Grad Students Strike Back

Kali Jerrard

CounterCurrent: Week of 4/24/23

A wave of strikes by graduate students has hit higher education. Last week, Wenyuan Wu’s article at Minding the Campus outlined the recent strike at Rutgers University, the motivation behind it, and the crux of the issue. But Rutgers isn’t the only institution caught in the throes of an adult hissy fit. In case you’ve missed it, here is what’s been going on:

The Rutgers strike is the latest in a recent wave of work stoppages at high-profile universities, including Temple University, the University of California, Los Angeles, the University of Michigan, Chicago State University, and New York City’s New School. A common characteristic of these strikes is that negotiations for graduate students’ compensation and benefits have been center stage. In addition to free tuition, fee remission, and health care subsidies, Rutgers graduate teaching and research assistants (TA/GAs) have made the case that their part-time salaries, which pay at least $37.50/hour before the increases (20 hours per week for 10 months out of the year), are not a living wage. 

Without knowing all the details, it may seem like the strikers have a point. The cost of living is on the rise, and these graduate students must fulfill a certain number of teaching hours while completing their degree—thus limiting their available work hours. But let’s consider the following before we make a final judgment.

First, there is a clear tradeoff that takes place when students enroll in a graduate-level program: time spent learning and temporary financial discomfort for higher academic achievement and better pay later on. Tradeoffs are part of being an adult and making adult decisions. It might seem tough to work part-time while in school, but most graduate students aren’t being hung out to dry by their institution. These students generally receive a stipend, scholarships or other financial aid, and, sometimes, other benefits such as subsidized healthcare and housing. There are plenty of ways to cut costs and make a tight budget work (many undergraduate students do just that), but it seems like graduate students don’t want to exercise discipline. 

Second, there’s the power ploy driving these union-backed, politically motivated strikes. Unsurprisingly, teachers’ unions are highly influential in the states where these graduate strikes have happened or are ongoing. Their strong presence means that “state education leaders are often aligned with teachers’ union positions, and they agree that teachers’ unions need not compromise to see their preferred policies enacted.” Thus, teachers’ unions are whipping graduate students into a frenzy, all in the name of “social justice.” As Wu puts it, these “social justice proponents seek socially engineered outcomes that require specific, equalizing interventions to correct more than merely the deficiencies of the society, interventions which encompass ‘far more than any given society is causally responsible for.’” But what is enough to “equalize” the “unfair” aspects of society? Is anything enough?

The recent wave of strikes hasn’t solved any problems—it simply created more. For example, though the strike at the University of California resulted in a 50% pay increase, dissatisfaction still lingers. At institutions where adjunct and part-time faculty make up a large percentage of total faculty, the negative effects of strikes are clear. Faculty strikes stop academic progress and research, harming institutional advancement. Undergraduate students suffer due to stress, confusion, and a lack of academic direction when their professors are MIA. One study found that at Columbia, undergraduate students who experienced part-time faculty strikes scored 41% to 29% of a standard deviation lower in math and reading. Yikes.    

Colleges and universities are feeling the sting of the recent graduate student strikes precisely because they’ve handed part-time faculty (many positions held by graduate students) a large share of their teaching positions. As I outlined a few weeks ago, part-time faculty (mostly graduate students, but others as well) are being hired in droves to fill positions that should be held by full-time or tenure-track faculty—leading to administrative bloat, disagreements over faculty/school governance, and false advertising for prospective students and their families. 

Perhaps it’s time to cut down the percentage of contingent faculty positions and hire more full-time and tenure-track faculty. Through this, any available part-time positions could perhaps pay better, and would be held by meritorious candidates—namely, individuals who aren’t consumed by anger and a “quest for cosmic justice.”

Until next week.

CounterCurrent is the National Association of Scholars’ weekly newsletter, written by the NAS Staff. To subscribe, update your email preferences here.

Photo by Prostock-studio on Adobe Stock

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