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VCU Professors Call for Better Pay, Health Services Amid Pandemic

Members of VCU Adjuncts Organizing for Fair Pay marched through VCU's campus Thursday, calling on the university to adequately compensate adjunct faculty for their work. (Photo: Alan Rodriguez Espinoza/VPM)

Adjunct professors at Virginia Commonwealth University are calling for better pay and benefits. A group of about 20 professors, students and other members of the community gathered on campus Thursday to share their demands.

The group gathered outside of the VCU Institute for Contemporary Art before marching through campus towards the office of VCU President Michael Rao. 

Currently, an adjunct with a full course load of teaching only makes about $20,000 per year, at just over $1,000 per credit. They’re asking for an increase to $3,000 per credit.

“We want a raise to our base pay, which is currently low enough that an adjunct can work full-time and be below the poverty line,” said Rose Szabo, a member of VCU Adjuncts Organizing for Fair Pay, during an interview Monday.

According to VCU Human Resources, adjunct professors are paid, part-time teaching staff who are not eligible for tenure. Szabo says adjuncts are hired on an as-needed basis, work in “16-week bursts” and are required to reapply for their jobs at the turn of the semester.

Szabo says adjuncts are intended to serve as a support for full time faculty, filling gaps in existing scheduling. But they say VCU doesn’t actually use adjuncts in that way, and they operate in the same role as full-time professors without the pay, benefits or stability.

“Some people adjunct for years at a time with a fairly regular schedule of courses,” Szabo said. “It’s essentially VCU employing people on what is realistically a full-time basis, but spreading their work out across multiple departments, not issuing them year-long contracts as a way of cutting costs while still maintaining a full faculty.”

Because of this, AOFP is also calling for VCU to grant adjuncts 1-year contracts. And in the event that a course is cancelled, adjuncts want the university to pay a $1,000 “kill fee” as compensation for the work done in preparation for the semester.

In an email, a spokesperson for VCU said the university “values the expertise” of adjunct faculty, and said adjuncts’ current base pay of $1,100 per credit is actually an increase from $738 per credit in 2017.

VCU Spokesperson Mike Porter confirmed adjuncts do not receive health care benefits, but said they have access to employee health services, and also a tuition benefit and professional development support. 

“The university is exploring compensation when courses are canceled but we do not yet have specifics to share about that,” Porter added.

He also said the university is limited in how many hours they can assign an adjunct, though members of AOFP say some adjuncts end up taking on full-time workloads by being hired by multiple departments.

The university says 24 adjunct positions have been turned into full time positions over the last five years.

Due to adjuncts’ lack of health insurance, AOFP is asking for access to all of VCU Health’s services. Tom Burkett, a founder of AOFP, said on Monday this demand is especially critical now, as some adjuncts are being required to work in person during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Our position isn't even asking for full health insurance coverage,” he said. “What we're asking for is access to VCU Health services, which is just a basic health care for minor illnesses. It's very basic health care that we're asking to be provided at this moment.”

Burkett says VCU has denied the group’s demands in the past, citing funding limitations and saying that in order to improve compensation for some, staffing cuts would have to be made.

The group rejects that explanation, pointing to tuition hikes. In-state tuition has increased by over $5,000 in the last 10 years. In 2019, the university’s president was named Virginia’s highest-paid state official, earning a salary of more than $1 million. Rao’s salary has increased by more than $120,000 since 2017, when AOFP was founded.

“Our petition specifically looks at not cutting adjunct positions, but how we can reallocate an already well-funded university from top-level administrative pay, and distribute that to adjunct faculty,” Burkett said.

AOFP is asking VCU to meet their demands by the start of the upcoming fall semester. The group is also calling on Rao to meet with its members later this month to discuss a plan for implementing their demands.

Following the Thursday march on campus, Virginia gubernatorial candidate Jennifer Carroll Foy expressed support for VCU adjuncts in a video on Twitter.

“As a former adjunct professor at Northern Virginia Community College, I know exactly how hard adjunct professors work,” she said. “Now is the time to have a living wage, full-time secure jobs and state worker benefits for adjunct professors here in Virginia.”