught by a long term professor but instead by a fellow student learning how to teach.
“That’s part of the draw of Saint Mary’s College is that you are being taught by a professor that has been with the College department who grows with the school. [As a faculty member] you build relationships with these students that carry on as they become alumni. As opposed to a graduate student who will be out the door when they graduate with a degree. You might have that momentary classroom connection [with a graduate student] but you don’t have the legacy of Saint Mary’s College going into the classroom,” VP Panlilio said.
The creation of the Graduate Student Teaching Fellow program would drastically change the dynamic of Saint Mary’s College education. With graduate programs available in several disciplines, several types of courses could be taught by graduate students. Depending on the success this could lead to a decrease in the amount of courses a unionized faculty member teaches, and eventually, could lead to a termination of employment.
“The proposal from a year ago just impacted the English Department. However, the proposal now impacts any department that has graduate students in it. There’s nothing in the Senate language that prevents MBA students from teaching introductory Business classes,” Professor Redemer said.
Since the petition has been online a number of students have signed the petition, expressing support for faculty and opposition to the proposal. Unionized faculty are hopeful that students will recognize the importance of their role in their undergraduate education and receive their support moving forward.
“Many students have signed the petition, and a number of them have left comments. A student currently at Saint Mary’s wrote on the petition ‘you will not take my favorite professor from me.’These students love their professors they find the professors that they click with and they want to take more classes with them. There’s an awareness that you will lose that if you have a new graduate student who comes in and teaches one Jan Term class that they are ever going to teach and then they move on. From a student perspective there’s no institutional knowledge,” Professor Redemer said.
Unionized faculty will continue to petition against this program in order to preserve their jobs and the relationships that they build with students. Above all unionized faculty want students to know how much they value their jobs and the relationships that they have built with generations of Saint Mary’s students.
“I really am here because there’s nothing I’d rather do than discuss great books, big ideas, and beautiful writing with the students at Saint Mary’s College. That’s why I am here. The union is what allows me to do that without fear or a sense that my family is financially suffering because of my vocation,” Professor Redemer said.
For the petition to sign in opposition to the Graduate Student Teaching Fellows please visit the link below: https://www.ipetitions.com/petition/save-union-jobs-at-saint-marys-college
Victoria Vidales '21,