By Hank Kalet
From November 15 to 19, several dozen members of the Rutgers adjunct faculty union participated in a week-long teach-in designed to build coalitions with student groups in advance of contract negotiations with the university.
During #RutgersAdjunctsSpeak Week of Action, adjunct instructors opened up to their classes about their status as contingent workers and explained the impact that their part-time status has on their lives and on the educational opportunities offered to students.
Rutgers adjuncts, called part-time lecturers (PTLs), teach about one in three classes at the university, though PTL salaries, which average less than $6,000 per class, comprise just 1% of total university spending—or a third of what is spent on athletics. PTLs lack access to affordable health care, job security, or stability. We only get paid when we teach and often will have classes taken from us at the last minute—after we have spent hours developing syllabi and prepping for the semester. Many of us are forced to teach at multiple colleges just to make ends meet.
Academia has been moving in this direction for more than a decade, adopting models that are used in the business world to keep costs down and bulk up profits. Workers are outsourced or turned into consultants and freelancers so that businesses can avoid healthcare spending, pensions, and other costs of employment. We are witnessing the damaging impact of such strategies today during the pandemic: Hospitals lack needed supplies, consumers struggle with shortages, and families are bankrupted by the heavy cost of COVID.
In academia, adjuncts are essentially gig workers. We are paid by the credit and only teach when there is enrollment. This has an impact on our students’ educations, as it makes it difficult for us to establish lasting relationships with our classes or to provide consistent and easily accessible help to students outside the classroom.
During the teach-in sessions in my classes, many of my students had not heard the phrases “adjunct instructor” or “part-time lecturer.” They did not know the phrase “gig economy” either, but they knew friends and family who worked in gig jobs. Others did not realize I was an adjunct—even though I’ve been honest about the conflicting commitments created by teaching at multiple schools.
Other PTLs told me their students were surprised by the wage disparities between full- and part-time faculty. Leslie Savan, an adjunct who teaches in the Department of Journalism and Media Studies, asked students “if they know how much I (or any adjunct) make from teaching the class.” She then compared her earnings with the amount they pay in tuition per class, which comes to about $24,000 to $31,000 for 20 students. That is as much as five times what the average adjunct earns.
“Some students were surprised,” she said. “One thought we made ‘six figures,’ based on what Google says about the average pay for RU profs. She didn’t know that there are different levels of professors, from adjuncts to fully tenured.”
Another adjunct, Bob Bernotas, said his students were receptive, with some telling him they were willing to get involved. He posted a student email to Facebook, in which the student thanked him and told him his presentation about job instability was “very impactful.”
“The harsh reality of this beautiful campus is how much debt some of us students are racking up, all while we receive a good deal of painfully average lectures and fear that we may not land a job to pay off the years we spent in college,” she said. “I do not have much experience or extensive knowledge in the financial aspect of teaching here, but I feel strongly that the majority of my tuition dollars should go towards getting me the most unique, passionate, and knowledgeable professors to encourage learning, and [who] enjoy doing so. If my input and drive for this subject can help you in your mission, I would be glad to be a part of it.”
The week concluded on Friday with an online panel—Confronting the Gig Academy—that served as both an educational forum and kick-off to a larger campaign that will involve not just the university unions, but an active and engaged student body.