Letter from Pomona contingent faculty highlights eviction and struggle to afford living in LA County

A drawing of a door with an eviction notice on it.
(Lucia Marquez-Uppman • The Student Life)

On Monday, April 10, three Pomona College contingent faculty members sent an open letter to faculty sharing their removal from college-owned residences this summer, raising concerns about affording living in Los Angeles County on their current salaries.

The letter was co-signed by Postdoctoral Research Fellow Li-Fang Lai, Rand Postdoctoral Fellow in Asian Studies Maddalena Poli and Visiting Professor of Chemistry Heidi van de Wouw. The three started working at Pomona last summer and have been residing in subsidized Pomona-owned housing since they began their jobs at the college.

Last February, Lai, Poli and van de Wouw were three of five faculty members to receive an email from the Pomona administration, announcing the upcoming end of their tenancy on May 31, due to an anticipated high volume of new tenure track hires for the 2023-2024 academic year. 

Four of those who received the February notice are contingent faculty members of the college. This means they are not on the tenure-track and are instead on shorter contracts, often with less benefits and lower salaries. 

Poli explained that the three decided to send the letter after over five weeks of attempted dialogue with several college administrators over their situation over Pomona’s initial email in February. 

“I was asked to sign a contract with the understanding that I could keep housing even though it wasn’t technically written in the contract,” Poli said in an interview with TSL. “[This] has a real impact on my ability to remain in the area and to live decently.”

In their letter to faculty, Lai, Poli and van de Wouw explained the difficulty of finding housing in LA County and the greater LA area with contingent faculty salaries, which are below the 2022 $66,750.00 low-income threshold set by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“We have probably the most modest faculty housing here: one bedroom, single occupancy and it’s $1,055 a month,” van de Wouw told TSL. “And anything within a ten mile radius seems to be about $2,200 a month or more. So that means that our rent would at least double if we were to leave faculty housing.”

The letter included a chart detailing the predicted expenses if these three contingent faculty members must find new housing, including a car lease and gasoline for the new commute. According to their calculations, contributions toward retirement or emergency funds would be virtually nonexistent after expenses.

“Having housing is not a matter of attraction,” Lai, Poli and van de Wouw wrote in the letter. “It is the difference between seeing our salary entirely taken up by rent and utilities, and being able to afford rent while also allocating money towards professional and personal goals … It is the difference between ongoing precarity and mental and financial stability necessary to perform our duties.”

Lai, Poli and van de Wouw told TSL that in the past five weeks, they have appealed to several people in the Academic Dean’s Office about the difficulties they would potentially face. However, despite support from some academic chairs, they said they still lacked a clear response from administration. 

“I didn’t hear much feedback [from administration], and it sounded like there wasn’t much feedback,” van de Wuow said. “And so I wanted to go through my department because I felt like they would have more of a rapport and more leverage … My teaching schedule for next semester was based on me living really nearby. I thought, given that knowledge, it would be useful for my chair to kind of vouch for me. But nothing [has] happened with that yet.”

Van de Wouw’s chemistry department chair, Chuck Taylor, added the department is working with Vice President of Academic Affairs Yuqing Melanie Wu’s office to come up with a solution.

“We support and value the important contributions that both of our affected visiting chemistry faculty are making and want to be able to retain them for the coming year,” Taylor told TSL via email.

Wu did not immediately respond to inquiries as to what the college was doing to address the concerns shared in the letter, as she was out of office this week.

On behalf of Wu and the college, Vice President, Chief Operating Officer and treasurer Jeff Roth told TSL via email that over the years, housing had been offered for specific periods of time to help people settle into the community.

“We currently have significantly more newly-hired tenure track faculty, post-doc and visiting faculty than we have rental units,” Roth said. “While we do not have the capacity to provide housing on an ongoing basis for all, we will continue to work to maximize the use of the housing we do have available and serve as many people as possible.”

But in their letter, the three faculty members questioned the administration’s decision to prioritize potential incoming faculty over those who are already part of campus, wondering whether the displacement decision was made to appear more attractive to potential hirees.

“We are here. We are already here, we are working, [and] we are engaging with the students. We are already part of the community,” Poli told TSL. “But somehow we come after these potential hires. How does that come across?”

Following the publication of their letter, Poli, van de Wuow and Lai said they received messages of support from several faculty members, who also shared their own experiences affording life while working in non-tenured track roles. These responses, Lai said, highlighted historical disparities in treatment between contingent and tenure-track or tenured faculty. 

“We’ve gotten support from, I would say, more junior faculty, and some of them also said they’re in the same situation,” Lai said. “This problem has existed for years. It’s not only happening right now. So I believe the school needs to do something to change it.”

The three said they hope to open a dialogue about financial disparities between tenured and untenured faculty that they said exist, not just at Pomona, but in broader academia. 

“We realize this is part of a much bigger conversation and we want to continue to have this conversation here at Pomona,” Poli said.  As a first step in addressing some of the issues … we’re hoping that we get to stay for the reasons stated and because once we are secure, mentally and financially, then we can continue to have this conversation more meaningfully.”

Visiting assistant professor Sherilyn Tamagawa, who has not had access to college-provided housing during her time teaching at the school, told TSL she plans to leave academia due to similar financial concerns to those voiced by the three letter writers.

“[Poli, van de Wuow and Lai] expressed a lot of fear in their letter about how they are going to pay for everything, how they’re going to find housing they can afford,” Tamagawa said. “And for me, the first thing that I thought [reading the letter] was that their fears are justified because I’ve been living that for the past two years and it has been hard to make ends meet financially.”

Tamagawa, who teaches mathematics and statistics, said that with her current salary at Pomona, she makes enough money to cover necessities but doesn’t have much left after accounting for the price of rent and groceries. Because of this lack of financial stability, she decided to stop teaching after this year and instead look for jobs that make it easier to pay for rent and more regularly visit her family. 

“It was a really hard decision, and I’m still really sad about it because I love this job. I love everything about doing this job,” Tamagawa said. “I love having my students. I love having classes and advising senior theses and hanging out with my collaborators. It’s a job that I’ve wanted to do since I was [in college] and it’s a job that I think I’ve spent most of my adult life trying to be good at. But I can’t do it anymore.”

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