In a three-week strike by adjuncts at New York City university the New School, which concluded this weekend, the immediate issue was a basic one: pay and benefits. But rumbling beneath the surface was the gap between the school’s progressive rhetoric and the grubby reality of how adjunct professors are treated.
Colleges like the New School — where, full disclosure, I used to work as an editor — are vulnerable to labor unrest not simply because they often don’t pay particularly well but also for the same reason Starbucks found itself confronting a unionization wave. Their left-leaning, highly educated workforce, as well as the people they serve, has increasingly come to expect management to live up to its stated beliefs.
Prior to the strike, some adjuncts—the part-time, untenured group who make up around 87 percent of instructors on campus — were earning as little as $4,000 a class, and they weren’t compensated for such time-consuming duties as grading papers. This is not even close to a living wage, and it’s going to people who have typically completed advanced degrees and may now be trying to make a career in education. Take Dianca Potts, whose mom never attended college. Potts is now teaching such classes as “Writing the End of the World” as an adjunct, but when she began the semester, she told me, she was so broke she wasn’t sure she could afford to buy coffee between classes.
When negotiations began, the famously progressive school initially offered up a small raise and said it could not afford to pay more without damaging its underlying finances. The school has a small endowment, and it largely depends on tuition to fund its operations. But even as inflation surged, adjuncts were asked to take it on the chin — while the university hired pricey management consultants and offered its president the opportunity to live in a multimillion-dollar New York City townhouse.
This apparent unfairness sat uneasily with the principles of equality that have become so important on college campuses, particularly left-leaning ones like the New School. Like most colleges, the school regularly announces DEI — that’s diversity, equity and inclusion— initiatives. And the school’s president, Dwight McBride, tweets such things as “liberation is intersectional.” It’s not surprising that many less-than-well-compensated staffers eventually asked, “What about me?”
“Words like ‘equity,’ ‘inclusion’ or ‘care’ should be used with consideration for what they really mean,” says Matthew Spiegelman, who teaches photography at the New School’s Parsons School of Design. “The more they get used in conversation and not acted on, the less they mean anything.”