Part-time fashion faculty are protesting against poverty wages and it’s about time
Outside Parsons School of Design in downtown Manhattan a crowd of faculty had gathered waving banners that read “No more unpaid labor!” or “Teaching conditions are learning conditions!” or “We are the 87%” while a jazz quartet from the school’s music department played Aretha Franklin’s “Respect.” The crowd's number swelled, people spilling onto Fifth Avenue. It was September 14 and the semester had barely begun.
A closer look revealed that there were students present too, also armed with banners like the handwritten one that read, “Where is our tuition going? Average tuition 51,000 dollars, average part-time pay 4,500 dollars.” As a part-time faculty who had been hired by various NYC fashion programs over the course of a decade until I left teaching in December, I can confirm this figure to be accurate. In comparison the typical pay of a full-time tenure-track professor is 18,000 dollars for the same course.
Low wages of part-time professors sparks protests
I had accidentally stumbled upon the “Part-Time Faculty’s Rally for Respect” which united hundreds of educators, labor union representatives, and students from The New School of which Parsons School of Design is part. But I gladly joined in. It was announced that 87 percent of the The New School’s courses are taught by part-time faculty. In reality, part-time faculty are the fuel of most NYC fashion schools not to mention the study away satellite campuses of schools around the country that recognize the importance of having a presence in this most expensive of fashion capitals. Part-time workers are the backbone of a fashion education system that is lucrative for those at the top who collect hefty bonuses but never teach. Schools keep hiring part-time educators because they can get them cheap. Or at least that's what they've come to think.
Part-time faculty, unlike full-time tenured educators, do not typically publish papers in academic journals, conduct endless research, or fly off to annual conferences to rub shoulders with fellow educators. Often they are still out in the work force, walking the walk, practicing what they preach, seeing real-time results and bringing all that back into the classroom to pass on to the next generation.Yet they are paid a fraction the salary of full-time faculty and are not entitled to heath benefits, paid time off or even the bare minimum of job security. Many part-time educators still work in industry because they simply cannot afford to exclusively teach. Not only do the top fashion schools fail to appreciate their part-time staff by affording them the dignity of a livable wage, but it is the culture within some higher-profile programs to actively work to pit adjuncts against each other. You cannot be seen to get too comfortable in your position. There's no certainty you will be granted the same number of classes from one semester to the next. The quote often attributed to Mahatma Gandhi that the true measure of any civilization can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members springs to mind. I would argue that the true measure of any costly NYC fashion school is how it treats its part-time faculty.
Calls for fashion schools to stop exploiting part-time professors
City council member Erik Bottcher said at the rally, “We are all standing shoulder to shoulder calling on The New School to do the right thing for your workers, do the right thing for your students, and do the right thing for the city of New York.”
Hundreds of part-time faculty in universities across the city were laid off during the pandemic while those that were retained were forced to double up on their work load. This scenario extended nationwide, of course, but the cost of living combined with the complications of navigating Covid in a city as populous as NYC, I believe, grants it particular status. Despite the circumstances, part-time faculty like myself worked double time to maintain an engaged, positive and rewarding learning experience. When called upon we did the right thing. For the school, for the students, for the city of New York.
According to the speakers, part-time faculty at The New School have not had a pay increase in four years and collective bargaining has been on hold for eight years while the university has failed to respond to dozens of union proposals and ceased all communication. State senator Brad Hoylman offered the administration the following reminder: “New School, enough is enough! You were founded on the principal of dissent, of organized labor, on insured protections for our intellectual community.”
What was most heartening was the presence of so many students at the rally, lending their support, getting loud, even marching alongside faculty all the way to the president of The New School’s home on a leafy street off Washington Square Park where union members delivered their demands in the form of a letter pinned to his elegant white door. The ivory tower location could not fail to reinforce the question on some of the students' banners: Where is their tuition going? Students are, after all, the most powerful players in any university hierarchy as their ever escalating school fees have become the only leverage that matters.
But progress is possible. Also speaking at the rally was Siobhan Burke, union representative and member of the adjunct faculty at Barnard College whose bargaining committee had successfully renegotiated contracts this summer. Among the demands that were met by the school was an agreement to a 11,500 dollar guaranteed minimum salary for courses of three or more credits that will increase after 5 years to 14,000 dollars.
I hope the rally at The New School is the first of many in the city as the plight of its valuable part-time faculty must be addressed. There is no legitimate reason why schools cannot invest meaningfully in these talented individuals considering how heavily they rely on them. A living wage for New York City that honors their dedication and rewards their relevant, all-too-likely ongoing, industry experience is the basic minimum they deserve. How can administration legitimately expect the best from their part-time faculty if they are forcing them to treat teaching as a side hustle? How can they preach progressive values and the importance of their social justice mission when they fail to put these values into practice in the most fundamental way? Pay up or shut up about your progressive values. Fashion schools need to get their house in order. Part-time faculty deserve better, and so do students.