Funding, facilities and free college: bargaining for the common good

History professor Quenby Hughes has a Ph.D. from Harvard and taught there for eight years. Why didn’t she stay, or seek a job at a similar institution? Her heart belongs to Rhode Island College, a less prestigious but, she says, more impactful institution where she is fighting for equity for her students and her faculty colleagues.

Quenby Hughes of Rhode Island College
RIC/AFT President Quenby Hughes, right, with sister union member Dana Kolibachuk.

Hughes earned her undergraduate degree at RIC, where she now teaches history and serves as president of RIC/AFT, the full-time faculty union. This year, that means leading the Respect RIC campaign—fighting for access to two years of free college for RIC students, upgrades for RIC’s school of education facilities to reflect a more collaborative learning model, and raises in faculty pay to at least the national average. RIC/AFT is appealing directly to Rhode Island legislators, who control higher education funding, for these changes.

RIC is the neglected “middle child” of the state’s higher education system, says Hughes: The other public schools seem to get all the attention. The University of Rhode Island is a flagship research institution with all the associated resources and reputation, and the Community College of Rhode Island offers students the Rhode Island Promise program—two years of free education for recent high school graduates. Stuck in the middle is RIC, where faculty are paid 30 percent less than their colleagues at URI and students do not have access to Rhode Island Promise, which is restricted to community colleges. Since the Promise program was instituted in 2017, enrollment at RIC has dropped, and many believe potential students are choosing CCRI instead.

RIC/AFT is pushing to extend the Rhode Island Promise program to RIC students, a move that could reverse that trend.

The union is also advocating for a raise in faculty pay. In addition to lagging behind URI by 30 percent, the state’s own survey indicates that RIC faculty make 17 percent less than the faculty at their peer institutions.

Sign holders at Rhode Island College
RIC/AFT members demonstrate for equitable pay.

“The faculty here are just as qualified and often do just as much interesting research as at other institutions,” says Hughes, “but we come here because we can make such a difference in people’s lives.” More than half of RIC’s students are the first in their families to attend college, and they come from an increasingly diverse demographic. “Some of my brightest students are RIC students,” she says. “They often come to RIC not knowing they are bright and that they have the ability to do amazing things.”

These students inspire many of the faculty to stay at RIC despite lower pay and prestige, but inspiration doesn’t pay the bills. The cost of living is high in Providence, and making ends meet on an RIC salary is not easy. “I see faculty who could have made different decisions, could have been paid better,” says Hughes. “They are being taken advantage of, but they don’t leave because they don’t want to hurt their students.” Others do leave, and the university has difficulty hiring new faculty because they are unwilling to work for lower pay. Students—who are just as deserving as wealthier students, Hughes points out—lose out.

As Hughes sees it, equitable pay is not just about faculty paying their own bills. It’s about the economic divide. She puts it in a history professor’s perspective: “When you think about how the country is dividing, especially according to class, you think about the rich students and those who can afford the fancy tutors and go to elite institutions,” she says. The fight for equitable pay and for equal access to the Rhode Island Promise funds is “about respecting RIC as a whole, it’s about respecting our students, respecting our faculty, respecting our staff.” 

RIC/AFT will continue to rally, visit state legislators, attend administrative meetings and advocate for equity. The union represents full-time faculty at RIC; two other unions, representing staff and adjuncts, are also in contract negotiations and are participating in the Respect RIC campaign. Negotiations are expected to continue through fall.

[Virginia Myers, photos by Steve Ahlquist]