Saturday, January 19, 2013

An open letter to Duquesne University

I am writing this letter because a few months ago, I read an article in the Post-Gazette about how Duquesne managed to avoid allowing a union to form among its adjunct faculty. Apparently, enough adjuncts signed union interest cards that a state labor board came in. Duquesne agreed to abide by the board's decision, and the board eventually ruled that there should indeed be a union. Duquesne then resorted to legal trickery and basically said, "We don't have to abide by this decision because we're a religious institution, and the federal government legally can't compel us as a result."

Well done, Duquesne. You have successfully undermined your Catholic principles and shown the whole world that you serve Mammon rather than God. Bravo. The simple fact that something is legal doesn't make it moral or even a good idea. I would have thought that was common sense, but apparently not.

As a person of faith - Jewish, not Catholic, but still a believer in what you would call the Old Testament - I find it appalling that you have no interest in paying your workers a living wage. The Jewish bible (my term for the same book) has a great deal to say about how we should all have concern for the poor. We're supposed to leave fallen fruit from our orchards on the ground so that poor people have something to eat. The corners of our fields are to be left unreaped for the same reason. And the New Testament has even more to say about the poor - just look at Luke 3:11 and 12:33. Concern for the welfare of the poor is interwoven throughout our shared scripture, and also figures very prominently in the ministries of John the Baptist and Jesus. I realize times have changed and most of us aren't farmers anymore, but these principles still apply. Especially to employers whose employees are already poor.

So why in the world should I, a Jew, have to remind you of this? Why are you deliberately keeping your adjunct faculty in poverty, especially when they bring in so much money for the school? And most importantly, how can you have the gall to call yourselves a Catholic institution when you ignore what the Bible has to say about employment practices?

Let's look at some hard facts about how much money Duquesne makes per class vs. how much it pays its adjuncts. These numbers really speak for themselves, and most of them come from Duquesne's own web site. Duquesne's 2012 undergraduate tuition is $27,668 a year, which comes to $13,834 a semester. Health and music students pay more, but I'm trying to be as fair as I can here, so I'll use the smaller number that applies to the most students. Students at universities that aren't on the quarter system (I went to the U of Chicago) normally take five courses per semester, so that's about $2767 a class. And the average class taught by an adjunct has around 27 people. So, based on these numbers, Duquesne makes just under $75,000 a class, and they only just recently raised their adjunct pay to $3000 a class. Maybe not even for all departments - some adjuncts may still be making $2500 a class. Even though the larger number is only just over the amount that *one* of their students pays to take the class, this wouldn't be so bad if they could teach more than two classes a semester - but that isn't allowed. So the upshot of this is that Duquesne actively prevents its adjuncts from making more than $12,000 a year.

Now I ask you, my reader, whoever you are: Could *you* reasonably live on $12,000 a year? Bear in mind that this amount is only just above the federal poverty line of $11,170. I suspect the answer is probably, "No way! Are you crazy?" Also bear in mind that adjuncts do not even get the option of health insurance, and that the amount of free time required for lecture prep, test design, and grading papers and tests literally ensures they will never make anything close to minimum wage. That kind of time investment is understandable for salaried workers with benefits, but certainly not for the low rate of pay Duquesne gives its adjuncts. Yet the adjuncts do it anyway, because most of them probably love to teach, and of course because they need to eat. It is shameful that Duquesne takes advantage of that fact by exploiting them as much as it can.

This means that Duquesne is not only refusing to pay its adjuncts a living wage, but actually keeping them from making enough money to reasonably live on. They're also paying just enough that it will be impossible or very difficult to get public assistance of any kind. This would be immoral for any institution, and in fact it's the exact same thing Wal-Mart does, but for a religious institution of higher learning it is also myopic and hypocritical. Duquesne has a history department like any university, and yet it seems fundamentally unable to grasp the lessons of Gandhi and King. When speaking of passive resistance, Gandhi said, "First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win." Make no mistake, Duquesne: your adjuncts are the ones who control the means of production in this situation, and there's no way you'll ever be able to replace even a small fraction of them on short notice when they realize it. The inevitable adjuncts' strike at your university will bring your classes grinding to a halt, and even better, most of your students will be glad to go home and play video games for as long as they have to until the issue is resolved. Especially because it's not often that a person gets to play video games while feeling like they're helping one of their teachers.

So this is my message to you, Duquesne: Do the right thing before your adjuncts wise up and force you to. They are very intelligent people who understand the lessons of history, apparently better than you do. It is only a matter of time before you have a very sticky situation on your hands - walkouts, strikes, and sit-ins always make the employer look very bad. Doubly so if you make the mistake of getting Campus Security involved. Just do the right thing now and save yourself a lot of grief. It might even earn you some bonus points with the diocese.

Jason Louis Feldstein
concerned citizen, boyfriend of an adjunct faculty member, and magister of the Pillar of Smoke

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