Below is a statement from Prof. Deepa Kumar, one of the plaintiffs in a pay equity lawsuit, appearing at an October 15 press conference. She is a Professor of Journalism and Media Students in the School of Communication and Information, with 16 years at Rutgers University.
My name is Deepa Kumar, and I am a professor of Media Studies at the School of Communication and Information, or SCI. I was promoted to full professor this past June. I am also the immediate past president of the Rutgers AAUP-AFT.
I was asked to say a little about my credentials, so here goes: I am a scholar of gender, race, and class with an expertise in Islamophobia. I have over 75 publications, which include books, journal articles, book chapters, and articles in mainstream and independent media. I have won several national and Rutgers awards for my scholarship and service. My work has been translated into eight languages and is read around the world. I have also been sought out as an expert and given over 200 news media interviews for global and national outlets from the BBC, to the Danish Broadcasting Corporation, and NPR.
I joined Rutgers in 2004 as an assistant professor. I was part of cohort of five colleagues, all white women and men except for me, who were hired around the same time at SCI. I started with a good salary, higher than several of these colleagues, because I had four years seniority, having taught at Wake Forest University before coming to Rutgers. However, in slightly over a decade, I had fallen to the lowest paid. My salary was on average $13,500 less than the other members of the cohort. This is despite the fact that my accomplishments matched and, in several cases, exceeded those of my peers.
During this time, SCI also lost a number of faculty of color. SCI has what is called a “revolving door” with faculty of color. For instance in 2012, there were six tenured and tenure track faculty of color at SCI. By 2020, five of those faculty had left. We have since hired new faculty of color. However, out of a total of 42 tenured and tenure track faculty at SCI, there are only two tenured faculty of color: one associate professor and one full professor (me). In fact, I am the first person of color to be promoted to full professor in the entire history of the School of Communication and Information. With such a climate, it has been hard to win pay equity.
When I first approached my dean after I got tenure back in 2010 to ask for a salary adjustment, I was told that would only be possible if I got a job offer from another university; then, as part of a retention offer, my salary could be increased. It is well documented that women are not as mobile as men, because they have husbands/partners who cannot move or family members who require care, such as elderly parents or young children. So when this is presented as the only mechanism by which women can achieve salary parity they lose out. Also, this is a game that many of us are unwilling to play. Unless we are serious about moving, we do not want to waste our time as well as the time of colleagues at other schools applying for jobs we don’t intend to take just to get an equity correction to our salaries. Further, we believe that loyalty should be rewarded.
In 2018, Cambridge University approached me to apply for a full professor position. I was honored that I had come to the attention of one of the leading universities in the world and was part of a handful of scholars who were invited to apply. Last year, another university offered me an endowed chair position, which is a prestigious distinction. Yet I was given a $6,000 salary increase as part of a retention offer. This stands in stark contrast to a white male in my cohort who was offered slightly over $22,000 over a decade ago for an assistant professor position. Also, other white faculty at my rank in the last four years have received at least $14,500 in salary increases in their retention offers, and none of these were for endowed chair positions. My colleagues are excellent scholars and teachers and deserve every penny they have earned. My point is, so do I. This is a fundamental question of equity: equal pay for equal work.
Let me explain concretely what pay inequity means over the course of a career. In the last twelve years, I would estimate that I have lost over $300,000 in earnings because I wasn’t paid what I should have been. This has real consequences for my social security, pensions, and savings. It has an impact on the rate at which I pay my loans, when I am able to retire, and how much I am able to support members of my family.
I am a plaintiff in this lawsuit because I don’t want to see others go through what I have gone through.
In my time as an officer of this union, I have attempted to help many colleagues, not so coincidentally all women, with similar pay equity struggles. And I can speak both for them and myself when I say that it is distressing, humiliating, and frustrating to be paid and valued less because of gender or a combination of race and gender factors. I wanted to say this even though I am more comfortable talking about intellectual matters, about research and statistics rather than emotions. The point is that there are real human beings behind these statistics, and it is important to know their stories and the pain that they have felt at not being treated equally.
This is why I spearheaded and led a program of gender and race equity as president of the AAUP-AFT. There were many dimensions to this program, and salary equity was one key part. To make our case for salary equity, I asked Professor Mark Killingsworth, an economics professor trained at the University of Oxford, to study gender inequities. Professor Killingsworth found that there were systematic pay differences between male and female faculty. We presented this hard data at the bargaining table, but to no avail. As David Hughes, the chair of our bargaining committee, put it, “Management refused to accept that there were structural problems. They even argued that there are cases where women should earn less because they have less accomplishments than their male counterparts.”
But our faculty wouldn’t have this. They were ready to go on strike for this and other issues, and on the brink of a strike last year, we achieved an historic agreement. The pay equity part of our contract is truly significant for two reasons. First, I don’t believe that any other institution of higher education has such protections. So this sets a precedent that could strike a blow against pay inequity at universities across this country. Second, it creates a mechanism whereby faculty can achieve pay equity within 90 working days. It is illegal to discriminate on the basis of gender, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, and other protected categories, and New Jersey has some of the best protections in the country, thanks to Governor Murphy’s 2018 Pay Equity Law. However, most people do not have the time, energy, or, most importantly, money to participate in a long, drawn-out legal battle. Our contract saves them this hardship and makes the law concrete and available to all faculty—not just in the protected classes I just mentioned but to everyone who is paid less for substantially similar work. This is what unions do: take a law that has a largely abstract existence for most people and make it concrete and realizable for their members in a process that is neither time-consuming nor expensive.
Unfortunately, the University has failed to honor this agreement. Since our contract was ratified and went into effect on July 1, 2019, not one single case has been settled, and some faculty have been waiting over a year. I will use the words of the Rev Martin Luther King, who said, “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
I am deeply grateful to our current union leadership for their commitment to continuing this struggle and for their commitment to gender and race equity. They have been working over the last 15 months with management to try to get this program off the ground. Unfortunately, they have not found willing partners on the other side with Barchi-era administration officials.
This is why the five of us who are plaintiffs have come forward to be part of a lawsuit that can win economic justice, not just for us but, through our example, for all faculty. We are fighting not because we are the most discriminated against or because our salaries are the lowest. We are all senior professors with job security at a unionized university. And we are speaking out and telling our stories because so many others cannot, others who are in far worse situations than us and are more vulnerable. For example, there are non-tenured track faculty who are paid low wages for a very heavy workload. Our union believes in the principle of protecting the most vulnerable, and what that means is that those of us who have seniority and job security are willing to step forward to advance the collective good.
Over half a century ago, Ruth Bader Ginsberg and her female colleagues at Rutgers-Newark filed a class action lawsuit and won. The arc of history bends towards justice, and I believe that we will prevail.
I am also optimistic because last week I spoke to our new President, Dr. Jonathan Holloway, in my capacity as the co-chair of the university committee on diversity, race, and gender. President Holloway has laid out a bold new vision of inclusion, diversity, and equity for Rutgers. And in my conversation with him I came to see that he is deeply committed to this vision and to equity. I am hopeful that this will translate in a rapid way and with urgency into a real shift in the institutional culture at Rutgers, which for too long has sidelined these issues. As a distinguished historian, Dr. Holloway knows better than I do that justice delayed is justice denied.
Let me end by making something clear: I love my job, and I have great students, wonderful colleagues, and an amazing union. My colleagues and several people in the dean’s office at SCI, the new Vice President for Equity Dr. Anna Branch, and others are working to change the climate for people of color. But real equity is possible only if the institution as a whole is committed to it. That is why the plaintiffs have brought this lawsuit—to redress unlawful pay practices at Rutgers. Every faculty member deserves to be valued for the sum total of their contributions—research, teaching, and service—and to be paid equally for substantially equal work. Nothing less than that will do.