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Treatment of Adjuncts Spurs Protests at Pacific Northwest College of Art

Students and faculty protesting at the main entrance to Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland, Oregon (all photos by and courtesy Christine Taylor)
Students and faculty protesting at the main entrance to Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland, Oregon (all photos by and courtesy Christine Taylor)

Students and teachers at the Pacific Northwest College of Art (PNCA) in Portland, Oregon, protested on campus this week, demanding that adjunct professors be rehired with contracts after some of the college’s most influential educators were unceremoniously left out of next semester’s class schedule. Protestors descended on the main entrance to the school’s main building Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday mornings with bullhorns and picket signs. As the college seeks to assert its position among the major West Coast art schools, allegations of multimillion-dollar budget shortfalls and manipulative hiring practices have tarnished its image and threaten to dismantle its community, according to the protestors.

The frustrations of the group of PNCA teachers manifest into an organized protest group calling itself People Over Profit at PNCA, complete with a manifesto calling for the best possible education for students and fair treatment for teachers in exchange for the school’s $32,830 annual tuition. “We believe that PNCA’s new president should not be paid $400,000 a year while its average faculty member makes between $5,000 and $35,000,” the manifesto reads.

This local dispute has national implications, as tuition costs and student debt skyrocket, while colleges and universities increasingly depend on rotating rosters of adjunct professors living semester to semester with little to no job security or benefits. As a recent study by the American Education Research Association put it, most adjunct professors “lack a sufficient income from teaching.”

Students and faculty marching in protest at the Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland, Oregon
Students and faculty marching in protest at the Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland, Oregon

People Over Profit formed in response to mounting frustrations with the higher education industry’s gender pay gap and its exploitation of working artists with MFAs who are struggling to make ends meet by scraping together teaching gigs. In its protests and communications, People Over Profit has voiced its objections to the actions of the college’s president, dean, and board of governors. The group said it will gather in protest every morning until the college takes down next year’s class schedule and rehires all adjunct teachers who have taught at least six semesters, giving them class preference in order of seniority. They also criticized the administration for the closure of the Museum of Contemporary craft, which, they said, “Was treated like a real estate asset to be liquefied because of poor planning.”

Tensions had been mounting at PNCA since before the school moved from its original Pearl District location to a newly renovated post office — a $32 million upgrade — in 2015. As a student (I graduated from PNCA in 2013), I was witness to the rising costs and corner-cutting measures, as the college allocated every available cent to the renovation project. The transition was marked by the departure of former president Tom Manley, as well as distinguished teachers, including Arnold Kemp and Arvie Smith. Not surprisingly, the current uprising was mobilized around one artist and educator in particular, Ellen Lesperance, whose work itself is a form of activism. After teaching at PNCA for eight years and bearing witness to the ominous changes taking place within the close-knit community, she wasn’t about to step aside quietly.

“As finances geared up for this move, everyone watched as the school became more and more reliant on an adjunct labor force, climbing in short order to about 75% of teachers,” Lesperance told Hyperallergic over email. “Throughout these changes, adjuncts within the college struggled against various forces for the most basic rights: security and stability. It’s incredibly hard to make a life for yourself as an adjunct teacher. For many, one class instead of two is the difference between not surviving and getting onto public assistance.”

Students and faculty protesting at the main entrance to Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland, Oregon
Students and faculty protesting at the main entrance to Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland, Oregon

Lesperance and other teachers who had worked at PNCA for years began to see their positions within the institution in jeopardy. Many adjunct professors’ class loads dropped from three or four classes to two or three, which represented a huge pay cut. Meanwhile, one-year adjunct professor contracts were cut to a semester-by-semester contract basis and full-time teachers were saddled with extra classes for the same meager pay, according to Lesperance.

“Facing all the challenges of a move (and the substantial budgetary shortfall that the move brought about) people began to get frustrated,” she said. ” When these frustrations were vented, they were met with opacity, apathy, and condescension. … You can only have so many of these negative collective experiences happen before people start realizing they’re part of a system that is at best mismanaged, and at worst, ruthlessly exploitative by design.”

As of Wednesday evening, the protests had succeeded in generating a dialogue between the administration and the disillusioned educators. A meeting between Interim President Casey Mills and People Over Profit organizers resulted in the cancelation of the protest planned for this morning.

“A tentative agreement has been reached regarding the recent protests on campus,” said a statement issued by Mills’s office today. “That agreement should be finalized today and implemented over the next two weeks. More details will follow as the agreement is implemented.”

Students and faculty marching in protest at the Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland, Oregon
Students and faculty marching in protest at the Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland, Oregon

While Lesperance and other artist-educators wait to find out if they will have an income in the fall, the question remains as to how the college will move forward. Will hunger for profit fuel, as Lesperance put it, an inclination toward tamping out dissent through precarious and immoral labor practices? Or will a substantive long-term solution for supporting adjunct educators be implemented?

It’s essential that the dialogue doesn’t end with the resolution of this particular dispute. A line of communication between the students, teachers, and the PNCA board of governors should remain open permanently. If not, the college will find itself at odds with its goals of increased cultural relevance because of its own failure to create the proper conditions for art to flourish.

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