P-fac broke with its parent unions under the leadership of president Diana Vallera. Credit: Courtesy Diana Vallera

In 2013, things were looking up at Columbia College. After several years of dicey relations between the administration and P-fac—the part-time faculty union that represents the majority of Columbia’s teachers—a new college president, Kwang-Wu Kim, was in place. It seemed to P-fac’s president, Diana Vallera, like the beginning of a new, much more congenial era.

But it was only a honeymoon.

“It’s heartbreaking,” Vallera says now. “The president said and did all the right things for about a year, then brought in a new labor attorney and a new provost, and packed his administration with new VPs. And everything changed.”

She ticks through what she sees as the biggest changes: “Columbia has always been about open enrollment, small classes, individual attention, and part-time faculty who are working professionals. Now what they’re doing is making larger classes, fewer course offerings, getting rid of senior faculty, gearing toward putting everything online. It’s becoming a completely different institution.”

The college included faculty, staff, and students in the development of a strategic plan last year, and is changing “because the world of creative work has changed, and we must prepare our students to succeed in that world,” according to a Columbia spokesperson.

“Although unfortunate that some members of P-fac have reacted negatively during this time of rapid and needed change,” the college added, “we reiterate our support for the skilled and valued part-time faculty.”

Among those rapid changes: a drop in enrollment from about 12,500 students in 2008 to fewer than 9,000 this year.

In September P-fac announced that its membership had passed a vote of no confidence in the administration. And last month the union filed two lawsuits in federal court. One charges the college with refusing to arbitrate employment grievances; the other accuses the school of interfering with the union’s organizing and bargaining rights by providing support to an upstart faction of part-timers, Columbia Adjuncts United.

This is where things get complicated. In January P-fac broke away from its state and national affiliates, the Illinois Education Association and the National Education Association. In a disaffiliation vote promoted by its leadership, P-fac made the unusual choice to go it alone.

Vallera says P-fac faced a chronic lack of service from the umbrella unions—which she says collected more than $200,000 in annual dues from the group. But P-fac’s departure was precipitated by the fact that the umbrella groups also represented the staff union, United Staff of Columbia College.

That was a conflict, Vallera says: “They were advocating for full-time staff to teach, in opposition to our contract. They couldn’t represent both groups.”

The IEA denies her characterization, and in a recent letter to P-fac members notes, among other things, that it provided $350,000 in legal help to P-fac between 2010 and 2014.

The opposition group Columbia Adjuncts United popped onto the scene early this fall—when Vallera was up for reelection—with a website, a Facebook page, notices that landed in P-fac members’ mailboxes, and a conciliatory, pro-IEA/NEA agenda. James Nagle, an adjunct English professor, describes the group as “a caucus within P-fac” of people upset that the disaffiliation vote was taken over a winter holiday break, when no one was on campus to discuss and debate it.

Neither CAU nor anyone else formally opposed Vallera’s reelection, but the group has been calling attention to an audit of P-fac conducted last spring by the federal Office of Labor-Management Standards. That review found numerous record-keeping violations—along with payments to officers for expenses that included “doggie care”—but nothing serious enough to merit more than a warning and a promise of another audit “within the next several years.” Vallera doesn’t know what triggered the audit, but says she was notified of it about two weeks after the disaffiliation vote.

P-fac, which now hires its own legal help, has also hired an accountant to review the college’s finances.

“They say they’re making these changes because of financial straits,” Vallera says, citing, for example, the replacement of small-group freshman seminars with a large lecture course. According to the accountant’s report, Columbia’s endowment grew from $88 million in 2010 to $135 million in 2014—which Vallera interprets as a sign of the college’s financial stability.

Meanwhile, she says, “They’re making all these cuts,” running the college like a business that cares less about students than the bottom line.

Columbia takes issue with that interpretation. The college says, for example, that the number of courses are tied to enrollment, which it is working to bring back up.

That doesn’t stop Vallera from seeing these changes as “a corporate-style takeover.”

“It’s not the Columbia that Dr. Kim promised to uphold,” she says.  v