Art workers in the scarcity economy


Eva Diaz writes:

I’ve been getting many emails recently about the Parsons Fine Arts part-timers layoffs situation, and indeed about the New School students’ takeover of the campus last Thursday.  (Full disclosure: I began teaching Art History at Parsons/The New School part-time this semester, and though my students are mostly drawn from the affected Fine Arts MFA program, I am technically in a different department and haven’t been privy to any departmental or administrative conversations.  For more information, see the NY Times  and Artnet  articles from April 3; check out the NY Times  from April 11 for information about police brutality at protests calling for the resignation of New School president Bob Kerrey.)

I, like many people, view the layoffs as a confusing situation.  In many ways the rhetorical positions put forward by both the union and the Kerrey administration are unsatisfactory.  How can curricular excellence and much-needed improvements be instituted while defending some of our most vulnerable art workers: adjunct teachers?

It is important to point out the larger issues of the proletarianization of the academy, the utter lack of job security in a scarcity economy, and the repeal of the notion of tenure in the humanities (and its near impossibility in an art school).   But let’s look at the money situation, always the administrations’ justification for why no-benefits, part-time work has become so pervasive.  Tuition has become outlandishly expensive, but where is the money going?  Here’s some basic back-of-the-napkin math:

Eleven part-timers teaching that many courses in one semester at Parsons amounts to approximately $45,000 to $65,000 (each adjunct makes between $4,000 to $6,000 per course), barely enough to hire two senior faculty teaching perhaps four, maximum six courses per semester.   However, that $45,000 to $65,000 for eleven teachers would be covered by semester tuition paid by only three to four students. (Full yearly tuition at Parsons, according to their website, starts at $33,700 not including room and board and other fees. A little under half of Parsons students receive financial aid; the average award of $10,000 knocks tuition for those students down to $23,700.) If Fine Arts students take about five courses a semester with each student paying an average of $2,900 per course, then the university takes in $40,600 per course, or $446,600 for eleven courses, with an average of 14 students per course (according to, 81% of classes at Parsons have between 10-19 students). That makes the salary for adjuncts between 10% and 14.5% of the gross. Yes, the overhead for running an art school in New York is high, but still, where is the rest of students’ tuition going?

I know that similar situations of mass layoffs occurred at RISD and Columbia in recent years; it’s a pressing issue.   On the one hand, one wants to support the underdog (the unionized, part-time adjuncts making a measly $4-6,000 per semester); on the other hand, at many institutions instructors can hang around doing one mediocre class per year while their work or careers are not developing. If the curriculum is to be made more theoretically and historically informed, more in touch with contemporary forms of practice and current debates, as well as more competitive with respect to other art schools, changes must be implemented. On the whole I would support the direction and goals that Coco Fusco, the chair of the Fine Arts department at Parsons, I imagine is taking. Unfortunately those curricular changes have to take place in an already charged environment of the profit-driven university and a suffering economy that provides little safety net for the unemployed.

I don’t want to concentrate the discussion on Parsons per se because I know very little about who the “non-rehires” were, and whether they in fact were the best people for those jobs.    But I trust there are people here who could provide some more direction in the larger debate about part-time labor in the academy.

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