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Change Can’t Wait for AU Workers, They Can’t Afford To

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.



These rallying cries were heard outside School of International Studies during Provost Peter Starr’s address last Wednesday, March 30th, in a protest organized by the Service Employees International Union Local 500, which represents AU’s adjunct faculty, graduate student workers, and staff. Adjunct faculty, graduate students, PhD students, AU staff, and undergraduate students alike gathered outside SIS in solidarity to advocate for a fair contract for AU’s unionized workers.

This is the union’s second protest of this academic year in efforts to generate change for AU’s employees. AU graduate workers, adjunct professors, and staff have long been expressing their discontent with living paycheck to paycheck and having to take on other jobs to get by while working for the university. Low pay and a lack of benefits appear to characterize the experience of being an AU employee. One career center employee at Wednesday’s protest shared that she now has a permanent hernia because she was delayed in getting a vital medical procedure for over a year because she couldn’t afford health insurance as a full-time AU employee. As high-level administrators enjoy lavish salaries, the majority of AU workers struggle to live with dignity.

 The fight for A living wage- at the most liberal school in the country

American University faculty and students have been advocating for a new contract with improved pay for years. This protest came shortly after several bargaining sessions between the AU staff chapter of SEIU Local 500 and administration, none of which had satisfactory outcomes for AU workers. According to the AU Grad Union twitter, AU is offering employees less than 2% yearly raise, which is significantly below inflation rates. One grad student speaker at the protest said that “Our wages look like a rounding error.” As adjunct faculty speakers made powerful speeches about struggling to make ends meet while working a full work week, Sylvia Burwell is afforded a ridiculously high salary, earning more than $1 million in 2019, making a powerful statement about how American University fails to invest in its faculty.

As all AU students know, American is an expensive private institution that promises a world-class education. In the 2021-2022 school year, AU’s tuition and fees were $51,334 in comparison to the national average of $41,281. The cost of attending American University, and the school’s theoretical values, are in discordance with how AU’s adjunct faculty are being treated. In an institution that prides itself on its prestige and quality of education, not investing in adjunct faculty that provide the same quality of education as our tenured professors does not indicate that AU values its hard working employees. AU adjunct faculty speakers on Wednesday detailed how adjunct professors at George Washington University and Howard are paid significantly more, leaving little incentive for professors to dedicate themselves to AU. As one speaker at the protest said, “Our wages make it clear that it is simply not worth it to come here.”

The upcoming increase in tuition further contextualizes the predicament of adjunct faculty, grad workers, and staff. AU recently announced that undergraduate tuition will increase by 5 percent per year over the next two years. And yet, so many of AU’s employees still don’t earn a living wage. A letter signed by 88 tenured faculty members reads that it is “wrong and unsustainable that AU pays much of its workforce less than a living wage.” Failing to invest in staff doesn’t benefit anyone at AU except for those at the very top of the food chain. AU is a school, not a corporation, and treating its employees as a means of profit is not only immoral but leads to high turnover rates of staff that harms workers and students alike.

AU adjunct faculty, graduate student workers, and staff won the election to form their union over a year ago, yet bargaining with administration has still not resulted in a fair contract. The high cost of attending AU and high ranking administrators’ luxurious salaries make it clear that this is not a matter of a lack of funds. At a school that is often referred to as the most liberal college in America, demanding a livable wage for faculty and staff shouldn’t be too progressive of an ask. 

The adjunct professors in our classrooms and other faculty that allow AU to function should not be struggling to make ends meet as students dole out a hefty sum for their services. American University students cannot stand behind a $500 million fundraising campaign under the slogan “Change Can’t Wait” as our own faculty and staff struggle to keep up with the rapidly rising cost of living. It is absolutely vital that AU students continue to show up for our faculty and staff, and continue to put pressure on administration to make American an equitable workplace. 

Imogen Angel

American '24

Imogen (she/her) is a second-year student at American University majoring in Sociology with a minor in Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. In her free time, Imogen enjoys reading and spending time at the beach and with her dogs.
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