At the Rutgers-New Brunswick campus, I hold a large lecture class in a classroom so dilapidated that we call it Vampirina: sunshine makes it hurt. Room 206 in the Ruth Adams Building hosts 50 students five times a day, five days a week. That’s a weekly rotation of 1,250 students. The window blinds attack me whenever I try to lower them, and random broken chairs are reserved for latecomers. Wherever they are in the room, I can always tell who is sitting in these seats: students’ height tapers off from venti-grande to demi by the end of class.
My students deserve better, and so do I.
Students and faculty at Rutgers University are on the brink of a historic strike, and it’s not just about the elements—salary, healthcare—that are normal features of negotiating a fair contract. It’s about how, collectively, we do our work. Although the administration has tried to de-link them, student learning conditions reflect teaching conditions—not just for full-time faculty, but especially for contingent instructors who do the heavy lifting of teaching the core curriculum. When university leadership treats part-time faculty as disposable, students experience upheaval. When university administrators treat students as conciliatory consumers, teachers likewise recognize neglect.
Part of that neglect is the expectation that professional teaching can be sustained by casual labor. Like hundreds of other committed faculty members of Rutgers American Association of University Professors and American Federation of Teachers union (AAUP-AFT), I do not have a contract for next year. Although I have been teaching at Rutgers for only the past four years, countless other faculty have done this do-si-do dance—one in which we plan our lives from year to year—for more than two decades.
Here is an example: I began at Rutgers as a part-time lecturer (PTL) in 2019 and was promoted to a non-tenure track (NTT) position in 2022. Next year, due to so-called budgetary constraints, the position will likely revert to PTL status. True to the central conceit of contemporary academic life—that we are all lucky to be here, no matter what—I am supposed to accept what amounts to a 50 percent pay cut for the same amount of work, if not more.
The situation I just described represents an erosion of labor conditions at Rutgers since before the pandemic. In 2019, the faculty union applied rigorous pressure on the administration and made significant gains. As former AAUP-AFT union president and Rutgers colleague Deepa Kumar described in a Jacobin interview in April 2019:
Let me first talk about the class demands. We won job security for our NTT colleagues and grad employees. In our last contract, we fought for and won a 43 percent increase in the base wages of our NTT colleagues and a promotion process. This time, we won meaningful job security for NTTs who until now had few, if any, protections against arbitrary non-renewals.
As Kumar noted, as an equity issue, these demands went well beyond teaching status. “For the first time in our fifty-year history,” she emphasized, “our union has made it possible for women faculty and faculty of color to obtain pay equity.”