The American Association of University Professors has announced its 2020 awards for “outstanding faculty activists,” and has named SC&I Associate Professor of Journalism and Media Studies Deepa Kumar the recipient of the 2020 Marilyn Sternberg Award.
According to the AAUP, the award is presented to an AAUP member “who demonstrates concern for human rights, courage, persistence, political foresight, imagination, and collective bargaining skills.”
Explaining the reasons Kumar was selected for this award this year, the AAUP wrote in its announcement of the award, “Professor Kumar played a key role in developing and leading a contract campaign that culminated in a strike vote and a groundbreaking contract for Rutgers faculty. She brought tremendous vision and courage to the work, making gender and race issues central to the campaign and pursuing a goal of equity, security, and dignity for all. Her persistence and commitment to organizing has brought a bold vision to her union.”
Kumar has served as an elected officer of the Rutgers AAUP-AFT since 2013. She was president from 2017-2019, on the New Brunswick Faculty Council from 2010-2017, vice president from 2015-2017, secretary from 2013-2015, and she is currently a member of the Rutgers AAUP-AFT Executive Council, where she has served on since 2010.
Todd Wolson, who is Kumar’s successor as the current president of the Rutgers AAUP-AFT, has stated that Kumar’s “vision for our union, her political foresight, courage, and persistence led to a historic contract settlement in June, 2019. As her immediate successor, I can say with confidence that she has both changed the direction of our union for the better, and she been a thoughtful and generous mentor to me, as I stepped into her oversized shoes.”
During her years as an elected AAUP officer, Wolfson states, Kumar “transformed our union and turned it into a social justice union that fights for the rights and dignity not only of our minoritized members but our students as well.” He added that her vision and organizing “enabled the union to hold a successful strike vote (only the second in nearly 50 years). It is our strike vote that allowed us to secure a good contract, raise our dues, and build on a solid footing in this post-Janus era.”
Wolfson notes that Kumar worked tirelessly spending hundreds of hours talking to faculty, attending meetings, and eliciting feedback from department chairs across the university. She coined the phrase “equity, security, and dignity” and designed the union’s contract campaign around this theme. Kumar also oversaw the production of several position papers/white papers which involved research and analysis as well as the search for best practices; and organized rallies, speak-outs and information pickets. In addition to the work within Rutgers, Kumar participated in getting the union’s message out to the public. She obtained an endorsement from Bernie Sanders for the Rutgers AAUP-AFT’s contract goals and a possible strike, she gave dozens of media interviews and helped other faculty and grads place op-eds. These efforts led to a majority of New Jersey residents supporting the right of faculty to strike, stated Wolfson.
What was groundbreaking about the 2019 contract was the focus on gender and race equity. Article 8 of the union contract has provisions to address inequities in salary for faculty across our three campuses—a significant victory for all. For faculty in protected groups (women, POCs, disabled, LGBTQ, religious minorities etc.) this provision is backed up with binding arbitration. No other higher education union has such protections. She won language around a campus free of sexual harassment and stalking. Among other protections, including centering and valuing the service and teaching that female faculty provide enabling them to be promoted more easily, she established a union-administration committee on diversity, race and gender, a historic first, which she now co-chairs. Labor scholars have referred to this work as groundbreaking. They have called our 2019 contract a “national template” for other unions, according to Wolfson.
An internationally-renowned scholar, Kumar's research centers on Islamophobia, empire, culture, gender, race, class in the media, neoliberalism, labor, and social class. Kumar’s first book, "Outside the Box: Corporate Media, Globalization and the UPS Strike" (University of Illinois Press, 2007), is about the power of collective struggle in effectively challenging the priorities of neoliberalism. Her second book, "Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire" (Haymarket Books, 2012), looks at how the “Muslim enemy” has historically been mobilized to suit the goals of empire. She is the author of more than 75 publications including books, journal articles, book chapters, and articles in independent and mainstream media. She has given over 20 keynote and plenary addresses at conferences around the world.