Beyond Signs and Slogans: What Does Rutgers’ Adjunct Faculty Want?

Part-time lecturers are asking for pay equity, affordable healthcare, and job security. Rutgers says it can’t afford to fund those requests

rutgers demonstration

Part-time professors and contingent faculty at Rutgers University make up 70 percent of the teaching staff but are paid significantly less than the tuition of a single student. Also known as adjunct professors, this group is arguing it is unfairly treated by the university system and has ramped up its efforts to garner public support for its plight.

With contracts set to expire on June 30 and bargaining sessions in full swing, part-time lecturers (Rutgers’ term for adjunct professors) are demanding pay equity, universal access to affordable health benefits, job security, and more visibility and representation in the university. Rutgers, however, is arguing that it is in a vulnerable financial position and cannot afford to fund such requests.

More than 450 professors, students, parents, and other community members gathered outside Winants Hall in New Brunswick on Tuesday to demonstrate, while the Rutgers board of governors entered its scheduled April meeting. Union representatives, contingent faculty, student workers, and graduate students led chants and songs pledging solidarity with the part-time lecturers (PTLs) seeking a more generous contract.

The board later opened the meeting to public testimony, where more instructors and students voiced their concerns to the university president Robert Barchi and other board members.

Farm workers of higher ed

“I’m proud of my good teaching, but I’d feel better if my salary, benefits, and type of appointment reflected that,” Karen Thompson a lecturer in the English writing program, said. “One colleague calls us the ‘lettuce pickers’ of higher ed. Like farm workers, we get paid by the bushel. A classroom of students is not a bushel of tomatoes but nevertheless PTLs try to cover enough classrooms just as farm workers try to gather enough bushels to make a living.”

Though the board did hear testimony this week, the administration has come under fire for not doing enough to work with the nearly 3,000 contingent staff members.

“Rutgers needs to make some changes and start using that tuition [money] we generate to recognize the enormous contributions we make to the Rutgers educational process,” Thompson said.

Rutgers spokesperson Dory Devlin emailed the official university statement on the matter: “All issues related to employee contracts will be discussed at the negotiating table with the appropriate bargaining team representatives from the administration and the unions.”

Low pay, no job security

Rutgers is the latest university to face a union uprising backed by part-time faculty members who say they are fed up with their low pay and lack of job security. These Rutgers professors often earn just $5,000 per class, and even with a full course load of three classes, are making well below $30,000 a year. Though Rutgers PTLs earn more on average than other adjuncts at other colleges and universities in the state, they argue their compensation is still not enough to eke out a livable wage in New Jersey.

rutgers demonstration

Hannah Groch-Begley and Joe Kaplan, grad students at Rutgers

And it’s more than just a Garden State issue — the role of part-time professors across the country has taken on new meaning in the past decade — but New Jersey has fallen behind other states in its efforts to rethink the position.

In the past, a part-time lecturer often worked full time in their chosen field, offering their expertise to schools and universities on the side (some do continue to follow that path). Today, though, adjuncts are more often than not highly educated academics with multiple degrees. Many are full-time educators in practice, but teach a smattering of courses at schools across the state, cobbling together a schedule that varies from semester to semester with no guarantee that their courses will be picked up.

As part-time educators make the shift to take on full-time workloads, colleges across the nation have been negotiating with labor unions seeking contract changes. In states like Connecticut, Massachusetts, and North Carolina, adjunct unions partnered with the Service Employees International Union — a powerful negotiating force with local chapters across the country — to secure contracts that include language for more predictability and support from universities.

At Duke University, adjuncts unionized in 2017 and immediately saw double-digit pay raises and increased job security. At Boston-area schools like Tufts, Northeastern, and Boston University, contract negotiations also resulted in pay raises and reappointment protections.

Long list of requests

Noting the significant contributions contingent staff provide to the University, PTL unions — including the Rutgers American Association of University Professors and the American Federation of Teachers (AUUP-AFT) — and others have begun rallying in earnest for better treatment for adjunct faculty in New Jersey. Their running list of requests includes universal access to healthcare, some form of job security (even if it’s year to year), equal pay for equal work, tuition benefits for all workers, and the right for all workers to unionize.

Some steps have already been made in earlier contracts, but the unions say there is much more ground to cover. Rutgers AAUP-AFT successfully negotiated to allow part-time faculty to purchase health insurance in the New Jersey State Health Benefit Plan (SHBP), for example. Teresa Politano, a lecturer in the School of Communication and president of the PTL executive board, said this achievement was largely cosmetic, as the plans for single employees run about $600 or $700 plus a 6 percent administrative fee a month. PTLs often must pay more than they earn. Politano said for this reason, almost no one takes advantage of the SHBP.

“It sounds like a benefit on paper, but it’s not.” Politano said. “Yes, we have access to healthcare the same way we have access to buy a Lamborghini.”

Changing business model

On the other side of the table, colleges are hesitant to reallocate funds or hire more tenure-track professors.

Institutions of higher education, including Rutgers, have made a dramatic shift in their business model over the past few decades. Regular tenure-track positions have become less common, and part-time faculty members are supplying most of the teaching labor. More than 70 percent of the teaching staff at Rutgers are contingent faculty. Part-time lecturers teach more than 30 percent of the courses, and because most of those classes are large core-curriculum lectures, most if not all of the students at Rutgers encounter a PTL at some point during their college experience, often without even knowing it.

rutgers demonstration

From left: Jean Sines, Barbara Perry, and Jenn Hunt — Local 5094 the HPAE

Though these professors are the backbone of instruction, many PTLs say they feel invisible. They often do not have dedicated office spaces, parking spots, or even evaluation sessions with a dean. Politano said the litany of titles — PTL, adjunct, contingent faculty, nontenure track instructor — leads to further confusion and isolation even among their own ranks, which makes contract negotiationsall the more difficult.

Bill Fernekes a PTL in the Graduate School of Education, said that feeling of invisibility is bad for professors and students.

According to Fernekes, “three thousand people have almost no voice.” He added, “When people are treated poorly and think they are expendable, there’s a revolving-door problem there. You can’t run a high-quality institution like that.”

What’s more, Fernekes said, the practical expectations of an adjunct professor often differ from their job description or contractual obligations. On paper, a PTL comes to school, teaches a class or two, and leaves campus with no further responsibilities — and their pay reflects that. PTLs argue that scenario is not realistic: professors cannot merely lecture and leave. Fernekes said there is an unwritten expectation from students to be available for advising purposes, writing letters of recommendation, holding office hours, grading, and answering student inquiries after hours.

The core of an educational institution, according to Fernekes, is the relationship between teacher and student. When the teacher is running around from school to school and has no physical presence on campus, Fernekes said, the educational community weakens.

“If you consider a pyramid, we are at the base … the university’s concept of what I am, is I show up, I teach and I leave. They don’t consider me a member of the community.” Fernekes said.

Recognition and a raise — for starters

For PTLs, becoming a respected member of the educational community at Rutgers means recognition in the form of a pay raise and access to affordable healthcare — something they insist Rutgers has the capacity to accomplish.

Data shows adjuncts nationwide average a per-course pay of $2,700, with some paid as little as $1,000. At Rutgers, the situation is somewhat better due to the current contract. PTLs are paid a minimum $1,726 per credit; that works out to $5,178 for a typical three-credit course. At that rate, teaching two courses a semester for a year (two semesters) a PTL earns a minimum of about $20,712. In-state tuition at Rutgers for one student comes to roughly $32,191. The tuition for a class of 20 students comes to $640,000 — an amount PTLs say should easily cover a pay increase for those providing them the education they are paying for. And tuition increases every semester.

Though the thought of pay raises and health benefits for thousands of employees may appear financially daunting, the professors say the funding is there already in the form of unrestricted funds, money spent on consulting firms, and what they refer to as “bloated” administrator salaries.

According to the AAUP, 0.8 percent of Rutger’s total budget was spent on wages for 2,100 PTLs, while Rutgers retains more than 300 administrators with annual salaries of over $250,000. Most of those are in the athletic department or serve on administrative councils.

Documents obtained through an AAUP-AFT public records request, and analyzed by PTL anthropology professor David Hughes, show Rutgers spent a total of $55,894,448 on private consulting firms, including Deloitte, ECG, Ernst and Young, and Huron between June 2017 and February 2018. Hughes said that money could have easily funded pay raises for the adjunct professors.

“That’s $56 million down the hole,” Hughes said. “I don’t have a problem with that preference on the part of the administration. We just would like to be a preference too. Everything that we’re asking for would come within the order of magnitude of $56 million.”

Union advocates also point to a portion of the university budget labeled “unrestricted funds” as a possible source of money for professors.

Vulnerable financial position

But Rutgers president Barchi said at the meeting that the university is in a vulnerable financial situation, and increasing the funding for professors’ salaries could lead to a downgrade for Rutgers and signal further tuition increases.

“This is nothing secret here, there is nothing magic about it, we don’t have anything to hide here, but the notion that we have this pot of unrestricted assets that could be spent is simply not consistent with the facts,” Barchi said.

Kathy Dettloff, the vice president of financial planning at Rutgers, implored meeting attendees to remember that “unrestricted funds are not the same as uncommitted funds.”

Rutgers reported an unrestricted net position of $784 million on its most recent financial statement, but Dettloff said that number is misleading. She said at the meeting that 100 percent of that is held for distinct purposes: 30 percent for financial aid, 29 percent in invested reserves, 21 percent for capital improvement projects, 8 percent into faculty funds for research initiatives, 7 percent for student services, and 5 percent for the university’s insurance program.

As contract negotiations continue, the threat of expiration looms large for PTLs. If a new contract is not agreed to by June 30, the previous version remains in place.

“I would put it to the board,” Hughes said, “Find it in your hearts to do something that will restore the mission of this university as one that provides the highest-quality education at the most affordable price to the widest swath of people of any kind in New Jersey.”