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EDITORIAL: Was Oprah’s ‘Big Surprise’ At UMass Lowell Partial Cover For An ‘Off-The-Radar’ Labor Negotiation?

Oprah in Lowell announcing her matching gift of $1.5 million in scholarshps.

Oprah meets the school community.

 In the best show-biz tradition, with the timing of a skilled impresario, Oprah Winfrey dropped the biggest news of the night at the perfect moment.

 After UMASS Lowell Chancellor Jacquie Moloney announced that the university had raised more than $1.5 million for scholarships  on Thursday, Nov. 15, the big reveal was yet to come. Oprah Winfrey then pledged to match the scholarships with another $1.5 million of her own for a total $3 million scholarship fund.

   But, behind the scenes, another story with a larger payoff for a long-suffering group of university employees was unfolding simultaneous with Oprah’s presence in Lowell that day.  Could these two stories been related, having something to do with Oprah’s being in Lowell?  [More of this below]

    But first, more than 6,000 people listened to a nearly 90-minute conversation between Oprah and Chancellor Moloney, touching on education, gratitude, “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” her work with children in South Africa, a 10-day visit with Nelson Mandela and her commitment to living a life of purpose and service.

   The evening concluded with the introduction of the first six Oprah Winfrey Scholars and Oprah’s induction as an honorary doctor of humane letters degree presented by UMass President Marty Meehan.

     Asked by Chancellor Moloney why she had decided to come to UMass Lowell, Winfrey pointed to the goal of the Chancellor’s Speaker Series, saying she decided to come when she learned the university would use the event to raise money for scholarships.

   Oprah added that Lowell was also on her radar thanks to one of her Oprah’s Book Club recommendations: “House of Sand and Fog” by UMass Lowell English professor and best-selling author Andre Dubus III. Winfrey said Dubus was one of the few authors she featured who wrote her a personal thank you note, something that stuck with her.

   Chancellor Moloney and Winfrey discussed the value of education, including offering a standing ovation to the many professors in the audience. “The only way you change a life is by changing the way someone thinks about their life, and you do that with education,” Winfrey said.

    Oprah ended the night with a piece of advice for the audience. “I try to do the right thing even when no one is looking,” she said. “When you don’t know what to do, do nothing until you do know. There is that still, small voice inside of you that always – always – has the answer.”

   After all the praise for professors and the importance of education, one can only wonder if behind the scenes, Oprah chose to be in Lowell, in part, to help negotiate a solution for a problem of basic fairness which has been plaguing ULowell adjunct professors for many years.

    More than half of professors in the United States are adjuncts. ULowell is no exception in employing a considerable precentage of adjunct professors. As part-time educators, adjuncts are excluded from most of the benefits and security granted to full-time faculty. Even though their numbers have dramatically increased in recent decades, that doesn’t translate into security or control of their economic or academic lives. Many struggle to attain any recognition at all for their hard work, low pay and terrible commutes.

    Did Oprah come to Lowell in-part to close the deal for the adjunct professors? One will never know, but the coincidences suggest it could be so. 

   It seems telling that members of the UMass Lowell Union of Adjunct Faculty voted overwhelmingly on Tuesday and Wednesday to ratify a new labor contract hours before Oprah’s appearance at Tsongas Arena. 

    Adjunct professors had announced plans to host a “Justice for Lowell” rally outside Oprah Winfrey’s appearance at the Tsongas Arena, but the protest was called off once a new contract was ratified.

    The new contract brings key improvements to working conditions for adjunct faculty at the Lowell campus of the University of Massachusetts.  It includes limited access to health care benefits for a group of faculty who teach a qualifying number of courses; salary increases; and the right to develop their own syllabus and choose their own textbooks.

   Adjunct faculty members, who teach an increasing percentage of courses at UMass campuses and at schools across the country, have made national headlines in recent years for unionizing in the face of substandard wages and a lack of benefits. They voted to join the United Auto Workers in 2010. The contract ratified last week is the result of more than three years of intense negotiations between the union and the University. 

  Was Oprah involved in this settlement? The timing and coincidences suggest it could be true but we’re unlikely to ever know. 

   If it is true, it echos Oprah’s praise for professors and her quote earlier in this story, “I try to do the right thing even when no one is looking,”

      Prior UMass Lowell Chancellor’s Speaker Series programs featured author Stephen King in 2012 and actress Meryl Streep in 2014 and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for student scholarships.

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