Can Student Activists Push Administrators to Raise Pay for PT Faculty?

by Brian Min

In April 2015, hundreds of students and professors from Columbia supported CU Fight for 15 by demonstrating in front of Low Steps to promote a $15 minimum wage for low-income workers and raising the wages of adjunct professors. CU Fight for 15 continues to be an active organization on campus and recently rallied to show approval of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposal to raise the minimum wage of fast-food workers to $15.

Although the plan to incrementally achieve a $15 minimum wage by 2018 in NYC appears to be beneficial to fast-food workers, we need to re-examine the impacts that wage increases have on these workers. In actuality, a $15 minimum wage will prove to be detrimental to fast-food workers. However, raising wages for adjunct faculty, the other goal of CU Fight for 15, will improve both Columbia and its adjunct professors.

Increasing labor costs with a higher minimum wage will decrease the fast-food industry’s demand for workers. As the American Enterprise Institute explains, following Seattle’s minimum wage hike to $11 in April 2015 (to gradually achieve $15 by 2017), more than 1,000 restaurant jobs were lost in a month. The American Enterprise Institute might maintain a conservative bias, but even a broken clock is right at least twice a day.

The $15 minimum wage that is imposed on larger industries will incentivize consumers to shift toward businesses that pay their workers less than $15 per hour, because consumers seek cheaper goods. Because the ability to keep workers employed correlates to the amount of revenue generated by a company, businesses required to pay employees $15 per hour will be encouraged to cut jobs (in addition to the cuts prompted by the already higher costs of employing workers). Additionally, New York’s new minimum wage disproportionately influences different fast-food industries. According to Slate Magazine, Cuomo’s minimum wage increase only impacts fast-food companies with more than 30 locations. So up-and-coming fast-food companies might avoid expanding beyond 30 locations.

There is, however, a part of CU Fight For 15’s campaign that should be totally uncontroversial—a significant wage increase to a baseline salary of $5,000 per course for adjunct professors at Columbia and across the nation.

According to a review across 10 Faculty of Arts and Sciences departments, Columbia’s adjunct professors make $4,500 to $15,000 per course depending on the discipline, with adjunct professors in economics pooling in $15,000 per course and those in visual arts receiving $4,500 per course, even though the Faculty of Arts and Sciences declares that it pays adjuncts a base of $5,000 per course to adjuncts.

Although Columbia’s adjunct professors are paid significantly more than the national average of $2,700 per course, the extreme pay disparities for adjuncts create an unfair bias against certain liberal arts departments and put those adjuncts at more financial risk.

Because each adjunct professor tends to teach only one course at Columbia, some adjuncts must take on multiple jobs at more than one institution and ultimately have a difficult time being completely devoted to their classes. Adjuncts account for about 70 percent of the faculty at universities across the country and at this moment hundreds of adjuncts could be below the poverty line and relying on federal assistance programs.

Furthermore, because a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research explains that adjunct professors could be even more beneficial to students with weak academic preparation than tenured professors, significantly raising the salaries of adjunct professors could tremendously help those students who are struggling.

Considering the amount of tuition dollars going into Columbia every year, Columbia as a research institution should always prioritize education, and consequently the earnings of adjunct professors, over non-academic expenditures.

Universities and fast-food corporations both amass millions of dollars and act as bodies that seek to maximize profit and minimize losses by hiring an efficient number of laborers.

However, unlike the correlation between the market demand and wages of fast-food workers, raising the wages of adjunct professors does not reduce the demand for adjuncts, because universities have historically used adjuncts as a cheaper alternative to professors. Full-tenured professors at Columbia will still be making around $225,000, which is substantially more than adjunct professors who receive a salary of $15,000 per course and usually teach one course. Consequently, the employment of adjuncts will not shift significantly with this wage increase.

As social justice activist groups tend to overgeneralize the impacts of a specific policy, they should always look beyond the broad approach, focusing instead on how the proposed change would affect specific groups, and consequently whether they should limit the scope of their advocacy. Although the solidarity of the social activism group may be threatened, it must be willing to alter and to effectively curtail its message for reform. So let’s recognize the shortcomings of campaigning for the $15 minimum wage; instead, let’s all fight for $15,000 for adjuncts at Columbia.

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