Adjunct Quits Amid Union Row

Adjunct computer science professor Matthew Devost resigned from his position Feb. 8 after refusing to pay agency fees to the Service Employees International Union Local 500, the union that represents the university’s adjunct faculty.

Devost’s resignation ended his “Information Warfare” class three weeks into the spring semester. Eric Burger, the director of the Center for Secure Communications at Georgetown, has since replaced Devost as the instructor of the course.

The adjunct faculty at Georgetown voted in October 2014 to ratify a collective bargaining agreement and unionized with the SEIU Local 500 institution to provide formal representation and bargaining power for the adjunct community. SEIU Local 500 also represents adjunct faculty at The George Washington University and American University among others.

Devost, who also serves as CEO of a private technology company, served as an adjunct professor for 13 years, said he was unwilling to pay the union’s agency fees following a negative experience three years ago, in which union representatives directly approached him to assist in the unionization process.

“I was stalked by union representatives after class Monday evening, and expressed I wasn’t interested in chatting, not that I was anti-union. They started to walk with me to my car saying they were going in the same direction,” Devost said. “They would make statements like ‘You must not be a good person if you are not interested in the plight of your fellow adjuncts,’ and at that point, in my mind, I said this was an organization I was never going to participate in.”

University officials were contacted but did not provide comment on Devost’s situation.

In December 2015, Devost received mail from the SEIU Local 500 incorrectly stating that he was an employee at GWU. The forms also stated he was out of compliance with the union’s collective bargaining agreement, since he had not paid his agency fees.

“It said, basically, ‘You are not eligible to teach at Georgetown. You either join the union or pay the agency fee,’” Devost said. “I knew there was a union forming at Georgetown as I had been approached years ago. But I didn’t realize there was an agreement between the university and the union that was a forced-agency agreement.”

According to the collective bargaining agreement’s Article 3, adjunct faculty may receive exemption from paying agency fees to the union if conflicts of interest are raised. Instead, these faculty members could pay a similar amount to a charitable organization. According to Devost, he attempted to secure exemption status based on ideological grounds, which was rejected by the union.

“Talking with the university leadership, it seemed the union might be more reasonable, just as a one-time exception to finish the semester,” Devost said. “Then, on Feb. 2, I just received this response [from the union] that said ‘No, it’s not possible. Right now, you are out of compliance.’”

After the incident, Devost reached out to Bala Kundaryawasam, chair of the computer science department and Senior Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs Maria Donoghue to solicit support and advice from the university. Both Kundaryawasam and Donoghue declined to comment for this story.

According to SEIU Local 500 Director of Research and Strategic Planning Anne McLeer, who declined to comment specifically on Devost’s situation, the agreement’s language does not accommodate those who seek exemption through an ideological basis.

“Ideological objections are not considered to be a conflict of interest under the document’s language or a religious objection under the labor law. It’s outside of the limits,” McLeer said.

As the second semester approached, Devost said he worried for the welfare of the students enrolled in his class.

“I started to realize there was not going to be a future for me at Georgetown, but there should be some bridge period, a transition period to ensure the students are not the ones impacted by this,” Devost said.
With his requests continuously denied, Devost decided to resign from his post as an adjunct faculty member at Georgetown and explained his situation to students during his final class on Feb. 8.

“I think the university was very good about being responsive to my requests and my concerns,” Devost said. “Even if the university would like nothing more than to accommodate the students for a bridge semester and make sure this goes smoothly, they are bound by the agreement they have signed and everything was deferred to the union.”

Devost said his situation is continuing a conversation on the importance of the union’s relationship with faculty and the value to the community as a whole.

“Would I come back if I could teach without participating in the union or having the forced agency issue? Absolutely,” Devost said. “I loved teaching, I loved what I’ve been able to accomplish with the class and teaching the students.”

During his time at Georgetown, Devost taught “Information Warfare,” his only class, and was renowned in the security field as an expert and entrepreneur. During his class, he often brought in experts to help educate students on the current state of cybersecurity and technology.

Following Devost’s announcement, students from the class expressed frustration over the unexpected circumstances. Some students said they had been waiting at least two years to take Devost’s course, while others said they needed the course to fulfill either major or minor requirements.

Ivan Robinson (SFS ’16), who waited three semesters to take the course with Devost, said he was disappointed with the university’s lack of communication with students regarding Devost’s situation.
“It’s the second week of February, and we are just now finding out that we are not going to be able to take this class [with Devost]. And it’s going to work out — we are going to graduate, but just the lack of communication in any stage of the process is pretty surprising to me,” Robinson said.

Alec Harbinson (COL ’16), a student in the course, said he appreciated the speed at which the university solved the issue, but noted that Devost’s situation was never mentioned during the enrollment process.
“I was relieved to hear another professor would be taking over the course, which is fine since people are trying to finish this class, but obviously it’s not what we signed up for,” Harbinson said.

Burger said he wished to express the challenges present in Georgetown’s recently established relationship with the union.

“The relationship with the union is new for Georgetown and I’m sure there is going to be growing pains for the union, growing pains for the adjunct and part-time faculty covered by the union, and growing pains for the university as we navigate what can and can’t be done,” Burger said.

Since he resigned, Devost’s situation with the union continues to invoke reaction from other faculty members.

McCourt School of Public Policy adjunct professor Neal Pollard (LAW ’03), who voted against the SEIU Local 500-university agreement in 2014, said he never received any notice for being out of compliance with the agreement, even though he has not paid any union dues, agency fees or received any exemption status. As of press time, he has received no consequences.

Pollard said he believes the future of adjunct faculty at Georgetown can still be strong even without forcing members, willing or unwilling, to pay any fees to the union.

“I think the adjunct faculty can have a place at Georgetown without being a part of a union because they did just fine until the union showed up, that’s what it comes down to,” Pollard said.

Ashton Garriott (SFS ’15), who was a student in Devost’s class, praised Devost’s impact on students.
“This seems like a lose-lose situation,” Garriott said. “It’s a loss for the professor, it’s a loss for the students, and for the academic community as a whole at Georgetown to be losing such a figure is quite sad.”

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18 Comments

  1. Prof. Devost says:

    I’m disappointed to see this framed as a resignation. I was told I was ineligible to teach at Georgetown given I had not paid the agency fees. I would have continued to teach for many years to come.

    • Just Passing Through says:

      Maybe you felt forced out, but if you submitted a resignation in any way, then by definition you resigned. Unless they literally removed you from the course without your consent, then you were not fired/forced out. It seems you are equating the adjunct union with the university itself, which is incorrect.

  2. Instead of quitting he should have just continued to refuse to pay and force the union to sue or the university to fire him. He could have done more good that way by showing how corrupt and thuggish unions are and he may very well have been able to take it to the courts and win.

    As it stands now, students lose out on a great professor and now have a worse experience with the university, all because of some union jerks who want to force others how to behave. If people want to form and join a union, fine, do it. But don’t force others to do it too if they don’t want. Georgetown doesn’t force everyone to be Catholic, so why should they force everyone to be in a union. The university should have supported this professor, but it didn’t.

    • Prof. Devost says:

      I didn’t quit and the article is inaccurate to say I did. Given I wouldn’t join the Union or pay the agency fee, I was ineligible to continue teaching. As I noted above, I would have continued to teach for many years, but I no longer had a contract to do so.

    • He did refuse and he was ultimately forbidden from teaching as a result. At no point did he resign, he was forced out for not wanting to spend money supporting speech he did not agree with.

      • I posted my comment prior to any comments appearing. The Hoya uses a moderating function to make it a “safe space” for weak people who complain a lot so comments don’t appear as written, and sometimes they take a day or two to appear. Really bad on their part. Had I read Professor Devost’s comment first I wouldn’t have said he resign.

        For what it is worth, the administration failed miserably here. We lost a great professor because of some union thugs and a weak administration who failed to stand up for one of their own. I’m sorry this happened to him.

        That said, he should have continued teaching and forced the university to come down on him and fire him, then he should have sued. As it stands now it seems he got an email from the union thugs saying he was out of compliance and that led to his announcement that he wouldn’t be coming back. He should have just ignored the union and waited until he got something written from the university administration saying he was no longer allowed ton continue teaching.

        Also, how come the Hoya hasn’t issued a correction? What did the university actually say to him, and who did so? There is more to this story. Yet the Hoya has once again failed to be fair and present the whole picture.

  3. James Hamilton SFS '05 says:

    I can say with 100% certainty that I would not have the career I have today without the experience of Prof Devot’s class. His experience will be sorely missed!

  4. Pingback: Students Lose As High-Profile Georgetown Adjunct Resigns After SEIU 'Stalking,' Ongoing Harassment Over Fees - The Workplace ReportThe Workplace Report

  5. Jeffrey Martin SFS '13 says:

    I took Professor Devost’s Information Warfare class (Spring of 2013, I think), and it was probably the best class I took at Georgetown. His departure is a major loss for the university and every student who would have taken the class.

    Given how may of Georgetown’s better teachers are adjuncts like him — professionals in other fields who teach occasionally at Georgetown not for money but because they enjoy doing so — it seems odd to make them pay agency fees for union services they neither need nor want.

  6. I took Professor Devost’s class for a grad school requirement with SSP. I only had him for one semester, and yet for years after he has been interested in helping me and my classmates find opportunities to advance our careers in the security field. For example, he remembered my work researching Boko Haram–something far removed from our cyber class, and over a year later approached me with an opportunity to write an article. Not every professor takes that kind of interest in their students, much less those that have long left their classrooms! Further, Professor Devost’s class was one of the most interesting and enjoyable classes I took at Georgetown. It’s truly a shame that his students this semester will have to miss out on a great learning experience, as well as a long-term mentor, due to union bullying. Shame on Georgetown for letting the union win.

  7. This article also lacked context on why the union came to be and what agency fees are exactly. As the university tries to save money on tenure-track profs, a large and increasing percentage of faculty (42 percent) are adjuncts. The working conditions for these folks has historically been problematic, with no benefits or job security. Seventy-five percent of them voted to join the union in 2014, which bargained for better conditions. As for agency fees, they are a creature of labor law that allows the union to get compensated for representing folks that aren’t members but benefit from this bargaining.

    The Voice did an article about this three years ago: http://georgetownvoice.com/2013/10/17/second-class-faculty-hidden-struggles-georgetowns-adjunct-professors/

    • Prof. Devost says:

      75% of the Adjuncts did not vote for the union. Less than half of the Adjuncts actually voted, so it was 70% of slightly less than half.

  8. Alex SFS '11 says:

    The real story here is the loss to Georgetown University. Professor Devost and his class were a tremendous influence on my career, and I know so many students who can say the same. Professors and courses like this are what make Georgetown special; the university needs to do what it can to hold on to them rather than pushing them out.

  9. I thoroughly enjoyed Professor Devost’s class and am very disappointed to see that this all went down. Incidentally, I was at an event at St. Michael’s College up in Vermont once, and as soon as I mentioned Georgetown, someone immediately asked whether I knew of Matt Devost. Just a random thing that illustrates how much of an impression he seems to leave wherever he goes.

    Having said that… this is how a unionized workplace functions, and it’s hard for me to believe that smart people like Matt and Neal (whom I’ve met once or twice – and is a lawyer!) don’t understand that. You cannot be forced to join a union (the so-called “closed shop”), but if you don’t, you still have to pay a fee to compensate the union for their collective bargaining, contract administration, and grievance adjustment efforts on your behalf, from which you benefit regardless of membership. The union cannot use this money for political activities – only on representational activities from which you benefit. This provision exists because otherwise you would be free-riding, benefiting from union efforts without paying anything for them.

    So all in all, it’s really not much different from a tax, albeit one that goes to a private organization, rather than the government. But just as people still have to pay taxes even when they oppose a lot of what their governments (local, state, federal) do, so too might you have to pay a fee to an organization with which you don’t entirely agree. That’s just the cost of doing business, as they say. It seems like an odd hill to die on, to be that insistent on not wanting to work in a unionized environment… but to each their own, I guess.

    • Prof. Devost says:

      As noted in the article, the objection was in supporting an organization that engaged questionable tactics during the organization process.

      The issue of forced agency is a contentious one to start with, which is why the issue is currently before the SCOTUS.

  10. Valerie Mazars de Mazarin says:

    Is Georgetown’s strategic vision to cut back on valuable courses and industry-leader professors? Does the University think that groveling before Chicago professional organizers is a good PR move? How embarrassing. I took Prof Devost’s Information Warfare course my senior year, as a CS major. Prestigious guest speakers, peer-reviewed term papers, and first-hand accounts of cybersecurity battles were just part of what made this course great; really, it was the knowledge that Prof. Devost had to reason to spend his time teaching here than that he enjoyed helping us. This sort of spinelessness is why neither myself nor many of my friends will be giving a cent to GU.

  11. Gerd Topsnic says:

    I’m curious Professor Devost, Exactly how much would your union dues have been? And did you get a pay bump after the adjuncts approved the contract with the school? If you did NOT get a raise or any other benefits, I can see why paying dues would be annoying and understand your stance. But in 99% of the cases when employees are unionized, the raises and benefits far outweigh the price of the dues.

    • Prof. Devost says:

      There was some modest increase in pay with the union formation (I’ve been told it was $100-$150 per year but did not receive any notification) and the agency fees are $30/month.

      If you read the article you should already be aware that my objection was not monetary in nature (thus my request to donate to a non-profit for the bridge semester).

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