UCF faculty, students rally in support of faculty's contribution to student success amid salary dispute

The university has been criticized by students and faculty for not offering across-the-board raises for faculty this year.

click to enlarge UCF English professors Barry Mauer, Tony Grajeda and Kevin Meehan rally in support of faculty's contributions to student success. (April 17, 2024) - Photo by McKenna Schueler
Photo by McKenna Schueler
UCF English professors Barry Mauer, Tony Grajeda and Kevin Meehan rally in support of faculty's contributions to student success. (April 17, 2024)
Students and faculty at the University of Central Florida rallied in support of faculty’s contributions to student success on Wednesday, in response to assertions by the university administration that the school has no money to give faculty a raise this year.

“We have one message for the administration today,” said Dr. Robert Cassanello, president of the university’s faculty union and a history professor. “If you're not going to recognize your employees for student success, if you're not going to compensate your employees for student success, if you're not going to nurture an environment and space unfettered by political interference in the classroom, we ask that you reconsider your priorities.”

“If you can't do this, then step aside and let us do our job,” said Cassanello, who was also a plaintiff in an early lawsuit against the state’s Stop WOKE Act.

“Let us teach, let the students learn,” he added, speaking to a group of about three dozen faculty and students gathered in front of the university’s Millican Hall.

The University of Central Florida, the state’s largest public university by enrollment, was given an extra $50 million in new “operational enhancement” funds this year by the state. Of that, $35 million of those funds are unrestricted, according to history professor Talat Rahman, who also serves as the union’s chief negotiator.

According to United Faculty of Florida, the labor union that represents nearly 1,700 professors at UCF and other major public universities across the state, UCF is the only major state university not to offer full-time faculty base raises this year.

Florida Gulf Coast University, for instance, has given their union-represented faculty 5 percent raises, according to the union. Percentage raises at other universities range from 2 percent at Florida Atlantic University to 8.5 percent at the University of North Florida.

While some professors at UCF make well into the six figures, others — even with their advanced degrees — do not. Some faculty say they and their colleagues have struggled to keep up with inflation in recent years and the region’s higher cost of living.

“In my two decades at UCF, I have never seen faculty this hurt and struggling,” Sandra Sousa, an associate professor of Portuguese, told fellow colleagues and students gathered Wednesday.

Faculty who are loyal to the school and who love their jobs are looking to leave the university, according to Sousa, simply “because they cannot afford to stay.”

Union-represented faculty received a 1 percent across-the-board salary increase last year, the university confirmed, and a 2.5 percent to 3.5 percent raise the year before that. This year, the administration's initial proposal was 0%.

One of those faculty members who has looked for other options is Tyler Fisher, an associate professor of modern languages and literature at the University of Central Florida, who spent his undergraduate career at UCF over 20 years ago.

In 2002, he was the first UCF student to secure a Rhodes Scholarship, which enabled him to pursue further education at the University of Oxford and later teach at the University of London.

Fisher returned to UCF in 2018 as a professor, hoping his alma mater would be his final destination, so to speak, in his career. “I had hoped that it would be my permanent job, back contributing to the university that gave me my start,” he told Orlando Weekly.

Just six years later, however, Fisher’s getting ready to leave UCF for a dean position at Florida Gulf Coast University, where he says compensation is more competitive.

Fisher was also a finalist last year for president of New College, the small liberal arts college in Sarasota that suffered a hostile state takeover by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, beginning with the appointment of six new right-wing ideologues and political allies of his to the institution’s board of trustees last January.

Fisher, who ultimately wasn’t chosen for the New College appointment, wants to stay in public education, where students, he said, have “big goals” and “big visions” for what they want to do with their lives. But staying at UCF is “not tenable,” he said.

At least one fellow faculty member told Orlando Weekly they’re already mourning the loss of Fisher in his department.

A spokesperson for UCF offered a glimmer of hope over email in response to a request for comment from Orlando Weekly  on the situation.

According to the spokesperson, UCF is “taking steps” to develop a university-wide raise program that employees will see in their paychecks by early fall 2024.

“We recognize the pressure inflation is having on our people, and while higher prices also increase the university’s cost of doing business, we are committed to making the decisions necessary to recruit and retain outstanding faculty and staff,” the spokesperson shared. The university disputes the claim that their compensation isn’t competitive.

According to Cassanello, the UFF-UCF president, UCF Provost Michael Johnson initially told the union six weeks ago that “there was no money” for an across the board salary increase for faculty this year, and that they likely wouldn’t see a raise until September 2025.

Within weeks, Johnson changed his tune, according to Cassanello.

And, within three hours of the rally Wednesday morning, Johnson sent another email to faculty (forwarded to Orlando Weekly) that confirms the university plans to offer a salary increase this fall, subject to the collective bargaining process. Details “will be shared as we finalize budgets in the coming months,” the email reads.

Much of the explanation behind the early decision not to offer faculty raises this year, according to the union and Johnson, was a desire by the university to focus on investing in “student success” in order for UCF to achieve a designation of “preeminence” by state metrics.

Doing so requires UCF to increase four-year graduate rates to at least 60 percent. UCF is currently at 52.4 percent, according to a university spokesperson.

According to Johnson, the administration previously reasoned that the best way to be admitted into the state’s special “Preeminence Program” was to invest money in hiring new academic advisers and raise pay for current advisers.

“Other universities decided to include raise packages in their budgets,” Johnson said during a UCF Faculty Senate meeting last month, according to UCF’s student newspaper. “We did not.”

“We believed that it was critical to the university to use our increased performance funds in order to improve student success,”Johnson added. “This is what allowed us to fund a new advising model. Hire a bunch of advisers, pay advisers more, get some associated technology and the like.”

Several students on Wednesday, however — gathered with faculty outside Millican Hall in solidarity with their professors — emphasized the importance of faculty’s contributions to their success in the classroom and beyond.

“They challenge us, inspire us and guide us on a path to success,” said UCF student Kassandra. “They offer groundbreaking research that pushes the boundaries of knowledge, and that research puts UCF on the map.”

Sufficient compensation, Kassandra added, is needed to show faculty the respect and dignity that they deserve. “Advisers can't replace enthusiastic professors who foster a love of learning and students. Faculty, you are not alone in this fight.”

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McKenna Schueler

News reporter for Orlando Weekly, with a focus on state and local government, workers' rights, and housing issues. Previously worked for WMNF Radio in Tampa. You can find her bylines in Creative Loafing Tampa Bay, In These Times, Strikewave, and Facing South among other publications.
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