“We’re talking about someone’s life”: VCUarts adjuncts plan a day of action to demand equitable pay

Photo by Myles Francisco.

VCUarts adjunct professors will stage a day of action Dec. 8 to demand fair pay from the School of the Arts. They plan to hold a rally at the Compass, deliver a petition with more than 900 signatures to the Board of Visitors meeting and demand to have their wages raised for the upcoming semester.

An estimated 120 adjuncts in the No. 1 public art school in the country currently make $750 to $850 dollars per credit hour taught. They are capped at teaching two classes per semester, which means they would make an estimated $9,000 to $10,200 per year, before taxes.

The federal poverty line in the United States sits at $12,082, according the Census Bureau.

The adjuncts formed an organization called, ‘VCUarts Adjuncts Organizing for Fair Pay,’ and sent letters voicing their demands to administrators in VCUarts and President Michael Rao’s office.

The organization demands their pay be raised to $2,000 per credit hour for the spring 2018 semester, which they argue, would bring them to a competitive pay range compared to other art schools across the nation.

“Adjunct faculty currently account for the majority of instructors in the VCUarts departments, yet are still paid significantly lower than other top rated public universities in Virginia,” the letter stated. “The University is sending a clear message to us, and the public about the value of its educators by underpaying adjuncts despite consistently increasing tuition.”

In response, Rao stated in a letter to the organization the shortfall in faculty and staff pay is a result of statewide education funding cuts.

“This issue is not new to me and my leadership team,” Rao stated. “We recognize that our budget shortfalls create an inability to recruit and retain qualified adjunct faculty for each of our academic programs.”

Rao also asked Shawn Brixey, Dean of the School of the Arts, to put together a financial impact statement analyzing the art school’s budget. Brixey joined the school’s administration earlier this semester.

Brixey called for a meeting with the art adjuncts to discuss their concerns. Heide Trepanier, an art adjunct in the Department of Paint and Printmaking and former VCUarts student, attended the meeting and said Brixey presented them with only one option to raise their wages.

“They are trying to contextualize the pay raise so that they would have to raise student tuition, but what that does is it pits us against the reason why we’re here — and that’s just cruel,” Trepanier said. “I don’t want to put anymore financial pressure on the students that I love.”

The organization acquired documents under the Freedom of Information Act, which outlined how VCUarts allocated their budget within the school from the 2009 to 2017.

For example, in the 2016-2017 academic year, the school had a total budget of $33,659,043. Of that, VCUarts allocated more than $32 million on educational and general expenses. The school distributed $890,000 of restricted university funds, which consist of gifts to the particular departments, investment earnings and more throughout the school.

The organization argues the school should use other funds in the school to properly pay their adjunct faculty rather than turning to raising student tuition.

The organization presented Brixey and other VCUarts administrators with research examining the average cost of living in Richmond and the federal poverty line in the United States — this led them to their suggestion of $2,000 per credit hour taught for adjuncts.

According to Trepanier, Brixey said the school will raise adjunct pay to $1,000 per credit hour for the upcoming semester by tapping into reserve funds, per approval from the Board of Visitors. However, it was never clarified whether the funds were primarily from VCUarts or from the university.

Brixey also informed the adjuncts the school will be creating a task force that will cross examine pay for adjuncts at VCUarts against both private and public art schools in America.

The organization asked Brixey to have two art adjuncts join the task force so that they could share their experiences and research to help the school come to a decision.

VCUarts adjuncts’ pay currently falls under the poverty line in the U.S., leaving many of them homeless or working an average of three jobs, according to an art adjunct.

The adjunct, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of fear of losing their job, said they know a number of adjuncts who are suffering because of the lack of pay.

“This is an urgent crisis. The Dean is moving into a new house, but there are a lot of adjuncts that have been homeless within the last year,” the adjunct said. “When we’re talking about equity issues, we’re not just talking about what’s fair and unfair, we’re talking about someone’s life and where they’re going to sleep at night.”

The adjunct also raised the concern of not being able to dedicate enough time to students because of the various jobs art adjuncts often work to pay bills.

“In terms of budgeting time, when a lot of us are working three jobs or have to drive to Virginia Tech the next day to teach, a lot of that does take a toll on the classroom,” they said. “I don’t think it’s fair to the career development of the students.”

Trepanier spoke out because she does not plan to return to VCU after her contract ends in December. She also has other forms of income she relies on, but said that’s not that case for all of her colleagues.

“People are terrified to speak up because they don’t want to lose that little bit of income that they do have,” Trepanier said. “If you eventually want a full-time job, and you go on record and they see that out on media, then schools won’t hire you because you’re a troublemaker.”

The push to increase the pay for adjuncts comes from a failing art economy.

Following the 2008 recession, consumers have stopped buying art at the rate they once did. This put a dent in the main source of income for many local artists and resulted in more artists turning to secondary incomes — adjunct teaching and freelance work — to their main mode of survival.

Despite the decrease in compensation for artists, students continue to enroll in art schools across the nation in higher numbers.

“The students are there and I think that they know that their chances of being a successful artist are very low, but I feel like they don’t have a choice in doing what they do,” Trepanier said. “They have a calling to do art and they’re just following through with who they are.”

Though many adjuncts have voiced their discontent for what they see as an unlivable wage, they still feel committed to the university and most importantly, their students.

“I love my students and I think that all of the adjunct faculty that teach at the school do too,” Trepanier said. “The only reason why they’re there are the students and that’s why we do it and that’s why we stay.”

Amber Wihshi contributed to this report.


Hiba Ahmad
Hiba is a senior studying broadcast journalism and religious studies. She is a previous Voice of America intern where she worked with the immigration and TV news teams. She previously interned with the Muslim Public Affairs Council and VCU’s Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture. After graduation in December 2017, she will be interning with the Weekend Edition team at NPR in Washington, D.C.
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