NJ Spotlight

AAUP-AFT union officials, including David Hughes (center) advocated for the PTLs at a rally on April 17


Students and part-time faculty at Rutgers University are at war with the administration over the budget, demanding pay raises and a tuition freeze. But the school claims that putting the squeeze on revenue could backfire, triggering further tuition increases.

Ironically, Rutgers just settled what union officials are calling a “historic” contract agreement with full-time faculty and graduate assistants. But part-time professors and students are still taking the university to task, saying President Robert Barchi and his administration are prioritizing administrative salaries and athletics over academic salaries and efforts to keep tuition costs affordable.

“Their priorities are not in the right place” Teresa Politano, a part-time lecturer in the School of Communication and president of the PTL faculty union chapter told NJ Spotlight. “As a parent, I see the priority of a university to be instruction and that’s not what we see in the Rutgers budget … are we spending the money where we should? No.”

Full-time struggle for PTLs

The nearly 3,000 part-time lecturers at Rutgers (the university’s term for adjunct professors) make up 70 percent of the teaching faculty at the school and teach 30 percent of all courses. Despite this, the aggregate salary for all PTLs is around $23 million or 0.8 percent of the total budget. The part-time teachers are currently embroiled in ongoing contract negotiations, even as their full-time colleagues celebrate their tentative contract. Politano said they are “still fighting but hopeful” that they too will “see some salary corrections.” The PTLs are demanding to be paid $7,250 per course (they are currently paid little more than $5,000 per course), universal access to healthcare benefits, and increased job security.

“This fight is about equity,” Politano said. “We have the most unequal salaries and we are the lowest paid, most diverse faculty.”

Nicholas Tharney, a Rutgers student and member of the university Senate's budget and finance committee charged with reviewing the school’s budget spoke at Wednesday’s board of governors’ open hearing on tuition and fees. He said according to internal budget projections released by the athletics department, “it seems like athletics, which is not mission critical to the university, is not pulling its weight.”

According to Rutgers’ 2018 fiscal year ledger, the university spent $102.5 million on athletics in 2017-2018, and still ran a deficit of $29.98 million. That deficit was made up, according to the data, by $15.18 million from the university’s operating budget, $11.89 million in student fees, and $2.9 million in state aid.

What they’re asking for

At the open hearing in New Brunswick, more than 100 students and Rutgers community members turned out to demand tuition freezes and pay increases for PTLs — in short, a reallocation of school funds toward what they say is the core mission of the university, to provide a high quality, affordable education for all students.

One student after another took the opportunity to share their experiences with the board, explaining that many of them work multiple jobs to afford their tuition and even still will be saddled with massive amounts of student debt upon graduating.

“Tuition is the primary financial stressor in all of our lives,” Pepper Powell, an undergraduate said. “My generation is being forced to make the choice to threaten the economic wellbeing of our families.”

Indeed, legislators in Trenton are still wrestling with the burden student loan debt has placed on young New Jerseyans, keeping many millennials from settling in the state.

The solution, these students say, is a tuition freeze. Rutgers sociology professor Jeffrey Dowd said it is completely possible for the university to do this. He said every year his students ask him, “why does Rutgers keep raising tuition?” and he responds, “because they can.” Dowd noted that when comparing Rutgers’ tuition increases with other senior public institutions in New Jersey and peer members of the Big Ten conference, the 2.1 percent increase on average each year is relatively small. NJIT and Montclair State University increase tuition around 2.5 percent annually, according to data compiled by Rutgers. But even so, Dowd said, that comparison doesn’t mean much.

Dowd characterized the practice as “we're going to continue doing this because everyone else is doing it and that means we can get away with it.”

In the money?

But Rutgers maintains that its financial position is strained. As professors and union members point to the $615 million the university has in “unrestricted reserves“” as a potential source of funding for salary increases, Rutgers officials say that money is all committed and drawing it down could have a negative effect on the school’s financial future.

Not having sufficient reserves “puts us at risk for a lower rating when issuing debt, which ultimately costs the university more money, and there could be a reputational hit to Rutgers as well,” according to Kathy Dettloff, the vice president of financial planning at Rutgers.

Dettloff pointed to decreasing state aid — from 13 percent of the university budget five years ago to 10 percent today — as one of the pressures on the budget. She added that those unrestricted reserve dollars are committed for one-time-use projects rather than to sustain salary increases, which compound year after year.

Dettloff said that a 1 percent increase in salary would require a 1.3 percent increase in tuition and fees to offset the cost to the university.

But David Hughes vice president of the Rutgers AAUP-AFT union, which just won its own contract settlement, refuted those claims.

“You can afford this today. You can afford to freeze or lower tuition and to pay workers a decent wage, so I wish you would stop pretending here,” Hughes said. He calculated that the university’s average $40 million surplus would cover the costs sufficiently. Hughes estimated the total cost of the new full-time faculty contract at around $17 million per year — $20 million committed to diversity hiring spread out over four years, plus the $12 million per year in wage increases — leaving, he said, $23 million of surplus money for a new contract for PTLs at the very least.

“Your moral contract is to provide the highest possible quality education at the most affordable price, and you take a reputational hit every time you fail to meet that contract,” Hughes addressed the board. “And you're failing now."

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