The Daily Explains: The Organization of Women faculty letter


Daily file photo by Victoria Benefield

Scott Hall, where the OWF letter was discussed during Faculty Senate. The letter suggested how University President Michael Schill and the Board of Trustees can be more equitable toward faculty and staff.

Charlotte Ehrlich, Assistant Campus Editor

In spring 2022, Northwestern’s Organization of Women Faculty co-chairs decided they wanted the University to finally improve its work toward gender equity. So they did something about it. 

The organization has supported female-identifying faculty since 1981, but the COVID-19 pandemic amplified its call for pay equity, expanded parental leave support and improved childcare access, according to political science Prof. Karen Alter. All of this combined made now the time to start taking action, she said.

Alter, as well as history Prof. Leslie Harris, earth and planetary sciences Prof. Yarrow Axford and Cook Family Writing Program Prof. Lisa Del Torto, solicited feedback from OWF members about what they’d like to see from then University President-elect Rebecca Blank’s administration.

“I’m listening to the things that the faculty are upset about, and I’m hearing them go into a void,” Alter said. “Our football team is going over to Ireland, all while our pensions and our salaries are not going up.” 

Alter said she wanted to channel the members’ complaints into action.

Upon University President Michael Schill’s selection, Harris said the OWF co-chairs saw it as an opportunity to introduce the organization to the new administration, raising ongoing issues accentuated by the pandemic and identifying opportunities for change. 

“That was the motivation to talk to the steering committee, asking if we could draft something that channels how faculty are feeling,” Alter said. “The organization speaks for women faculty, and we let the interests of women faculty define the agenda items we pursue.” 

The organization sent a letter on Oct. 1 to Schill and Peter Barris, chair of the Board of Trustees, outlining its demands and proposing solutions. 

The letter explained how the University’s decision during the pandemic to safeguard the budget rather than pull endowment funds led to firing staff, freezing salaries and seizing faculty retirement benefits while asking faculty to work more — and often uncompensated — hours.

Through the work remote teaching demanded, the letter said faculty and staff went above and beyond to support students inside and outside the classroom.

“All of us remain concerned about the ways in which women faculty, along with underrepresented minority faculty, tend to be called upon to do more of the caregiving work for students,” Harris said.

According to the letter, NU’s return to financial health has not translated into the resumption of normal salary, hiring and staffing levels, nor an investment in mental health services — all while NU’s endowment soars to new levels.

The letter added that these burdens are felt unequally by some faculty and staff. Those inequities exacerbate gender, racial and status discrimination among professors, the letter said.

The OWF also set forth a list of concrete suggestions for how the president and the Board of Trustees should reassess the University’s goals and priorities toward greater well-being, salary equity and better fund allocation for all faculty and staff — not just women.

The list includes suggestions like a statement of academic priorities backed with supportive resources for faculty and staff, on-site child care and a special salary pool to remedy salary inequalities, especially for women faculty, international faculty and faculty of color, felt throughout the pandemic. 

“Child care is an issue that affects everyone on campus, but it disproportionately makes a difference in terms of time, well-being and finances for early career faculty with young children,” Axford said.

The OWF’s letter asked for a new faculty survey consulting professors about areas of existing under-investment, a resumption of the 2016 Provost’s Pay Equity study and a by-discipline study and report of NU salaries compared with peer institutions. 

The letter has since been endorsed by the Faculty Senate and the NU Emeritus Organization. 

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @charlottehrlich

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