My UFE Story: Julie Levin Russo

UFE member Julie Levin Russo (above left) stands in solidarity with adjunct faculty member and longtime UFE Steward, Judith Gabriele.

Before coming to Evergreen, I was most familiar with academic life at Brown University (where I did my graduate work and also adjuncted) and at Stanford University (where I taught for two years as a visitor). Needless to say, neither of these institutions have faculty unions. Both have a far higher degree of polarization amongst faculty and between faculty and administration, weaker faculty governance and more dictatorial administrations, and more inequitable working conditions than Evergreen. Moreover, these issues represent a devastating trend in US higher education toward neoliberal models of the university, where administrators are seen as managers whose role is to deliver the most marketable and profitable product, and toward a culture of austerity that disinvests in vital programs and encourages competition for scarce resources. It’s my third year at Evergreen, so I can’t weigh in on how things have changed here from how they were >10 years ago, before the UFE was formed. But I can be a reliable witness, perhaps, about conditions in US higher ed at large over the past decade.

In 2012, shortly before I received a job offer from Evergreen, I was seriously considering leaving academia. In the three years since finishing grad school, I had done two cross-country moves and applied for several hundred positions. I had seen so many friends struggle financially and emotionally through exploitative adjunct situations or untenable full-time jobs. Neoliberal pressures are alive and well at Evergreen, although our unique institution provides a buffer from their worst abuses. Perhaps at one time the administration did act unfailingly in the interests of faculty. Perhaps at one time there was a certain degree of trust between faculty and administration at Evergreen on this basis. In my three years here, I don’t feel that my trust has been earned. Those who enjoy the maximum privileges of teaching at Evergreen are those who are the most privileged. Those who are hassled by the administration or systemically exploited, whose interests are not uniformly respected and defended, are the less privileged – contingent faculty, faculty of color, queer faculty, women. This is anecdotal, but I have heard about or witnessed this dynamic on multiple occasions. When these conflicts occur, who do we call? We call the UFE. We refer to the CBA, an imperfect, arduously negotiated document but one that sets out expectations that apply to everyone.

As a regular faculty who is pre-conversion, I do feel vulnerable. If I were at a different institution, as I quoted above, I would be in a situation where I couldn’t demand better working conditions or speak truth the administration. I believe I’ve been able to contribute meaningfully to governance and community life at Evergreen as an advocate in my short time here. I’ve felt supported to do that because of the UFE. To me, the UFE makes us a collective in the most meaningful sense: a unified capacity to resist injustice and protect our most vulnerable members. A collective in the sense of “we’ve got your back.” Frankly, I don’t feel at all guilty voting that everyone at Evergreen should be “taxed” to support this role.

So if you want to know why I have such a big mouth: you can thank the UFE!

– Julie