By: Ayoub Saidi & Alexis Marini
Last week on Tuesday, Rutgers-Camden faculty and staff members of the Rutgers American Association of University Professors – American Federation of Teachers (AAUP-AFT) hosted a “work-in” at the Camden campus center to bring awareness to their campaign for fair contracts and explain to students the rationale behind their vote to authorize a strike to that end. Between 10 AM and 2 PM, professors, students, and staff flooded the common area of the building and shared snacks as they discussed key issues that the Rutgers-Camden campus has been fighting hard to rectify.
“I didn’t think I took a vow of poverty,” shared professor Austin Rooney when discussing his career as an adjunct. Among Rutgers campuses, there has long been uneven treatment. Equity issues have created an excessive amount of dissatisfaction among students and faculty. It is apparent that Camden is left with crumbs as a result of the uneven distribution of funds across campuses, while New Brunswick clearly benefits. Having been heavily funded by the state, Rutgers’ budget is a combination of government funding and a variety of private and public sources. As the Rutgers website shares, their “flagship location” of Rutgers New Brunswick is the number one public research university in the State and is considered a top twenty public national university. What are our chances of staying on par with our “flagship” campus when our Camden professors are dissatisfied? With a whopping 72% of our professors being part time, it is hard to expect the dedication that other universities may receive. Each professor interviewed has urged students to educate themselves and ask questions, so what exactly is going on?
The unions had their contracts expire in June of 2022, meaning these faculty have been working without contract for approximately nine months. A variety of issues have arisen including wages far below the living rate (for grad workers and adjuncts), poor job security, insufficient raises and issues with healthcare coverage (specifically for adjunct faculty). It would be easy to address these issues if the will to do so existed. The conditions under which they work determine our education, and if they receive what they ask, we will be provided with better learning conditions and opportunities. Rather than raise tuition, they request an equitable distribution of funds.
While some have raised concerns over the financial implications of a raise for professors on student tuition, full-time faculty member and economics professor Selim Cakmakli insists that an increase in tuition would be unjustifiable at this time. “Our wage raise is not justification for increasing tuition,” he said in an interview. “Our productivity is increasing, so we deserve a wage raise. It’s not like the president says; ‘Okay we can give you a wage raise but then we have to increase the tuition.’ No – there is no such trade-off here.”
As a result of the blatant exploitation of adjunct faculty, our campus experience is negatively affected. Whether it is in the classroom or outside, adjunct faculty have a variety of daily struggles that could invoke limitations in our educational experience. Dr. Jim Brown, a member of the tenured faculty here at Rutgers has taken time to share his sympathy for adjunct faculty. He explained the unwavering commitment the adjunct faculty have towards their students, despite the responsibilities they have elsewhere. Dr. Brown shared his stance with us, stating;
“A person who sits down with you […] willing to put in an extra hour at office hours or […] willing to work through a paper with you, but then you learn ‘oh wow they’re teaching three classes at Drexel too?’ That changes how you think about that person’s commitment to you – to your education. That’s what we have at Rutgers. We don’t have adjunct faculty who are disconnected – we have adjunct faculty who are being exploited. Those relationships aren’t different [between tenure-track and adjunct professors and their students]. The only difference is the way they are treated by the administration.”
Contrary to bold assumptions, adjunct faculty work equally hard or even more so when compared to tenure track or tenured faculty. Part-time, adjunct faculty, and graduate students ask for equal pay for equal work. They must be employed at different facilities in order to make a living wage, sacrificing what little to no opportunity they have for full-time employment. When working at several institutions, they are unable to devote as much time as they want to work with students. They must develop several curricula. These professors feel fractured, they cannot devote their time to us in ways that they desired by following the career path of higher academia. In turn ramifying itself in unseen ways. Professor Rooney shared his discontent with how limited he must be despite students sharing their wishes for furthering their education;
“I have to try to talk to you as I’m walking between classes or I have to hope I have some space to meet with you at. I am unable to cultivate the relationship I want and I’m unable to give you the education you deserve … But there’s no doubt that could be greatly improved by basic adjustments, if I was able to earn a living wage being a professor here at Rutgers, if I was able to have access to basic amenities, if I don’t have to worry about getting healthcare teaching at various different institutions […] I can’t invest myself as much as I want to in your education because I don’t know if I’m going to be here.”
Without an office, his ideal learning environment for his students is tampered with. Each one of his classes has an independent final project which he caters to each student. As students in the philosophy department, we see Professor Rooney’s direct attention to each one of his students and his devotion to our educational experience. Office hours and meeting times are a struggle, and his ideal final project is directly affected due to limited space and resources. He ends up squatting in offices, telling students to meet him in the campus center, or you will see him frequent a bench to discuss with students. The dedication of our adjunct faculty comes at a price of their livelihood and through the exploitation of their resources, Rutgers is failing us.
As the faculty, staff, and students of Rutgers- Camden look to the remaining months of the Spring 2023 semester, the possibility of a strike appears to be increasingly imminent. Nevertheless, those involved in the organization of the strike are hoping that such action need not be taken, but are anticipating that it will result in a swift and positive outcome for the entirety of the Rutgers community if it does ultimately come to be. Dr. Brown summarizes the intentions of faculty and staff very clearly and outlines the platform upon which the contract campaign is running in a simple one-liner; “equal pay for equal work, job security, and dignity for everyone who works at Rutgers.” To fulfill all three of these demands, professors have asked that students band together to use their shared voice and make a collective effort for change. Sarah Degiorgis, a current PhD student at Rutgers- Camden and a professor in her own right, stated the following when asked about the importance of student engagement on these key issues:
“I think we could show a really good show of solidarity in Camden if we have a ton of undergrads who are supporting us and who are saying ‘We are standing with our faculty – we support them and we think they should be paid more.’ You’re paying tuition to this institution, so you should have a little bit of a say in how this works.”
Although the strike could halt all major operations on campus and interrupt the ordinary flow of classes, professors are reassuring students that this should in no way have a negative impact on their educational experience. In fact, union members have made a compelling argument for why the strike would have the exact opposite effect. Professor Rooney spoke at length about what is at stake for students in the negotiations between the union and the Rutgers administration, and he sought to remind attendees of an easily forgotten reality; that professors’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions. Dr. Brown echoed this important message, insisting that “the people that make this place run deserve to be paid and have a living wage and have healthcare and benefits – Rutgers is better off if that’s the case […].”
In summation, the work of the union is, as Dr. Brown said last week, “about faculty, staff, and students working together, organizing together, and understanding that we have shared interests, shared desires, shared wants and needs – and seeing that that’s where the power is.” Faculty, staff, and students all agree that Rutgers is a place for research and teaching, and that the institution should divert its resources into making those things happen. Dr. Brown further elaborates on this point and neatly concludes with the following message to readers:
“The idea is to build the Rutgers that we all deserve. We deserve a Rutgers where everyone feels welcome and feels safe and secure in their job. That’s everything from the student worker all the way up to the fanciest ‘full’ professor with the biggest research grants[…]. There is nothing taboo about it – it is pretty simple. Equal work for equal pay is pretty simple. The president of the university has said ‘it’s complicated’ – that’s been his official response – it shouldn’t be complicated.”