In 2013, Margaret Mary Vojtko, an adjunct French professor at Duquesne University, died from a heart attack at 83 years old after being laid off when the university refused to extend her contract without any severance or retirement benefits. The professor was living nearly homeless. The chemotherapy treatment she was receiving for ovarian cancer rendered her unable to pay for heating. To escape the cold, she slept in her office until she was forcibly removed after the university discovered her.
After her death, Vojtko’s lawyer published an op-ed about her called “Death of an Adjunct,” where he describes how “unlike a well-paid tenured professor, Margaret Mary worked on a contract basis from semester to semester, with no job security, no benefits and with a salary of between $3000 and just over $3500 per three-credit course.”
The casualization of work is a nationwide phenomenon. In the world of academia, this manifests in dwindling tenure-track positions. According to the American Association of University Professors, 73% of instructional positions are off the tenure track. These positions are insecure and offer few protections for academic freedom. Notably, these positions do not pay well. More than half of adjuncts have an income of less than $35,000.
Universities know exactly how cruel this permanent underemployment can be. Despite keeping funding for teaching relatively flat, the number of administrator positions grew by 60% between 1993 and 2009 — 10 times the rate at which universities added tenured positions. This penny-pinching logic applied to university professors seemingly doesn’t apply to administrators — their salaries increased by 50% between 1998 and 2003.
Hiring adjuncts instead of tenure-track professors is great for the university’s pocketbook, but for its employees, it’s unequivocally inhumane. NYU has cleverly hidden part of its army of adjuncts through Liberal Studies — a money-saving program that exploits and disrespects its professors. Similar to Vojtko, a portion of Liberal Studies professors are hired semester to semester on a contractual basis. None of these professors are eligible for tenure. 43% have been forced to take up another job in order to supplement their salaries. Male, full-time LS professors make little more than two-fifths the salary of tenure-eligible professors. Go to the Liberal Studies department at 726 Broadway and you will see lines of cubicles — NYU has neglected to give semester-to-semester professors their own offices. Heavy reliance on adjuncts is bad for university students — professors who are burdened with the anxiety of a lack of job security or must work multiple jobs to make ends meet simply cannot devote the same time and attention to their students like their tenure-eligible counterparts.
Previously, The International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America Local 7902 — a union comprised of adjunct professors from NYU and the New School — negotiated and made proposals to the NYU administration to address their various grievances, such as wage discrepancies across different departments, health benefits and more contributions for annuity retirement plans. The union held a vote in 2017 and found a large majority of the union’s 2,500 members were in favor of a strike against the university. However, according to the collective bargaining agreement between NYU and ACT-UAW that will be effective until 2022, the Union has agreed to prohibit any member from sanctioning, instigating or participating in any strike, sympathy strike, sit-down, slow-down or stoppage of work.
NYU has refused to meet any of the adjuncts’ demands, despite NYU’s total combined endowment being $4.3 billion. On top of that, full-time students living on campus pay approximately a whopping $76,612 a year in tuition and fees. Additionally, NYU is known for spending lavishly for other higher-up administrators. In 2013, top NYU administrators and faculty members were extended loans at extremely favorable terms for vacation homes in the Hamptons and on Fire Island. Departing university president, John Sexton, was given a $1 million loan for a beach house. President Andy Hamilton, in addition to his astronomical $1.8 million salary and annual $250,000 performance bonus, renovated a 4,200-square-foot penthouse duplex with four bedrooms, four and a half bathrooms and an expansive rooftop terrace, totaling at least $1.1 million in costs.
Instead of utilizing its affluence to lower tuition, combat its reputation of less than generous aid packages or increase the quality-of-life for its adjunct faculty, NYU has opted time and time again to further enrich those who run the institution. Considering the abundance of wealth NYU sits on and the commitment adjunct professors have to academia — though adjuncts here are arguably treated better than Vojtko was — the university has no excuse when it comes to paying these academics their fair share.
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A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Feb. 3, 2020 print edition. Email Emily Dai at [email protected]