Loretta Ragsdell calls herself a “guerrilla educator.”
The first-ever NCHE Higher Educator of the Year, who addressed the NEA RA delegates on Wednesday, Ragsdell said she educates at every opportunity — “the grocery store, the laundromat, Macy’s! I like to think I was born with a textbook in one hand and a lesson plan in the other.”
Ragsdell’s passion for education has taken her decades-long teaching career from preschool to college, where she currently teaches English and writing in the City Colleges of Chicago (CCC) and other Chicagoland institutions.
“Loretta exemplifies what we want higher education in America to be,” said NEA President Lily Eskelsen García. “She has worked with thousands of students of color, many from low socio-economic backgrounds who often are the first in their families to go to college, helping them to reach their fullest potential.
“In her classrooms, she serves the American dream.”
As a part-time or adjunct faculty member, Ragsdell also represents the majority of American faculty who work off the tenure-track for meager pay with little job security, and often no access to health or retirement benefits. In 2011, part-time and contingent faculty represented 70 percent of all faculty in the nation. Typically, even when they teach a full course load, their pay is between $20,000 and $25,000 a year.
At CCC, where Ragsdell is the president of the part-time faculty union, Ragsdell has championed respect and fair wages for her colleagues. This spring, thanks to her persistence, the union finally won a 2010-2020 contract that provides yearly retroactive bonuses ranging from 2 percent in 2012-13 to 10.4 percent in 2016-17, and also provides for more professional development. She and her colleagues teach 70 percent of the classes at CCC.
“Community colleges are supposed to provide a nurturing environment for students. But they’re changing the City Colleges into a corporate model for those who can afford to pay, and those who have the time to attend full-time,” Ragsdell told the NEA Higher Education Advocate last year. “And down here, you’ve got all the adjuncts holding it up. They’re really making a living off our backs.”
In her speech to the RA on Wednesday, Ragsdell pointed to “formidable challenges” facing public higher education today, including: threats to tenure and academic freedom; for-profit consumerism; and exploitation of part-time faculty. But faculty is motivated to fight, she said, because the fight is about students.
“Someone has always had to be there to say, ‘Wait a minute, the university is a very special place,” said Ragsdell. “It’s not WalMart U…and students are not consumers—they are students. Someone had to be there to say: The pursuit of knowledge is a fundamentally different human activity than buying patio furniture.
“The pursuit of knowledge is a higher order undertaking that engages the teacher and the learner in a relationship that is far deeper, far more complex, and far more enduring than that of seller-buyer.”