Recent protests over the union efforts of adjunct faculty and teacher's assistants have brought the issue of pay fairness to the forefront of AU's campus. Even groups from the undergraduate community, like YDSA, have joined this effort in solidarity.
Though the average person may view professors as the only educators on college campuses, a larger body of faculty works tirelessly behind the scenes to power the institutional strength and maintain the high educational quality of a university. By employing adjunct faculty, graduate teaching assistants, and undergraduate teaching assistants, American University acknowledges that professors are not the only group who contributes to student success. Unfortunately, the compensation received by these assisting faculty members does not reflect the vital role they play on campus. The minimum pay to adjunct faculty for a three-credit course is only $3,875 at American University, significantly less than what term faculty receive.
Adjunct faculty play an integral role in student evaluation, development of syllabi and class materials, and research. A graduate teaching assistant (GTA) is a graduate, PhD, or law student who teaches or assists in teaching undergraduates while simultaneously pursuing their own studies. Undergraduate teaching assistants (TA’s) are tasked with assisting faculty by answering emails within 24-48 hours and promptly communicating weekly and sometimes daily updates to students, as outlined by the official American University policies. GTAs, TAs, and adjunct faculty do the heavy-lifting by managing the logistics of large courses. The core courses that lay important scholarly foundations for undergraduates tend to be larger in size, requiring assistance to make effective instruction possible. As a result, many students end up receiving more direct interface and instruction from these assistants than they do their professors who can’t be everywhere at once.
Statements from the American University Office of the Dean of Faculty underscore that the administration sees great value in these assisting faculty, who “play a vital role in every department and program in every school and college at the university.”
If these members of our university community are so valued by administrators, why does their compensation reflect the opposite?
As inflation skyrockets and the cost of living in the DMV only continues to climb, an increase in wages is not a large ask. An open letter sent by 88 tenured faculty members to President Sylvia Burwell on March 8, 2021 referred to the compensation given to adjust faculty as “less than a living wage.” American University’s chapter of The Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA) has led the charge in organizing an on-campus rally to galvanize support for adjunct faculty, TAs, and GTAs as they enter into the next phase of pay negotiations with University representatives. The rally, which took place from 10:30 am to 12 pm on Wednesday, March 23 outside of the SIS building, was well attended by both undergraduate and graduate students alike. The AU YDSA, whose presence on campus is still nascent, has gained considerable traction in uniting students interested in advancing socialist causes both on campus and beyond. Representatives from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the national union representing the adjunct faculty and GTAs in negotiations, came to support the demonstration.
Regardless of individual opinion on labor unions and what constitutes a liveable wage in our changing economy, salary equity efforts have inherent educational value. Experts agree that failure to create equitable environments hampers institutional success and overall educational quality. The fact that universities should strive to provide students with the highest possible level of education should be uncontroversial. Undergraduate student Matt Romano, the Director of Communications for the AU YDSA, urges that current wages "take away from the academics of the students and lessens the strength of the institution as a whole,” a sentiment that members of any political party would echo. The movement for liveable wages and workers rights is not an attempt by one group to garner political capital—it is simply a desire for expanded equity and fair compensation.
Material reform efforts supported by progressives in the United States have often been labeled as extremist or minoritarian views in the national discourse. The YDSA represents strong leftist interests, but Romano has correctly pointed out "that this only applies to socialists is a misconception.”
Movements for equitable wages and working conditions in the United States have surprisingly not been confined by party lines. Statistics illustrate the fact that GOP opinion on wage policy has evolved.
A 2021 Politico poll found that a majority of Republicans actually support raising the federal minimum wage, agreeing with Democrats that it should be higher than the current minimum of $7.25 per hour. 35% of Republicans support a wage hike to $11 per hour. The fact remains that incremental support of more livable wages transcends party lines. A recent poll released by Vox indicates that 43% of Republicans support the possibility of gradually indexing the wage to $15 to account for inflation.
Prominent members of the Republican Party have gone so far as to propose their own policies to increase wages nationally. Mitt Romney and Tom Cotton have stated that they are attempting to raise the minimum wage to at least $10 by 2025. Third-ranking House Republican Elise Stefanik actually introduced the Wage Equity Act, legislation that has been cosponsored by over 30 house Republicans.
While imperfect, bipartisan compromises offer a glimmering of hope for positive change in an era of partisan division. 74% of all Americans support policies that support equal pay, underscoring the notion that seeing workers receive adequate compensation is a popular view.
How widely attended the AU YDSA’s rally was pointed to the fact that many members of the AU community want to see change. Attended by members of the AU Washington College of Law, first-year undergraduates, PhD students, and local community members alike, the rally illustrated that even on a local level, a variety of interests converge around the desire to see an expansion of worker’s rights. The AU YDSA as an organization has a strong left political leaning but is urging unity and has reached across the aisle to garner support from the wider campus community. Romano states that "we're trying to get these people who make the community better in a better spot, and I think that whatever ideology you abide by, this is a cause you should get behind.”
It is time to center empathy and gratitude as important factors in political and economic deliberations. Such a view traverses party lines—perhaps making efforts grounded in empathic community improvement the most durable way to achieve progress in a nation divided on the minutia. By prioritizing values over agendas and bringing humanity back into political organizing, we can center the common good and uplift underrepresented members of our community.
Romano put it pithily—"If you want to offer them gratitude in any way, I think this is the best way to do it,” referring to showing support for our hardworking adjunct faculty, TAs, and GTAs as "a way of saying thank you.”
Meera Sehgal is a first year Political Science and Communications double major at American University. She is a Staff Writer at the America Agora.
Image from YDSA AU.