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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