Grace McOmber, Contributing Writer
Dressed in caps and gowns, adjunct professors marched along campus to a graduation procession song. Typically overlaid with congratulatory cheers, the song was instead accompanied by disgruntled chants.
Composed of adjunct professors in VCUarts, Adjuncts Organizing for Fair Pay, or AOFP, presented a petition to the Office of the President on Thursday. The demands range from higher base pay, one-year contracts for adjuncts and access to VCU Health services.
“If VCU is seriously committed to social justice and the health of their community, they must address the severe inequities they place on their workers,” the petition stated.
The group was founded in 2017 with the initial goal of increasing base pay among adjuncts in the arts department. It expanded to include other departments in the university, and their petition has more than 1,300 signatures from VCU faculty, staff, students and other community members.
“Everybody who’s an adjunct wants to talk about this,” said Jon Rajkovich, an organizer with AOFP and an adjunct sculpture professor. “It’s a way for people to be part of something bigger than the self.”
There are 691 adjuncts employed by the university, and they teach 16.5% of all VCU classes, VCU spokesperson Mike Porter stated in an email.
“VCU values the expertise that our part-time faculty adjuncts bring to our colleges, schools and units,” Porter stated. “And we have worked to address base pay.”
Since 2017, minimum pay for adjuncts has increased almost 50% from $738 per credit hour to $1,100 per credit hour today, Porter stated.
Unlike full-time faculty at VCU, adjunct professors are hired on 16-week contracts. They are allowed to teach up to nine credits during the fall and spring semester and six credits during the summer, as directed by the Manpower Control Act, a Virginia labor law.
Adjunct courses can be canceled at any time prior to the start of the semester. The university is exploring options for compensation when courses are canceled, but Porter was unable to share specific details.
“Part of what we’ve seen is a university that’s really slow to take action and is leaving its lowest wage workers out in the cold at a time when our community is under the most stresses.” — Kristin Reed, associate professor
VCU faculty and staff receive health coverage through a state employee health benefits program administered by the Virginia Department of Human Resource Management. However, state law excludes adjunct faculty from coverage under the health insurance program.
The group of adjuncts have garnered attention in the past through social media and organized rallies. In 2017, more than 100 people gathered at the VCU Compass to support a base pay raise from $800 to $2,000 per credit hour.
Support behind the group’s efforts led to negotiations in the same year between adjunct staff and VCU President Michael Rao, former dean of VCUarts Shawn Brixey and other program chairs. Base compensation was raised from $800 to $1,100 per credit hour for the fall 2020 semester, but still fell below the group’s initial goal of $2,000 per credit.
“You become a professor because you want to do what you love,” Rajkovich said. “It becomes a labor of love, but there’s no compensation for labor, or even respect for labor either.”
Rajkovich, who has worked at VCU since 2014, said he began organizing after he was approached in 2017 by colleagues who were also struggling to get by with base pay.
“I think all adjuncts can relate to a certain living situation,” Rajkovich said. “We all just kind of came together and were like, ‘Well, how do you survive with this?’”
Taryn Cassella, an adjunct art foundation professor, said the wage increase did little to help her situation. She was able to teach just one class during the fall semester due to course availability, she said.
“I made around $3,000, which was enough to keep me out of unemployment, but it’s not a living wage,” Cassella said. “It’s always on your mind. We’re very aware that we’re barely making ends meet.”
The organization’s petition calls for another increase of a base compensation of $3,000 per course credit for all adjuncts. This number is based on a living wage for one adult with one child family living in Richmond, which the group calculated using the living wage calculator from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, according to AOFP.
Organizer Rose Szabo said the raise to their base compensation was inadequate because it does not provide adjunct professors with a living wage adjusted to inflation.
“There are people who have been teaching here for 10, 20 or 30 years that have actually seen their buying power and quality of life on a slow decline as they continue to teach at VCU,” Szabo said. “The marginal increase in pay is unacceptable.”
Szabo, Cassella and Rajkovich believe that for VCU to address their demands, they need awareness and support from VCU faculty, alumni and students.
Kristin Reed, an associate professor in the department of focused inquiry, said she has supported the adjuncts since 2018 and is disappointed by the university’s lack of urgency, which she believes led to a “compounded crisis” during the pandemic.
“Part of what we’ve seen is a university that’s really slow to take action and is leaving its lowest wage workers out in the cold at a time when our community is under the most stresses,” Reed said.
Spectrum Editor Ebonique Little contributed to this report.