A rally organizer invites attendees to speak about their grievances with VCU administration. A rally organizer invites attendees to speak about their grievances with VCU administration.

Group members want a living wage, access to healthcare.

RICHMOND – On March 4, VCU Adjuncts Organizing for Fair Pay (VAOFP) delivered their demands for better working conditions to the VCU administration.

The procession, which wound its way through Richmond’s Fan District before arriving at the doorstep of VCU President Michael Rao, could have been mistaken for a graduation ceremony. Faculty and other supporters, decked out in their caps and gowns, hand-delivered a massive paper listing the names of their supporters in gothic script.

The organization claimed to have gathered over 1,300 signatures from faculty, staff, students, and community members. They were all demanding a living wage, fees for killing courses, access to campus healthcare, and stable contract terms.

No Response From VCU

For over two weeks, the administration failed to acknowledge the demands delivered by adjunct faculty. Then, on March 19, to draw attention to what they saw as an inadequate response from the administration, VAOFP held an “empty chair” rally. There, they addressed their concerns to a framed portrait of President Rao, who declined an invitation to attend.

Rao’s absence wasn’t a surprise to rally organizers. They’ve been demanding better compensation and working conditions for VCU adjunct faculty for over three years. In that time, the administration convened a task force to consider their demands. However, the release of the group’s report was delayed for nearly two years. Now that it’s released, the administration still has not adopted the report’s major recommendations.

Organizers hoped to highlight the administration’s pattern of obstruction and inattention with the “empty chair” format. Rally attendees, among them students, adjunct faculty, and full-time instructors, aired their frustrations with an administration that, in their view, prioritizes revenue over the wellbeing of students and staff. For them, President Rao represents that institutional neglect. Rao was the highest-paid public employee in Virginia in 2018, when he earned over a million dollars in a single year.

Rao’s Budget Disappoints Adjuncts

VAOFP’s rally on March 19 was followed by the release of President Rao’s budget recommendations for the coming year. That budget proposal totals $1.3 billion over the entire university, including $56.5 million in federal COVID-19 relief.

According to a statement from the administration, the budget does include some measures addressing adjunct concerns.

“VCU senior leadership’s budget recommendations for 2021-22 includes a 9% increase from $1,100 to $1,200 minimum per credit hour for adjunct faculty, representing a 20% increase over the past four years,” they wrote.

That budget isn’t final, and will have to be approved by the VCU Board of Visitors. If it does pass, that $1,200 figure still falls well below the $1,600 recommended by VCU’s own Adjunct Task Force.

According to Inside Higher Ed, about 53% of adjunct faculty pay across the US is less than $3,500 per course. That’s approximately $1,200 per credit. The same report also found that a third of adjuncts made less than $25,000 a year.

Thomas Burkett, a member of VAOFP, said the increase they’re proposing is inadequate, especially given the low rate adjuncts are currently being paid.

“President Rao’s 2021-2022 budget recommendations don’t deliver living wages or healthcare for adjunct faculty and ignore VCU’s income inequality crisis,” said Burkett.

VCU Sends Complaints to the Faculty Senate

In a statement to Dogwood on March 29, a representative of VCU’s administration said, “President Rao has reviewed the petition and discussed the group’s concerns with senior leadership. He has encouraged the group to work with the Faculty Senate, which is the governing body that represents faculty interests and is the most appropriate way for considering their concerns.”

The petition, which was delivered explicitly to President Rao, will now be considered by the Faculty Senate instead. According to their bylaws, the purpose of the Faculty Senate is “the furtherance and dissemination of knowledge and professional skills through teaching, study, research, creativity, exhibition, performance, and provision of community engagement.” 

The bylaws do not allow adjuncts to serve as voting members. They also make no mention of the Faculty Senate having budgetary powers or an explicit advisory role regarding compensation decisions.

Burkett says the petition’s move to the Faculty Senate is a disappointment.

“We weren’t excited to see it sent to the Faculty Senate. Our demands as adjuncts were considered and made by adjuncts over the course of the last year… to see it sent back to a governing body that doesn’t decide the budget seemed like a way to try to divide us.”

At a remote meeting on March 30, Faculty Senate President Nancy Jallo indicated that Scott Street, another member of the Faculty Senate, will be in charge of investigating the issue and formulating their recommendation to senior administration.

In testimony before the Faculty Senate, Rose Szabo, an adjunct instructor, said the issue should concern full-time faculty as well.

“There is no question that the working conditions of adjuncts erode the working conditions of all faculty,” Szabo said.

The Road Ahead

Looking ahead, Burkett said he sees a few paths forward if the administration continues to sidestep their demands.

One would be to obtain adjunct representation on the Faculty Senate.

“Since there is no union they kind of see [the Faculty Senate] as the governing body and the speaking body for faculty. One of the main issues we see as adjuncts is that we don’t have real representation in the Faculty Senate.”

Another avenue would be to seek union representation. In the past, there has been a ban on public sector unionization under Virginia’s “right to work” laws. But starting on May 1, there will be a path forward for public employees, like university faculty, to form unions.

That’s thanks to legislation introduced by Del. Elizabeth Guzman (D – Prince William) which passed the General Assembly last year. Under the new framework, public sector employees who win a majority vote in favor of unionization can petition the local government to authorize their union. In this case, that would mean a majority vote of the Richmond City Council.

Burkett said that option will be under consideration as well, once it becomes available.

“Unionizing would be one way to resolve that and make sure we have adjunct voices present.”

You can follow VAOFP for further updates on Twitter. To learn more about their organization, visit their website at www.adjunctsforfairpay.com.

Jakob Cordes is a freelance reporter for Dogwood. You can reach him at info@vadogwood.com.