Faculty Tensions Rise at State of the College Address

Photo by Matthew Lowe

President Mercer addressed the students, staff and faculty of Ramapo College last Wednesday in Friends Hall for the State of the College Address. The bulk of the discussion focused on teachers’ contracts. Other topics for the speech included the freshman class, sexual assault prevention, construction, international opportunities and green initiatives. 

Mercer wanted to clarify that the governor negotiates the master contract for Ramapo and other public colleges in New Jersey. Mercer added that there are strict rules outlining who can enter into negotiations for contracts and said that he, along with senior administrators and trustees, are not allowed to bargain with the teachers union.

“I understand that it is rumored that I have refused to meet with the union leader,” said Mercer. “That is incorrect. I have advised the union leaders, I am legally prohibited from meeting with them if the discussion to be had is about the substance of the collective bargaining that is now going on. I have no choice but to say that is not within my purview.”

The question and answer portion of the address also concentrated on this issue. All of the people who stood up for questions and comments were wearing the blue American Federation for Teachers, or AFT, shirts which were representative of much of the crowd. The questions focused on negotiating teacher contracts, low adjunct faculty salaries, higher health insurance payments for teachers and the expected reduction of some staff from 12-month contracts to 10-month. 

Kathleen Shannon, an adjunct professor for SSHGS, was one of the many people to point out that adjunct faculty teach roughly 30 percent of the classes at Ramapo.

“An adjunct like me, teaching a full load of four courses per year, is paid a salary of $20,000 a year. That’s before taxes and without benefits, and keep in mind I’m paid at the higher rate because I’ve been here for 15 or more semesters,” said Shannon. “So my question is, can the adjuncts of Ramapo count on you to advocate specifically for us … getting a living wage in your position on the advisory committee and if so, what pay increase per credit would you recommend?”

The president sympathized responding, “I think the position that the adjuncts find themselves in is disgraceful and we as a state and as a country should not have allowed to happen what has happened.” 

However, Mercer said that he was not in a position to advocate for the faculty and claimed that the position he holds on the advisory committee has no influence on economic proposals.

History professor Tae Kwak also commented, “In some other colleges and universities, the president of the college or university has taken a voluntary pay cut or donated part of his or her salary back to the college for the purposes of maintaining morale and to establish a basis of good faith and trust when other members of the same community are being asked to take unilaterally, a belt tightening measure.”

Mercer’s response was short.

“I’ve listened, I thank you for them, I understand the point,” he replied. 

During his speech the president took time to highlight some of the recent accomplishments of Ramapo students, alumni and teachers. He also spoke about an impressive incoming class.

Mercer stated that the incoming freshman class is the most diverse class in the college’s history. According to the president, 35 percent of the incoming students self-identity as non-white. He compared this number to 2009 when just 21 percent of students were non-white. 

The president also added that the class of 2020 consists of 949 students, the second largest incoming class at Ramapo. The college received 7,173 applications, a one percent increase from last year. Similarly, the graduate student program saw an increase of 130 percent. 

Mercer also addressed the college’s plans for sexual assault prevention. He highlighted the trained faculty, staff and Title IX administrators at the college. More than 1,500 new students will also participate in four programs on sexual assault this semester including online training, peer theater programs, a workshop titled “Zero Shades of Gray” and It’s On Us sessions. 

Mercer reminded the audience that in last January’s State of the College Address he reported that the Office of Civil Rights was investigating almost 100 institutions of higher education for mishandling sexual assault cases on campuses.

 “There are now 217 active investigations,” said Mercer. “I am intent that we should not join that number.” 

The president also mentioned the Internationalization Plan and this year’s theme of Sub-Saharan Africa. He noted that the Roukema Center has organized student trips to Portugal, Cuba, Denmark, India and Jerusalem as well as $91,000 worth of scholarship funding. 

He also discussed the various renovations the college is undertaking, including Potter Library, Birch Tree Inn and solar panels in the parking lot expected to come soon.

On the topic of parking, the president noted that freshmen are allowed to have cars on campus this year, an option unavailable to first year students for the past four years. He acknowledged the increased difficulty in parking this has caused on campus. 

“You recall why we eliminated first year parking — we didn’t eliminate it, I eliminated it — in the misplaced view that that would somehow lead to some sort of enrichment in campus life,” said Mercer. “All it did was yield the most imaginative reasons, by way of appeal, that students needed cars.”

He assured that the trailers in the Mackin and Bischoff parking lot would be removed by October to open up more spaces. 

In addition to solar panels, Ramapo’s green initiative also includes new LED lighting in the Auxiliary gym and composting which is now available in all Village apartments and in the Redwood CPAs. 

Overall, the president said, “We have a lot to brag about.”