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COMMENTARY: Lack of contract agreement is shameful

Faculty, staff and graduate students have been working at Rutgers without a contract since July. The administration only agreed to bargain in March, and until recently would only do so for eight hours a month. Now, in New Jersey, home of the backroom deal, the administration has announced that it will say nothing substantive, it will ask no questions and it will put forward no proposals unless graduate students are excluded. Not only must graduate students remain silent, which they have been doing in bargaining sessions for the past several months, they are not even allowed to be in the room during bargaining. 

These are the graduate students who work for the University, without whom science, engineering or humanities departments could not teach courses, perform research or take grant funds. Rutgers depends on graduate students to keep its doors open, yet if the administration has its way, they will no longer be permitted to even hear discussions about their wages, hours, benefits or working conditions.

This is beyond inappropriate, it is beyond outrageous — it is embarrassing. The administration, every one of whose negotiators take home six-figure incomes, should be instructed at a minimum to do their jobs. They do not raise their own salaries. Their salaries, instead, arise from tuition and research dollars that graduate students provide. Yet for nine months, they have been making limited and inconsequential tweaks and refusing even to provide graduate students with cost of living increases equal to inflation.

Lest there be any misunderstanding, there are no cost savings in dragging this process out: labor law requires that salary increases be made retroactive to July, when the last contact ended. Nor is a contract lapse needed at all: University President Robert L. Barchi’s salary was recently raised to $881,000 with bonus. And a free house. And a car. And a driver. And unlimited expenses. Plus a year’s extra salary after he leaves the post. All without any lapse in his contract. The ten negotiators likewise work with periodic raises with no lapse in their contracts. Somehow the president and his entourage provide this for themselves, but cannot manage to provide an uninterrupted contract to the people whose work pays their salaries. 

Moreover, I personally want to remark that I am old enough to know that the entire boondoggle of paying three vice presidents, two deans and five assorted directors to negotiate a contract is a new development. When I went to college, 40-some years ago, there was one president and two deans. The mechanism of siphoning off tuition dollars to pay vice presidents had not been invented yet.  

When I arrived at Rutgers, 20 years ago, there were two dozen vice presidents. Today there are over 75 vice presidents, provosts and chancellors, plus uncountable deans, directors and other mid-level managers. Some of these do wonderful work: these are uniformly the ones who support teaching and research in exchange for tuition dollars. The rest — well, they occupy space and time doing things like drag out contract negotiations, demand closed-door meetings, oppose the simplest of productive efforts and otherwise stand in the way of those actually teaching and doing research.

What is wrong with these people? How can they look themselves in the mirror knowing they pay their salaries out of the pockets of people who provide teaching and research that the University depends on, yet make a tenth of what they do? The administration should stop this shameful behavior, and anyone who participates in a course with a TA, does research with a GA or interacts with a graduate fellow should offer them a personal apology, as one human being to another, on behalf of an administration that plainly lacks capacity for shame to do so itself.

Troy Shinbrot is a Rutgers professor of biomedical engineering. 


*Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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