striking columbia faculty

The Struggle For Fair Labor Practices in Architecture Will Start in the Classroom

Last month hundreds of scholars gathered in St. Paul, MN. for the annual conference of the Society of Architecture Historians (SAH). I was there as a speaker, on a roundtable organized by The Architecture Lobby, titled “Labor Issues in Academia.” The roundtable was on a Friday afternoon, at the same time as four others, during lunch, that crucial moment when, at every academic conference, attention starts waning and everyone dips out for coffee or a nap before the afternoon paper sessions.


We expected maybe thirty people to show up, at best, if we got lucky. More than seventy packed into the room. “The biggest SAH crowd in all of history!” I texted a friend. Probably an exaggeration, but still, the crowd was impressive. We’d set the chairs up in a circle, so that the discussion would flow in a collaborative way, contrasting the usual academic conference set-up: expert at the front of the room, sparsely populated front row, dim lights, powerpoint. As people flowed in, we had to expand the circle three times, which, if nothing else, certainly made everyone feel like the room was overflowing.


The size of the crowd was surprising, though it shouldn’t have been. The issue of how academic work works is pressing: we’re seeing teachers on strike across the country, graduate students on strike in New York and Illinois, and an increasing number of organized adjunct faculty demanding that their unions be recognized and given the right to collectively bargain with management to improve the conditions of their labor. Because, as the common phrase goes, educators’ working conditions are their students’ learning conditions.


A large number of the people who attended the panel were adjunct faculty, with some tenured professors sprinkled in, along with a handful of graduate students. A few were in unions, and a few others were from para-academic or para-architectural institutions. Most of them weren’t activists. They weren’t drawn to the panel because of a moral or ethical commitment to the cause of labor justice, but because it’s an issue that directly affects their lives. The crowd made it clear that labor issues within the academy are so pervasive that they can no longer be ignored, not even by architects, who are notoriously aloof and sometimes like to pretend that they are above or beyond it all.


One participant talked about how difficult it was for her, as an adjunct, to manage her relationship with students who she mentored closely. She recognized that of her students’ professors, she was probably the one who knew them best and therefore was best equipped to write their recommendation letters and do their advising. But advising and writing recommendation letters were not in her job description. She simply wasn’t getting paid for them.


Of course, that particular problem is not unique to architecture. Non-tenured faculty in every discipline, and especially in the humanities, have increasingly numerous responsibilities and decreasing salaries, and it’s ever-more common for them to be offered short-term contracts with no job security beyond one or two semesters.


Perhaps the most obvious is the way in which the academic model of architectural education—namely, the studio model—primes students for exploitation later on in their careers by teaching them how to exploit themselves. 


But the conversation revealed that there are labor issues within academia that are unique to architecture. Perhaps the most obvious is the way in which the academic model of architectural education—namely, the studio model—primes students for exploitation later on in their careers by teaching them how to exploit themselves. The long nights in studio, the ruthless competition with classmates and the glorification of the studio critic, all translate into the willingness to work for free in exchange for the starchitect line on the résumé and 80-hour work-weeks just to “get ahead” in a profession in which very few wield a lot of power.


Yes, these issues are about students, not faculty. But it shouldn’t be difficult to see how labor issues facing faculty are intrinsically tied to subpar learning conditions for architecture students that produce an educational model that hasn’t evolved in decades, which in turn yields a profession that’s struggling to keep up with the world around it in terms of equity, work-life balance and wages.


One anecdote shared during the SAH roundtable, offered up by a faculty member at Columbia University, was particularly telling: architectural practitioners at Columbia who teach a studio—even those who run their own practice and, presumably, make a salary from it—receive a full professor’s salary from the university. Meanwhile, graduate students campus wide have yet to be recognized as workers by Columbia, whose administration is refusing to respect the NLRB ruling that granted them a union.


These practices are deeply entrenched: who is going to teach architecture classes at Columbia if not famous architects with offices in New York? How could the university maintain its cultural cachet if it didn’t offer them full salaries on top of what they already make from their firms? Through this particular institutional lens, architecture culture writ large looks like an impenetrable monolith.


But seventy people attending a roundtable on labor issues at SAH is a crack in that monolith, a sign that the things architects, architecture students and architecture teachers have taken for granted for decades can change. It all starts with those who teach architecture—adjuncts, lecturers, graduate students—organizing in their workplace.


The reason that significant change will happen through unionization, especially of the most precarious faculty—and not through initiatives like curriculum changes or locking the studio doors after 10PM— is that in order to change architecture culture, we have to tackle the system, not the symptoms. There are plenty of faculty who have good ideas about how to teach their discipline who simply don’t have any power to do so because presenting radical changes means risking losing their job. Meanwhile, those who don’t run that risk—the practitioner who earns two salaries, for example—often don’t have a vested interest in radically changing the profession or the academy, because these systems are already working in their favor.


Unionizing non-tenured faculty isn’t just about getting better wages and benefits. It’s about those who do the bulk of the teaching at universities winning power.


Unionizing non-tenured faculty isn’t just about getting better wages and benefits. It’s about those who do the bulk of the teaching at universities winning power. When a faculty member’s job is guaranteed, when they are protected from unfair retaliation, they have the power—and the freedom—to teach in a way that challenges the status quo, and even to organize and demand change within their academic institutions. This is incredibly powerful for architecture, where for so long the response to any discontent from students and practitioners about the state of the discipline has been “that’s just the way things are.” This response is particularly disheartening for students and young practitioners, who face increasingly lower wages and longer hours, and who presumably got into architecture to make the world better and end up learning that good design is not only hard to get built, but also unlikely to change much in the grand, grinding scheme of things.


Imagine, then, when instead of hearing that things will never change, an architecture student sees their professor organizing with their union to improve their university or teaching against the canon. The lesson is twofold: first, there are things to learn about architecture beyond what’s been taught for centuries. And second, institutional change is possible—if not by design, then by organizing.


Featured image: striking graduate students at Columbia University, courtesy of GWC-UAW Local 2110 Graduate Workers of Columbia. 


Get smart and engaging news and commentary from architecture and design’s leading minds.

Donate to, a Not-For-Profit website dedicated to reconnecting architecture and design to the public.