American University faculty members talk about their plans for a protest in front of the university president's house in northwest D.C. on April 21. (Roy Lewis/The Washington Informer)
American University faculty members talk about their plans for a protest in front of the university president's house in northwest D.C. on April 21. (Roy Lewis/The Washington Informer)

For several months, adjunct faculty members and graduate assistants at American University (AU) have attempted to negotiate a new contract with the administration to no avail. 

The main issue concerns what has been described as the university’s refusal to raise their salaries. To express their qualms, dozens of adjunct faculty members and graduate assistants recently camped out in front of AU President Sylvia M. Burwell’s on-campus home.  

For several hours, they, with the support of  SEIU Local 500, conducted office hours with their students and spoke about how that particular obligation, in addition to other tasks they fulfill on low salaries, has taken a toll on their physical, mental and emotional wellbeing.  

“I am leading a household on a $23,000 annual salary, all while American University is asking us to keep the machine going,” said Lindsey Sparrock, a Ph.D candidate who teaches a drugs and behavior course. 

During the pandemic, Lindsey’s husband lost his job and developed a life-threatening ailment which led her to juggle household affairs and campus responsibilities. 

“I stay up long nights finishing all my grading and I’m behind on my research,” Sparrock said. “We have to bounce back and give students the best academic experience, eat properly and plan for our future with no support and no savings.” 

The protest in front of Burwell’s house on April 21 followed other instances when adjunct faculty members and graduate assistants along with the support of students, converged on campus for another protest and at the Kennedy Center on April 7 during an event AU hosted as part of its “Change Can’t Wait” campaign. 

Each protest presented an opportunity for them to reflect on the workload and low pay they’ve experienced, all while adopting AU’s “Change Can’t Wait” slogan to advance their cause. 

This has especially become the case when, during contract negotiations, AU reportedly agreed to raise pay by $25 – much to the chagrin of adjunct faculty members and graduate assistants. 

Adjunct faculty members and graduate assistants represent nearly a third of AU’s teaching staff.  While tenured and tenure-track professors make nearly $10,000 per course per semester, adjunct faculty members make about one third that amount with a cap on how many courses they can teach. 

This situation often forces adjunct faculty members at AU to take on teaching roles at other schools which they said further marginalizes them within the campus community. 

“It has been an isolating experience and I’ve lost respect among tenured and tenure-track faculty members because of my title,” said Donald Collins, an AU adjunct faculty member of four years who teaches gender studies and history courses.  

“I start at $4,300 per course which is a salary on par with University of Maryland Global Campus but I have so much more to do at American University in terms of the work,” Collins said. “I have to reach as many as 40 students who are each paying $5,500 per course. This translates to the university not thinking highly of what I do.” 

Zein El-Amine, a third-year faculty member who teaches Arab world studies, echoed Collins’ sentiments. Though he enjoys challenging misconceptions about the Arab world, El-Amine often laments about having to navigate the bureaucracy of AU along with that of George Washington University and Georgetown University where he also teaches to make ends meet. 

In an ideal situation, El-Amine said he would teach at one university with a salary on par with what tenured and tenure-track professors command. He compared his current situation to being a stage actor performing in several plays at a time. 

“The mantra [among administrators] was that this is not the year to ask for a raise,” El-Amine said. “The implication is that we had been impacted by COVID but all indicators show that American University is financially healthy.”  

“There have been less excuses this year with tuition, enrollment and endowment up. They’re also bragging about donations. For the life of me, I can’t think why our president wouldn’t invest in frontline educators with a million-dollar-plus salary,” he said.

Sam P.K. Collins

Sam P.K. Collins has more than a decade of experience as a journalist, columnist and organizer. Sam, a millennial and former editor of WI Bridge, covers education, police brutality, politics, and other...

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