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The age of disinvestment through the eyes of department chairs

Increasing Workload with Less Support

If you want to know how disinvestment in public higher education affects the lives of faculty, staff and students, ask a department chair. Tasked with facilitating the professional development of faculty members, ensuring that students receive the quality education they’ve been promised, supervising the work of staff members and dealing with the logistical and scheduling issues of running their underfunded departments, these educational professionals see and cope with it all. Many continue teaching even as they take on the ever-increasing demands of running their departments.

The chairs featured here shared some of their daily experiences and challenges with Clarion. While their colleges each face challenges unique to that institution, a common thread emerged from these testimonials: concerns over recruiting and retaining the kind of high-performing faculty that the public university of one of the world’s greatest cities should have.

Sarah E. Chinn
Hunter College

I’ve been chair of the English Department at Hunter for almost two years. We feel the austerity policies in various ways, most notably in terms of staffing at every level. Enrollment in our major has grown about 10 percent in the past six years, but the numbers of full-time faculty are dwindling. We have around 1,150 students in the major, and as of the next academic year we’ll have 41 full-timers. Our students can go through our major without ever taking a class from a full-time faculty member.

Sarah E. Chinn, chair of the English Department at Hunter College, says in the past few years student enrollment has gone up in her department while the number of full-time faculty has decreased.

None of the four lines that are empty due to retirements that have taken place since 2010 have been filled, and we’re losing two additional faculty members who are moving to better-paying jobs at state universities with less teaching and more resources when they leave to be with academic spouses. The two hires we’ve made in the past five years have been to replace a faculty member who died unexpectedly and another who, you guessed it, moved to a better-resourced research university.

Our department office is staffed wholly by part-time college assistants; our department higher education officer (HEO) spends all of his time coordinating more than 150 adjuncts, dealing with scheduling, room assignments, and the day-to-day logistics of running a large department. Ultimately, the people who suffer the most from these trying circumstances are our students. As I write this, the department office is empty because the college assistant scheduled to work this afternoon is taking a sick day, and I’m fielding queries from the students who come by.
Hunter is supposed to be a liberal arts college, but it’s more like a neo-liberal college, compromising the meaning of the education we provide through cutting costs, casualizing labor and expecting all of us to do a lot more with a hell of a lot less.

Carolina Bank Muñoz
Brooklyn College

The daily life of a department chair increasingly adds up to putting out fires and attending meetings – in addition, of course, to trying to provide high-quality instruction to our students in both the courses we teach as individuals, and those taught by the members of our departments. Unfortunately, this leaves little time for thinking about the future of the department, for finding the vision to build our department in a creative way. In other words, I don’t get to do what a chair should really do.

Carolina Bank Muñoz, chair of the Sociology Department at Brooklyn College, discusses a final paper with student Kiara Santiago.

For example, one day during the first week of the Spring semester, I arrived at the office at 8:30 am and answered emails for a half hour before a junior faculty member came running into my office announcing there was mouse excrement on her desk and a dead mouse in her trash can. “Gross,” I said, and called the Facilities Department to deal with the immediate problem. Then three faculty members came to me to ask for help resolving problems with the classrooms they were assigned: one was too small for the number of students, another too noisy, and in yet another, the technology wasn’t working. Next on the agenda? Three meetings. By the time I got back to the office, it was 2 pm and work was piled high. That would all have to wait because I needed to be available for office hours and then go teach my class. I left the office at 5 pm, picked up my kid from school and went home. After he went to sleep, I continued putting out department-related fires via email from 8:30 to 11 pm.

Even in a department with young, competent, energetic and highly motivated faculty, morale is at an all-time low. Furthermore, working six years without a contract means that several faculty members in my department will be on the job market in the fall. They don’t want to leave, but they simply cannot afford to live in New York City without a raise. Our working conditions are reaching the point of being unbearable. We have excellent teachers in our department, but the heavy teaching load, rising expectations of research productivity and demands for service from faculty make CUNY a difficult place to work. Why do we put up with all of this? A commitment to CUNY’s mission: serving first-generation college students, students of color, immigrant students and working-class students. Every day this mission is being eroded by Governor Andrew Cuomo’s austerity budget.

Susan A. Farrell
Behavioral Sciences and Human Services
Kingsborough Community College

The stress of dealing with the personal financial issues faced by faculty in my department – in addition to the underfunding of programs in which these teaching professionals eagerly take part – affects me every day. I feel this quite often when newer members of my department come in and ask me how they can work for so little pay and still maintain their high level of commitment to CUNY. They look for grants and other ways to support themselves, but those pursuits ultimately take time away from the classroom and the students.

Insufficient funding of CUNY also affects workload. Here at KCC, as well as at other community colleges, faculty struggle to teach 27, do service on committees and continue to do their research and publish. Even with the release time of one course for new faculty, I see my faculty carrying a burden for which they are poorly compensated. The problems are compounded by take-backs in even the small amounts of money paid for those teaching in the Learning Communities program, Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) and honors courses, all of which require a lot of preparation and meeting times outside the classroom. That so many faculty do engage in these nationally recognized innovations illustrates their commitment and desire to serve our students, our college and our university. The greatest impact of not having a raise in over six years is on our newer faculty, often younger faculty, who are struggling to pay off student loans, find and keep affordable housing, and start families. A contract and a decent salary increase is what they – and all of us at CUNY – more than deserve.

Elena Frangakis-Syrett
History, Queens College

It has been a difficult year for all. It has been so for our students and faculty in the History Department, full-time and part-time members, as well as the office staff. The principal reason for this is the ongoing tension between members of the political leadership of New York City and State that, earlier this year, posed a major state budget cut threat that could have resulted in the closure of no fewer than five units of the City University of New York – each of the size of Queens College. This was certainly not a great backdrop against which to teach, to inspire and to let your students dream and develop intellectually as any learning institution should do. Helping our students believe in themselves, in society around them and in the power of education and fairness were not messages we could impart to them without risking being untruthful as to the dire crisis under which our college and every department functioned. With the academic year coming to a close, and the New York State budget nearly resolved in a way that avoids the most dire consequences, a budget cut has nevertheless taken place, leaving the coming year to loom as one even more difficult than the one through which we have just passed.

The result has been uncertainty and an increase in our workload. As department chair, I have had to schedule and reschedule courses to meet the needs of our students and to respect the loyalty and ongoing commitment of our part-time faculty. I have also had to ask more from our full-time faculty as they begin new projects for our students with fewer resources than they need, but with the firm belief that students should not be shortchanged. Regardless of the hardship, our demoralized faculty members have stepped up to the task. However, if the the contract remains unresolved, there will come a point at which the feeling that no one cares or respects our efforts, dedication, extra work and experience permeates all ranks. Such a dispiriting message could render this institution – a treasure trove of talent for New York City and State – completely unworkable. I hope we do not get there.

Mary Ann Biehl
Advertising Design and Graphic Arts
New York City College of Technology

Mary Ann Biehl, chair of the Advertising Design and Graphic Arts Department at City Tech, meets with design student Miles Chandler.

Serving as chair of my department at City Tech for the past seven years has been the most rewarding experience of my professional career. It has also been the most challenging. I’ve been proud to work with my colleagues as we prepare our student for careers in New York City’s competitive creative economy. However, our ongoing ability to do so is compromised by the current financial situation. In our discipline it is particularly hard to hire and retain faculty due to CUNY’s low salaries. The ever-increasing administrative demands as well as the current workload pull faculty in so many directions, ultimately negatively impacting our students, who deserve the best educational experience we can offer them.

Kevin R. Foster
Economics and Business
Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership
The City College of New York

As a department chair, one of my most urgent challenges is the way in which the under-resourcing of CUNY affects our ability to recruit and retain the best faculty to serve our students.

Compare market salaries to the CUNY scale for both economics and business faculty. The American Economic Review reports average salaries. For institutions such as ours that grant a Masters of Arts degree, the national average salary for a full professor is $122,000; for associate, $99,500; for assistant, $88,500. The article also notes a teaching load of 4.3 courses per year and over $10,000 for research support. For management faculty, the market salary is even higher. According to the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, the average salary for full professors is over $160,000; for associates $129,000; and for new PhDs $125,000. Compare that with CUNY: in each rank, the very top of CUNY’s salary scale is below the national average; note that national average does not include differences in local costs of living. In addition, CUNY demands a much higher teaching load and much less research support. It would be helpful to hear from colleagues chairing other departments how the CUNY salary scale compares with the norms listed by professional societies in their respective disciplines. When businesspeople defend CEO salaries, they always say, “You get what you pay for.” Given the current circumstances, how does CUNY expect to recruit the quality faculty our students deserve?

Hollis F. Glaser
Speech, Communications and Theatre Arts
Borough of Manhattan Community College

My department has 35 full-time faculty and two majors (one in communication studies, one in theater), each with more than 400 students. In addition, we offer about 180 sections of our basic public speaking class every semester, serving 5,000 students. I can attest to two big problems with the lack of proper funding for our department, both having to do with our faculty.

The first is it is very difficult to recruit qualified faculty from other parts of the country. We had two people in recent years decline our job offers, either because of the salary or the lack of financial support for their work. One candidate was in the very final phase of the process. After he got through our department interview, he met with the provost. Once she offered him the job, he asked to talk to me before deciding. Every one of his questions was about money. Can we help him with his move? No. Is there faculty housing? No. Do we help him find housing? No. Candidates from elsewhere know how difficult and expensive New York City is, and they need a lot of support with their move and with their expenses.

The second is watching my faculty struggle to find a suitable place to live on their salaries. One of my tenured faculty members wanted to purchase a condominium or co-op for around $350,000. That’s a lot of money. Anywhere else, it would be more than adequate to purchase a modest place. But she couldn’t find a one-bedroom that was clean, in a decent neighborhood and relatively close to school. We work in one of the most expensive neighborhoods in the world, Tribeca. The closest neighborhoods, including those in Brooklyn, are also very expensive. CUNY should be supporting our faculty so that we can work and live somewhere in this city comfortably.

Nikolaos Apostolakis
Mathematics and Computer Science
Bronx Community College

After class, Nikolaos Apostolakis, chair of the Mathematics and Computer Science Department at BCC, works with student Ibrahima Doumbia on math concepts.

As department chair, the most important aspects of my job include making sure that our department provides the best education to our students, and helping faculty to realize their potential by paving the way for them to advance their scholarship and bring new ideas to the classroom. Unfortunately, the most important part of my job is something I have very little time to do because I’m always spending my time completing more and more paperwork and dealing with bureaucracy.

At Bronx Community College, we have great, dedicated faculty members, but how long can I expect to keep them in one of the world’s most expensive cities when a starting salary for a full-time faculty member can be as low as $45,000? (Average starting salaries at BCC are the lowest in the CUNY system.)

I’m not given the resources I need to adequately support our students – especially in terms of tutoring. Each time we request a tutor, we have to certify that this is an actual need. Our students come to us from underfunded public high schools and often they’re returning to school as adults while supporting their own families. They’re not well-prepared for the study of mathematics, but they want to learn.

Instead of having a consistent system for dealing with these concerns, every few years, we’re handed a new remediation plan that we’re told will solve everything. And it is all expected to happen without the appropriate support.