Image credit: Benjamin Clapp / Shutterstock

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.”

As a queer woman of color in the humanities, my hire as a PTL in the Fall of 2019, and then re-hire as NTT in 2022, was a result of these successful negotiations. But my lack of security for next year is also a concrete example of where our current contract undermines these gains: the administration’s insistence on “arbitrary non-renewal.” 

I had hoped that, given my stellar student reviews, my NTT position would be renewed. But although I have maintained excellence, and my department and union reps have done their best to advocate on my behalf, Rutgers can decide to demote me anyway. And I am only one of many.

And it isn’t because the university is saddled with a budget crisis: quite the opposite. According to AAUP-AFT’s analysis of Rutgers’ Annual Comprehensive Financial Report from 2016-17 through 2021, “Rutgers prospered during the worst of the pandemic. The administration’s unrestricted financial reserves grew to a new high of $818.6 million in the same year they declared a fiscal emergency.” 

Pandemic math also uncovers other structural economic issues. According to NJ Advance Media, during 2020–21, Rutgers spent $118.4 million to fund its athletic program and facilities, including its perennially unsuccessful men’s basketball team. At the same time, my students and I returned to in-person learning to face the same broken blinds and chairs.

Our Gothic learning quarters notwithstanding, at Rutgers, we still have a ton of fun dreaming up new worlds and building intellectual community together. But as the strike looms, I have noticed a quiet and familiar disconnect, as if students are bracing themselves for a new round of pain.

Since 2020, my students have been besieged with an unrelenting cycle of interruption, and the university’s return to its callous labor conditions is part of that. What exactly does the university offer to students who take on enormous, as-yet unforgivable debts—without reliable teachers?

The Rutgers leadership may believe their students don’t know how university financial priorities are established, or that they don’t care. But that’s a risky gamble, isn’t it? Do they really assume that students don’t compare rising tuition fees with a dysfunctional bus system and decaying dorms? That they don’t read newspaper reports about their underpaid teachers and overpaid athletic coaches? That Rutgers has named a boulevard after Rutgers alumnus Paul Robeson, one of the most significant labor activist-artists-athletes of the twentieth century, while publicly undermining the unions’ legal right to strike?

In their 2021 essay, “Reclaiming Paul Robeson in the Time of COVID-19,” historian Donna Murch, AAUP-AFT’s current New Brunswick chapter president, and Todd Wolfson, media scholar and general vice president, explain:

The unprecedented pain and disruption caused by COVID-19 has helped create a united front of unions that would have been unimaginable before the pandemic. Workers across the sector are advocating for a compassionate and commonsense response to the pandemic that insists on holding the line on layoffs until the end of the fiscal year 2022; providing graduate student workers—who are essential to the teaching and research mission of the university—funding to make up for the time lost toward their degrees; rehiring part-time lecturers who lost their jobs; and providing free COVID-19 testing at sites on all three Rutgers campuses (Camden, Newark, and New Brunswick).

In other words, we are an army of scholars equipped with the knowledge of how history is made, and we teach our students those lessons.

And yet, in a systemwide email, President Jonathan Holloway—also a historian—insisted that the faculty should not, and cannot, strike as a way of addressing these issues. As Holloway stated, “Although the leadership of the unions has represented that the result of the vote authorizes them to call a strike, the courts have ruled that strikes by public employees are unlawful in New Jersey. I am hopeful,” he concluded, “that an unlawful strike or job action will not be called.” 

It’s a chilling and impersonal message. Where is the love our faculty earned when we were considered essential workers during the COVID-19 pandemic? Or the gratitude for leading classes online so the school could keep collecting tuition? 

Together, students and teachers constitute and support the entire ecosystem that we call the university. And yet, ironically, the conditions for teaching and learning are woefully secondary concerns in an increasingly corporate university culture. 

But an alliance between faculty and students promises more. In her poem “Paul Robeson,” Gwendolyn Brooks reminds us, “We are each other’s harvest: we are each other’s business: we are each other’s magnitude and bond.”

Editor’s note: The open letter to Rutgers President Jonathan Holloway from scholars in support of the right to collective bargaining can be read and signed here.

J. Faith Almiron (aka. Kapwa) is a longtime educator, organizer, and writer based in Nyack, New York. She teaches visual culture, critical race, and ethnic studies at Rutgers University-New Brunswick. She dedicates this piece to her brave and brilliant students at Rutgers, and beyond.