Rachel Fomalhaut on the road APPIC
The following is an interview with Rachel Fomalhaut, a part-time writing, women & gender studies, and ICSM professor of nine years. Rachel was also Faculty Council representative, and a former chair of the Contingent Faculty Union. After years of advocacy for contingent faculty rights, she was recently laid off by the Ithaca College administration due to the APP process. Here, she reflects on the relationship between Ithaca College and its contingent faculty, the administration’s anti-labor history, the dearth of promised shared governance and what the community can do to help.
Mae McDermott, Buzzsaw Editor: The APPIC layoffs are changing lives on many levels and in ways that are still unfolding. It may seem like an overly simple question, but it’s arguably the most important one: how are you doing?
Rachel Fomalhaut: I’m not great. I know a lot of people have had a series of bad things going on this last year and I’m one of them: a lot of people I love dying, and my partner lost his job in November, and his was the primary income for the household. So it’s not just APP stuff that’s depressing me and making life hard right now. I really resonate with and joined the call from the Open the Books people that one of the reasons not to do the APP on such a rushed timeline—and when it doesn’t seem that we have to do it on a rushed timeline—is because a lot of people have had a really shitty year and it’s just humane to hold off. So I’m having that same effect from APP that a lot of people are having, which is that it’s piling really bad on top of really bad. I’ve been struggling with my mental health in ways that I haven’t in years. I’m fearful and anxious about the future. I’ve been feeling really stunned that I’m not going to be teaching anymore because I’ve been teaching in higher education for 11 year, 12 years, something like that. So I’m starting to move past stunned to really sad, really mourning the loss of teaching, because I really love a lot of stuff about it, and it’s hard to believe that it won’t be there.
MM: I think it does seem like insult to injury. And it’s also strange because [SLT is] announcing new programs [referring to the Physician Assistant Program] too. It’s kind of like [they’re] pretending that nothing happened. I think I read [the PA announcement] and I just didn’t feel anything. I was like, I mean of course… I’m not even surprised by this.
RF: A student in one of my classes who’s in [the School of Health Sciences and Human Performance] told me that the Physician Assistant program is one that’s been in the pipelines for four years. But it’s hard to understand: why would you cut things that have already been established and yet continue with plans for something? I think that question of “why” is the thing that for me really adds insult to injury. If I had to be fired and if all my colleagues had to be fired because we had to be—well that’s just another sucky thing.
But that’s the thing that rubs salt in the wound for me, is knowing that it probably wasn’t necessary. If it was, we would never know—there’s no plan that’s been unveiled to the community. Whatever comes next will just be a surprise to everybody, because there’s no semblance of democratic governing at work.
The thing that I’m struggling with right now that I haven’t really for many years is depression; and I think one of the things that really led me there is the fact that it feels clear that this administration does not value their community members. Because if they did, they would seek to work with us on solutions and they would seek to do this last. I’ve been in faculty meetings [for around] nine months with the provost where tenured faculty, who are much more secure than I and make a lot more money, suggested in a big forum of hundreds of faculty [that they] really want[ed] to explore [equitability] measures across the school. We could CAP everybody’s salary at 150K for a year those of us who are able to could furlough or take unpaid leaves for a year and then our coursework could go to other [at-risk faculty members]. Let’s work together and let’s do this. These were tenured faculty basically saying “I want to volunteer to do this.” And the provost refused to talk about [those ideas]. Just refused out of hand. She didn’t say “Oh I’ll think about that” and then come back later with a blanket no. She refused to even talk about them publicly.
And that, to me, is the thing that I feel depressed about—the way that the administration has behaved over this last year with the APP is so demoralizing and disturbing. Because it’s so irresponsible. I think that any leader who’s in a position of authority in 2021 in Trump America or post-Trump America, whatever you want to call it, needs to do better.
MM: It sounds like there is a lack of information for you too, even being on the “inside” more than students are, and also like this disconnect already existed and has just been getting worse.
RF: For sure, the feeling that students have that like they aren’t being consulted, that’s absolutely a feeling that faculty have as well. Because the governance structure for college is supposed to include shared governance. It’s not only a specific set of principles, but it’s also specific protocols laid out by the American Association of University Professors [of which IC has its own chapter]. So whereas there’s no structure set up for administrators to work with students—which I think is a problem—there is one for faculty and [the SLT] has completely dismissed that entire principle of governance.
As for whether this has been a problem before, it certainly was a problem with the Rochon administration [directly preceding Collado’s]. A lot of [faculty who voted no-confidence in Rochon] voted that way both because they saw that there were no efforts to correct the racism on campus or to try to combat it, and also because they were such a top-down leadership structure. It was a really corporate, neoliberal management style. It didn’t abide by shared governance, and it didn’t seem to respect the educational mission of the school.
Anybody who respects the educational mission of the school is going to place faculty-student relationships at the center of their decisions. We haven’t seen an administrator do that since before I was here, and I’ve been here nine years. From my limited perspective as one faculty member, while I’m sure [this administration is] doing some things better than the Rochon administration, I see maybe even an increase in their dismissal of faculty. I understand that they work with some faculty… but it certainly does not seem to be a representative group. It wasn’t an elected group. It seems like there’s like a few faculty on the inside, and I don’t know how they got there, and then everybody else is just shut out.
MM: That’s interesting to me because my impression is that layoffs have everything to do with faculty rankings; but students don’t really understand the politics of tenure eligibility and workload. You have insight into that because of your involvement with the Contingent Faculty Union. Could you say some words about the college’s relationship to its contingent faculty?
RF: The college has multiple ranks, like most schools do. But IC has one rank that’s unusual for schools, which is the NTEN rank, [some of whom are] also getting fired. Those people don’t have tenure. At IC, it’s been impossible to tell who’s tenured and who’s NTEN just from what you can see, on paper, about them; you’d have to find out their job classification from HR to like learn. Because they really do all the same work at IC as tenured faculty have done, and they rise in the ranks, they chair departments. The only thing that they don’t have is tenure. Up until now, their jobs have been extremely secure. They’ve been considered to be almost as secure as a tenure job. But if there’s like a national study looking at tenured faculty vs. untenured faculty, they might get lumped with contingent faculty.
There’s an overwhelming gender divide and racial divide between tenure track faculty and contingent faculty, a rank that’s been really badly exploited increasingly by all colleges across the country for the last several decades. IC’s no exception to that. I’ve been teaching at IC continuously every semester for nine years, and the courses I teach are part of the core curriculum—there’s clearly a very permanent foreseeable need for my job into the indefinite future. So why does the college employ me on a part-time basis? There’s no reason for that. But they don’t, they don’t hire me that way. By not hiring me that way, they pay me much less per course than my tenure-track colleagues and they don’t pay me benefits. We’re here to be abused and exploited.
What faculty have done across countries is assert our rights in various ways, and one of those ways is unionizing. When we announced our intention to unionize at IC in 2015, President Rochon was hostile. He immediately hired a law firm that was known for union-busting tactics called Bond, Schoeneck & King, and they put together [and distributed] a whole communications package [full of] anti-Union propaganda. It was manipulative, it wasn’t fair, it wasn’t fact-based. When we were forming our union we had student supporters who put together a petition that several hundred students signed [asking] the President to remain neutral in the union election. And they were escorted away from his office by armed guards. Even the most benign asks have been met with great hostility. So from the very beginning, IC’s administration has been hostile to the union, even before we were a union.
Then, when we saw this administration come in, we basically were met with more of the same, and I would say that this administration has perhaps been even more hostile. They sent a letter of warning of possible termination to one of our [part-time] members last summer for posting a plea for help to the tenured colleagues. We took it to [American Arbitration Association] and the arbitrator sided with us 100%, and they required the College to rescind the [warning] letter [from the professor’s file] because it was really just an attempted intimidation. That kind of stuff boggles me.
We [saw] an increase in hostility even just at routine semesterly labor-management committee meetings. [Before, things communications were] civil, sometimes begrudging but always willing to like, try to work on problems. But I was in a meeting a year and a half ago, right after the hiring of the new college council. There was somebody at the [meeting] who could solve this very simple logistical question that the union had. But the lawyer jumped in and said no, no, wait, wait, wait, we don’t have to do that, we’re not required to do that. So the relationship became even more stilted, and [they became] even more unwilling to try to collaborate on problem-solving with us. It’s frustrating as all hell.
One of the things that I find really hypocritical and that doesn’t sit right with me is the really wide gap that I see between President Collado’s rhetoric and her policies and actions. I was at the first All-College meeting when she spoke to us for the first time after she’d been hired. I remember in her speech she described herself as the child of laborers. She told us how one of her parents drove a taxi. [And then she took] such an anti-labor position. I find that really unsettling and it really does not sit with me well.
MM: You mentioned that this has been, on top of all the other stuff that’s happening, a huge mental and emotional blow. Even though probably the best support that you would get to have would come from administration, that’s not going to happen. So what can your students and your colleagues do to support you right now?
RF: I think the thing that those of us who are being most impacted by the cuts needs right now, and have needed for the last year, is for students and faculty in particular to use the power that they have as students and faculty. There’s a difference between authority and power. The boss has authority, and the workers have power; the weatherman has authority, the hurricane has power. One of the things that despairs me the most of all of this is the model that the Collado administration is setting for students about governance and power; I think it’s really irresponsible.
The fact is that, despite continual administration and Boards of Trustees acting as if education is not the heart of Ithaca College, the heart of Ithaca College is actually students and teachers working together for education. So I think the thing that those people who are being most affected by the APP cuts—and not just the people, but the community—[need] right now is a solidarity and a realization of the power that faculty and students have. The thing that feels the most in common, to me, of all the folks at Ithaca that I’ve been talking to over the last year, is that the great great majority of us feel highly skeptical of this process and the outcome and feel worried about Ithaca College’s future in the face of it. Ithaca College cannot run without faculty and students. That’s a fact. Faculty and students realizing that together in solidarity with one another, and demonstrating that to the administration, would be the most help to people who are the most impacted right now.