Why Fordham Grad Students Should Support Adjunct Unionization

by Steven Payne, Graduate Teaching Fellow, Theology, GSAS

Why should graduate students at Fordham concern themselves with the adjunct and lecturer unionization drive here on campus right now? I’d like to take up this question from a few different angles. First, though, allow me to introduce myself. My name is Steven Payne, and I am a fourth-year PhD student in the Theology department here. I am currently involved in the unionization movement among graduate students, so I cannot pretend, of course, to take any kind of non-partisan position on this issue.

With that being said, let me give three reasons why not only my fellow graduate students but really anyone else who cares about promoting the historic aims and interests of the university should seek to lend as vigorous support as possible to this movement. I will start from the most obvious of reasons and proceed to the less apparent.

First and foremost, graduate students and adjuncts in the American academy have a natural community of material interest. Let me explain what I mean here. If you look at some of the most prevalent trends in most universities in this country over the past twenty years or so, it becomes immediately apparent that full-time, tenure-track professorial positions have been on a gradual, though steady decline. It also becomes immediately apparent that adjuncts, lecturers, and graduate student instructors have increasingly begun to take up the pedagogical slack. In spite of the data, however, we graduate students in general often begin to convince ourselves that we will somehow defy these trends, that we, through intellectual prowess or good luck, will land in one of those ever-fabled tenure-track positions at a respectable institution when it’s all said and done. Such mythmaking, after all, is understandable, considering how much tangible stress we deal with just to proceed from one stage to the next in graduate studies. The realistic consideration of bleak job prospects, to be sure, does not do anything to help our often perilous and sorely neglected psychic well-being as graduate students. But let’s just consider some numbers right now. Doing so will help us realize that this current situation is not temporary, that things will not somehow magically get better without us doing—and forcing university administrations to do—something differently. The profit is simply too seductive as things currently stand.

Although on the whole, graduate student workers at Fordham enjoy better pay, job security, and institutional support than adjuncts, we profoundly go astray if we think that all of us do not factor into the same general strategy of labor exploitation by university administrations. Here are the indisputable facts: a Fordham undergraduate student pays $47,850 in tuition alone for the 2016/17 academic year. Assuming an average of 15 credit hours per semester, this means that a single student dishes out around $9,570 per 3-hour course here. Multiply this by 35, the typical size of classes here. That yields $334,950 in tuition alone for a single class. Adjuncts get paid anywhere from $3900 to $5000 per course—correct me if I’m wrong here, these are the official numbers Fordham gives. This means that for most courses taught by adjuncts here, Fordham receives a surplus value of over $330,000. I have seen estimates of around 860 adjuncts employed here at Fordham. If that number is somewhere in the right ballpark, then this means that if each adjunct teaches only one class per semester, then Fordham brings in a surplus value of $283,800,000. Considering most adjuncts probably teach two courses per semester, the number might be as high as $500,000,000. If we do the same math with graduate student workers here, most get paid what the university tendentiously calls a “merit stipend” of around $12,500 per semester. For those who teach their own classes, this means that Fordham brings in a surplus value of around $322,000 per course. Again, if data I’ve seen is correct, 168 graduate students currently teach their own classes here at Fordham. This means that Fordham brings in around $54,000,000 in surplus value per semester through reliance on graduate student teaching. Now of course these calculations do not take into account the various expenses of the university other than instructional, expenses such as operating costs, maintenance, pay for administrative and clerical staff, etc.

Factoring in these additional expenses would reduce the absolute surplus value the university brings in per class. But the fact of the matter remains that the university benefits staggeringly from utilizing the labor of adjuncts, instructors, and graduate students, labor that costs a significant degree less than that of tenure-track and tenured professors. Yet based on an outside analysis of Fordham’s finances conducted a couple of weeks back for the Faculty Senate, the regular, incremental increase in pay-rate for the vast majority of tenure-track and tenured professors here at Fordham has also been steadily on the decline since at least 2008. And in spite of the illusion manufactured in the numbers by some clever accounting tricks, the pay-rate for administration on this campus has seen a steady rise. Indeed, out of the vast amounts of revenue Fordham brings in each year through its breathtakingly high tuition, only around 36% gets used to cover instructional costs. Only 36%. Around 12% goes to pay the top-dollar salaries of the significantly smaller group of administrators, with some making as high as $650,000/year. Of course, some revenue also goes to cover other more intuitive costs of the university like utilities and maintenance. But the rest of it—I’ll get there in a second. So when we look at the whole picture, then, adjuncts, instructors, post-doctoral fellows, graduate student workers, and tenure-track and tenured faculty—in other words, all of those who teach—each of us fill a carefully manufactured position within a complex, multi-tiered, and partially obfuscated system of labor exploitation, a system designed in part to keep us within our own particular spheres. We are in this together. We must dismantle these spheres of separation.

Not only do we graduate student workers share a community of material interest with adjuncts (and all other educators on campus)—we all, after all, want to be rewarded equitably for the work we do. We also share, or at least should share, a particular vision of the historical mission of the university, and this vision will increasingly become a distant memory unless we do something, unless we force university administrations to realign institutional finances according to our priorities and not the priorities of business tycoons who think education, too, should be for-profit and about the bottom line. This, the current tenuous situation of the university itself, is the second reason graduate students should support the adjunct unionization movement.

I doubt that many of us, especially among GSAS graduate students, came to graduate school for the improvement of our financial situations or for excellent job prospects upon completion of our degrees. The fact of the matter is that all of us are invested—of course in diverse ways—in the project of creating and ensuring a series of spaces, the university, where critical thought and free inquiry can flourish. We wouldn’t go through what we go through if that were not the case. Now as long as universities continue this trend of relying more and more on contingent labor, academic freedom itself—our commitment to take nothing for granted in our questioning—will increasingly come under assault. Why not simply refuse to renew the contract of an adjunct or lecturer if they advocate a potentially controversial idea? As for graduate students, I assume that I do not have to remind you of the precariousness of our situations. Although most of us hopefully have advisors and committees on our side, here is precisely where the administration can try to play one party against the other. As things currently stand at institutions where graduate students do not have the built-in protection of a union, the administration can rely upon vague threats and self-policing to exclude the proliferation of potentially radical ideas during our graduate studies. And with the increasing erosion of tenure track jobs in the academy, in a few decades, if nothing changes, how many people will legitimately have the protection needed for the exercise of free thought in universities? The university will become more pronouncedly a place that unquestioningly accepts and promotes the moneyed interests of oligarchs and technocrats. We have a duty to resist this. Indeed, all of this must change—structural mechanisms must be put in place to protect critical inquiry—if we are to remain faithful to the best, most politically and intellectually transformative legacies of the university since the Enlightenment. And unions for all contingent laborers and graduate student workers can do so.

Finally, a less apparent point. If graduate students themselves unionize and support the efforts of adjuncts and lecturers to unionize, we can more easily force the administration, as a united block, partially to reorient its spending away from trends that most likely will hasten the process of gentrification in the Bronx. I asked earlier where a large chunk of Fordham’s yearly revenue goes. As many of you know, the Fordham administration has recently become more and more interested in real estate—buying property and undertaking expensive building projects. In carrying out such projects, of course, Fordham has taken on carefully planned and managed, though no less staggering debt. A substantial part of the yearly revenue goes to this. And it isn’t completely unjustified considering that the university, obviously, has to keep up with its increasing student population.

That being said, let me propose a scenario. As hopefully many of you know, parts of the Bronx are currently being rezoned for residential development. As things currently stand, any new development built in these rezoned areas has to meet the Mandatory Inclusionary Housing Policy so as to provide a portion of its units below the market price to low-income families. Yet student housing in NYC falls in a peculiar legal situation wherein it can be classified as residential while not, of course, being subject to the same legal requirements for residential buildings, requirements precisely like the Mandatory Inclusionary Housing Policy. This only makes sense, inasmuch as student housing constitutes a recognizably different situation than most other residential situations. Yet what is to prevent Fordham from buying up property as more of the Bronx undergoes re-zoning and developing it along the predictable lines? Let’s play this out. As old residential buildings and less profitable commercial buildings get bought up by Fordham and torn down, luxury student condominiums will surely spring up, and the people who previously lived and worked in these areas will be displaced. And I think we can assume pretty safely that gates similar to the ones around this campus would appear around those buildings as well. But strong unions would help in resisting this process and would legally bind the university to include adjuncts, lecturers, graduate student workers, and others in the conversation about how best to spend its revenue. Indeed, the material improvement of our standard of living won through union bargaining would help to slow down the momentum of Fordham’s real estate development. We would quite literally divert their funds.

On at least three fronts, then, we graduate students at Fordham should feel motivated to express the utmost support for and solidarity with the adjunct and lecturer unionization drive. If material improvement of all of our working conditions, and consequently, students’ learning conditions matters to you; if the preservation of free and critical inquiry in the university concerns you; if the reestablishment of a positive relationship between Fordham and the Bronx community resonates with you; then let us unite. Let us unionize. Let us stand together. Let us renew hope in the strength of collective and democratic action.

Originally delivered as a speech at 5:00 p.m. on October 6, 2016 in Walsh Library, Flom Auditorium.

Edited for online and print publication by Evan Cramb, October 11, 2016.


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