OpEd: Dear Members of the Smith Community

Photo courtesy of sophia.smith.edu

Photo courtesy of sophia.smith.edu


Jenny Folsom
Adjunct Faculty

I write to express my concern regarding the widespread discriminatory practices at Smith College, particularly in the wake of the recent article in the Boston Globe alleging pregnancy discrimination.  Despite Smith’s immediate dismissal of the brave women who came forward, I have decided to share my own experience with gender discrimination because I believe Smith must be held accountable for its actions and encouraged to change its discriminatory policies.  Furthermore, as an adjunct faculty member at Smith College who is also a doctoral candidate in the sociology department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, I am fortunate to be a member of the Graduate Employee Organization/United Auto Workers Local 2322 (GEO/UAW2322) union.  This membership offers me a level of protection unavailable to Smith faculty who are not unionized, which raises serious concerns about the exploitation of Smith employees.

In May 2015, I was contacted by the Smith College sociology department to teach a statistics course for the fall semester in a non-negotiable contract.  I was so impressed by my talented Smith students that I enthusiastically went above and beyond my contracted 10 hours per week to support their academic success, including mentoring, advising, and writing countless letters of recommendation.  My enthusiasm turned to dismay when I learned that my male TA (teaching assistant) for statistics, also a UMass graduate student, was paid more than me and encouraged to negotiate his contract.

As a doctoral candidate at UMass Amherst, I am “on loan” to Smith College and my appointment was a GEO union job with the same contractual standards as when working at my home institution.  Paying my male TA more and allowing him to negotiate were clear violations of the contract and several labor laws.  To make matters worse, I discovered the other female graduate student teaching in the sociology department that semester was also paid significantly less than my male TA.  This would have been discouraging enough if we had the same workload, but as instructors we have far greater responsibility for our courses than the TAs who support our instruction.

After learning of the pay disparity, my fabulous union representative, Anais Surkin, demanded a meeting with the Associate Provost, who is responsible for adjunct faculty compensation at Smith College.  Unfortunately, he began by questioning my qualifications for teaching the course, despite the fact that I had excellent teaching evaluations and had been invited to teach statistics as well as two additional sociology courses in the following semesters.

He claimed that my male TA was more valuable because he was responsible for running the lab sections, which required working with Stata, a statistical analysis program. He elaborated that “anyone can teach statistics with a calculator” and therefore my teaching of core statistics concepts and calculations was inferior to my male teaching assistant’s lab responsibilities.  This was after I reminded him that I have also taught labs with the program and would not have been hired in the first place had I not possessed this essential programming skill.

Furthermore, despite the fact that the Smith sociology department invited me to teach “Race and National Identity in the U.S.” and “Media, Technology & Society” the semester following statistics, he claimed that these courses were not as valuable as my male teaching assistants’ role using Stata.  If fact, he asserted “anyone can teach a race course” and therefore I did not deserve pay parity with my TA, which undermines Smith’s supposed commitment to diversity.  Given the serious allegations of racism in the School of Social Work last summer, Smith desperately needs talented instructors to engage the Smith community in difficult conversations about racism on campus.

To add insult to injury, this dean implied I had not been discriminated against because he had taken women’s studies classes at some point during his academic career.  When I asked why he privileged my TA, he indicated he felt sorry for him and compelled to increase his salary because he could relate to his struggle as a male graduate student.  In sociology, we refer to this as implicit bias, where men are immediately valued more than women regardless of talent, experience, or intelligence.  Smith College chooses to withhold salary records and pay-scale information because it allows them to exploit their workforce.  My union allowed us to challenge these outcomes by demanding that Smith College pay my female colleague and myself retro-pay for all the courses we taught during the academic year when my male teaching assistant was paid more.

This led to a settlement agreement drafted by Smith’s legal team that included a thorough gag order forbidding us from speaking about our experience to anyone, including our students, or reporting the violation to the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination.  The initial settlement also refused to offer my female colleague retro-pay on the grounds that she taught qualitative methods, a skill that holds less value to Smith administrators, ostensibly because it does not involve math.  After six months of negotiations led by our union representative, we finally received a settlement agreement we were comfortable signing, which removed the gag order and offered my female colleague retro-pay.

For the current academic year, were promised pay parity with my male TA.  However, we had hoped the process would be an opportunity for Smith College to reevaluate its policies around compensation and make positive changes going forward.  Unfortunately, I recently learned that one of my female colleagues in the sociology department who recently earned her doctorate from UMass is paid less than those of us whose degrees are still in process simply because she is no longer a member of our graduate employee union. Given its stated mission to support the scholarship of women, Smith should be a leader in gender equality among its employees.  The fact that it is not is beyond hypocritical; it is illegal.  Using gag orders to prevent injured parties from speaking publically about their experiences is not only dehumanizing, but also thwarts social justice for current and future employees.   

In Solidarity,

Jenny Folsom


To read the college’s response, click here.