ETSU activist sees campus campaign as part of broader fight

Brandon Paykamian • Updated Aug 20, 2019 at 5:21 PM

Over the past year, East Tennessee State University student activists like Connor McClelland have been integral in intensifying a campuswide campaign to raise adjunct professors’ salaries. 

Amid that pressure from campus union and student organizers, the College of Arts and Sciences announced plans last month to raise adjunct wages by $100 for anyone making less than $800 per credit hour. 

But activists like McClelland — who helped found the ETSU Young Democratic Socialists of America chapter and has served on the Student Government Association — believe this recent campaign is part of a broader fight for socio-economic justice. 

On Sunday, the Johnson City Press asked him to tell us more about himself and his work. 

McClelland Briefly: 

Favorite Tri-Cities restaurant: Sloopy’s

Hobbies: Guitar/music

Ultimate travel destination: “I want to see the whole world. If I had to choose one place though, it would be Antarctica because it is the last frontier. How many people can say they’ve been to Antarctica?”

One thing you want to accomplish in life: “As an activist and aspiring historian, I want to be able to weave our past with our present in a way that causes us to understand ourselves and our society, empathize with others, and improve us as individuals, as a community and as a nation.” 

Favorite movie: “Forrest Gump” 

What made you get involved with the Adjunct Action movement at ETSU?

After helping start the YDSA on campus, and consequentially meeting the members of the United Campus Workers Union, I was reinvigorated with a passion I had for some time regarding labor unions and their power to improve the lives of workers. I had seen for some time the UCW work and struggle to get recognition for advocating against the conditions faced by many ETSU employees, and after finally getting involved with them, I wanted to help. I was one of the original core members who had pushed that YDSA as a group should focus on a campaign regarding this issue. We asked everyone if they were on board, and from there, we decided to start advocating for our adjunct faculty as supportive students, and every day the support and traction for Adjunct Action only grew.

What are you expecting from the movement? 

Presence and pressure. Our advocacy for the cause and the attention we have garnered has continually pushed our institution to change, and as of now, we see the small fruits of our labor in a couple of colleges raising pay, with one ensuring that all their adjunct faculty, as we demanded, will receive $1,000 per credit hour in compensation. With gratitude to the strides they are making, we won’t rest until this issue is resolved and all adjuncts, regardless of their subject, are paid fairly, and that this problem does not arise again by having a system that adjusts their pay to inflation on a bi-annual basis, ensuring fairness and stability, not 20 more years of stagnant wages. In short, be ready to see a lot more of us, tirelessly fighting for a campus community built on dignity and respect.

What’s something you would like to see changed in the region?

To me, it’s a matter of our social consciousness. I would like to see our people realize that the rich and the corporations who dominate our governance and our economy don’t care about us here — that men born with silver spoons who hold power don’t get what it’s like, no matter how much they say it. Don’t fall for lies, and don’t be distracted by non-solutions and evasions of responsibility. We have the chance to build an America that we and future generations can be proud of. We just have to believe in making that change together. Appalachia can be a catalyst of progress if we are willing to take that leap.

What are your main goals for activism at ETSU and with YDSA? 

Our goal is to bring students together on campus and unite them around the “radical” notions of empathy, respect and justice deeply rooted in democratic socialism. We want to enable students to volunteer to help at-risk communities and minority groups. We want to help students be campus and community activists pushing for progressive change. We want to involve students in the electoral process. We want to build a support base for students who desire positions of leadership at any level, so as to help them enact policies that represent our collective values. Our goal for YDSA is to help re-envision old-time Appalachia solidarity through democratic socialism.

Do you think you could make more of a difference as an elected official or an activist/organizer?

I think each job has an important value. As an activist, there are a lot fewer constraints where you don’t have to operate as strictly within a confined system. As a politician, your ability to enact the change is much greater because you wield the power to do so. However, if you look through American history, most instances of mass change are rooted in a groundswell of public pressure and activism. Seemingly, people in positions of power usually need to be persuaded to do the right thing by smart, passionate citizens. Though the power to enact change may come from officials, the will for it to happen must come from activists, and in my opinion, that determination is invaluable.

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