Scores of members deliver hours of testimony
PSC members packed a recent Board of Trustees meeting, urging board members to fulfill their duty and advocate for an adequate budget for all of CUNY.
More than 100 PSC members from various backgrounds, disciplines and campuses spoke for several hours at the October 22 CUNY Board of Trustees meeting, delivering passionate and often personal testimony as to why the trustees must live up to the board’s duty and make a budget request that fully funds the PSC’s contract demands, including $7K for adjuncts.
Members touched on every aspect of the contract campaign – poverty wages for adjuncts, management’s unfulfilled promise to reduce the teaching load and the need for across-the-board raises and to dedicate resources to protect CUNY’s mission of serving the public.
Below are a few of the testimonies that were submitted at the meeting. Others are available on the union’s website.
Pick a side
By BARBARA BOWEN
I ask labor’s fundamental question: which side are you on?
The 2020 budget request presents an opportunity to answer that question in the language that matters: funding. Will you continue to sit by while CUNY colleges eviscerate their own inadequate budgets to make up for the state’s underfunding of the contract? Continue to lament but not address the fact that full-time faculty salaries at CUNY are 30 or 40,000 dollars below those at comparable institutions? Continue to accept the underfunding of an agreement made in your name last year to reduce the teaching load? Continue to allow CUNY to pay near-poverty wages to half of its teaching force?
And will you continue to send the unforgiveable message to CUNY students that their college education – their future, their survival – is not worth adequate investment? The budget request you submit this fall will reveal whether you take the position that CUNY trustees are primarily answerable to the governor or mayor who appointed you, or whether you see yourselves as accountable to the people of New York.
Which side are you on?
Many CUNY trustees and administrators seem to view your job as managing scarcity. There is even a sense of pride in being able to manage scarcity well. I submit that that is not your job. Your job as trustees is to challenge the premise that inadequate funding is the best CUNY can hope for. CUNY represents opportunity for working-class and poor New Yorkers, for immigrants and communities of color, in this cruel, neoliberal, racist economy. As trustees you have a choice between normalizing the neoliberal lie that there is not enough money to go around – or fundamentally challenging that lie and demanding the investment CUNY needs. Stop normalizing poverty.
The PSC is now the only public voice making the case that it is not acceptable for CUNY to have to accommodate every year to decreasing per-student funds. We have worked hard to develop that political power, but we should not be alone. The budget request you submit is your voice. Use it to demand an alternative to austerity for CUNY. The moment demands political courage. Imagine the impact nationally, at a time when murderous racism and anti-immigrant fervor have been newly mobilized, if you were to take a stand for investment in the college education of CUNY students by insisting on a fully funded contract and a fair wage for the adjuncts who teach most of their courses.
Which side are you on?
Barbara Bowen is the president of the PSC.
By SIGMUND SHEN
My students inspire me, but I’m also terrified for them. Life is objectively harder for this generation of students than it was for ours. Many of my students juggle their coursework with paid employment. With the cost of housing and healthcare, more of them are caring for their parents, their siblings and their own children. Family incomes, after inflation, are about the same as they were 30 years ago. And yet, CUNY’s tuition is 500 percent higher.
Where generations past were defined by our hope, optimism, brash ambitions and dreams, our students are beset by uncertainty, precarity, the gig economy, climate change and the resurgence of fascism, both globally and at home. When I was an undergrad at Queens College, I thought I understood the metaphor of Yeats’s “The Second Coming”: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
I didn’t know shit about “The Second Coming.” For our students, there is no metaphor. It’s literally happening in front of us.
Maybe that’s why this generation is so politically aware to sexism, racism and crony capitalism. Me Too, Black Lives Matter. They call it being “woke.” It means it will fool no one if you are not doing your part. It will be clear if you praise our adjuncts’ “hard work, dedication and commitment” and then cry over your own poverty when it’s time to talk $7K per course. It will be clear if you have your picture taken signing off on the course reduction to give students more individual attention from their professors and then turn around and cut the tutoring budget by 16 percent.
Don’t worry about history judging us; we should be so lucky. Our students are judging us right now and it will be plain as day if you self-censor your own budget request. At best they will lose faith in us, and at worst they will emulate our example. We will know your commitment to CUNY and to this city by the message you choose to send upstate. Remember that every disgraceful concession the governor asked of CUNY in the last three years, he has withdrawn and disavowed in the face of solidarity and organizing.
So we all are the ones who need to be full of passionate intensity, and we can no longer afford to lack conviction. Your budget request can send a signal that you at least are fighting as hard as you can for a better university, one the working class, women, people of color and immigrant students of this city need and deserve. I call on you as trustees to oppose austerity for CUNY. Take a public stand for a contract that is fully funded, includes real raises for all and increases adjunct pay to $7K per course.
Sigmund Shen is the PSC chapter chair and an associate professor of English at LaGuardia Community College.
A family issue
By SAMI DISU
The one issue that I need to bring to your attention immediately is the plight of part-time professors. My wife is also an adjunct lecturer in my department. So let me assure you that between the both of us we understand the reality of trying to raise a child on adjunct incomes.
Between the two of us, we are teaching five courses this semester and we love teaching the next generation of police officers, emergency personnel and legal professionals who will go on to providing public safety for our beloved city. Our love for teaching is the only reason we haven’t moved on to better-paying professions. The situation of the economically unviable lives we live as adjuncts is worsened by the fact that the students we teach are historically from an underfunded, and under-resourced, public-school system to begin with.
Any college professor – adjunct or full- time – understands this fact when we grade assignments. Yet, many adjuncts make the sacrifice to spend numerous unpaid hours outside class helping students overcome their limitations. And if you understand that most students who attend CUNY are from black and brown communities, then you will understand that underpaid college professors combined with austerity funding levels for the CUNY system amounts to racial injustice – whether deliberately designed or not. You don’t need to be a professor of African American history like me to understand this issue.
Let me be blunt in saying that my wife and I have applied for public welfare assistance in order to raise our child. Since we can’t pay for childcare on adjunct incomes, we take turns looking after our daughter on days one partner does not teach. So, even though we could aim to teach more courses for a little more income we simply cannot because paying for childcare is impossible on adjunct wages.
Sami Disu teaches in the department of African Studies at John Jay College.
By HESTER EISENSTEIN
Before coming to CUNY in 1996, I taught at Yale, Barnard and SUNY-Buffalo.
Of all these, CUNY is the institution that is least faithful to its mission, because of the regime of artificial austerity that has been imposed on the staff, faculty and students by the budgets of the last few decades. You know that CUNY is an economic engine for the city of New York, and that CUNY graduates are the backbone of the city’s economy.
PSC members listened to scores of testimony delivered by CUNY faculty and staff.
If I were a CUNY trustee, I would do everything in my power to make sure that our students, who struggle with economic deprivation, balancing paid work, family and schoolwork, have the best of everything to ensure their success. This extends from chalk in the classroom to books in the library to adequate systems of heat and ventilation, not to mention staff and faculty salaries.
I call on you as trustees to oppose austerity for CUNY. Take a public stand for a contract that is fully funded, includes real raises for all and increases adjunct pay to $7K per course.
Hester Eisenstein is a professor of women’s and gender studies and sociology at the Graduate Center.
By BILL FRIEDHEIM
For retirees, CUNY was and is a cause.
Why? Because we believe in the vision of democratic, urban public higher education, articulated in 1849 by the first CUNY president, Dr. Horace Webster, when he proclaimed that our role is to educate “the children of the whole people” of New York City.
It’s a cause because members of our retirees’ chapter have logged over 90,000 cumulative years at the university as educators, professionals, scholars and champions of public higher education. It’s a cause because in those 90,000 cumulative years we have witnessed how CUNY transforms and empowers the lives of its students, and in the process transforms our city and state.
It’s a cause because CUNY students are the face of 2018 New York City, representing multiple cultures, speaking over a hundred languages, often juggling working, parenting and education as first-generation college students and ready to give back to New York.
But the vision Dr. Webster so eloquently championed in 1849 has been undermined by serial austerity budgets in a time of a booming economy. Our governor is adamant in his refusal to include any monies to pay for new public-sector contracts in his budget.
The board compounds the problem by deferring to the governor if it does not include a strong request to fund the contract. Failure to do so cannibalizes CUNY. Fighting over crumbs from an already small pie, such a failure pits faculty against students and the union against academic and student services.
It is zero-sum economics and politics at its worst. Decades of underfunding tell us that such failure results in robbing Peter to pay Paul. A fully funded CUNY is a robust engine of social mobility and economic equality. But meager public financing deprives that engine of necessary fuel by contracting rather than expanding programs like ASAP; paying adjuncts, the majority of faculty, poverty wages; and shortchanging the “children of the whole people” and the part-time teaching faculty.
Bill Friedheim is the chair of the PSC retirees chapter and a former historian at Borough of Manhattan Community College.
By DEBORAH GAMBS
When our previous contract was ratified more than a year ago, my personal financial life improved in ways that were very significant for me. I no longer needed a roommate in my studio apartment, and I was able to pay off two debts that were weighing on me every month. As a member of the PSC, I fought hard for that contract and we do not intend to let this next contract go six years. Because the last contract was so meaningful for full-time faculty, we now have an ethical imperative to fight for an equivalent improvement for adjunct faculty.
CUNY administration and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer (center, with microphone) listened to hours of member testimony.
As it happens, one of my oldest college friends is also now teaching at CUNY – as an adjunct. When my pay improved by nearly $20,000 over a period of a few years, hers improved by $59.41 per hour. As far as an hourly wage increase goes, that’s nothing to sneer at in some industries. But as far as the overall impact on the earnings of a college professor who teaches the same course load I teach, it is paltry. She struggles to schedule five to six courses every semester, three to four classes during summer, and travels between multiple schools. She is one of the 70 percent of adjunct faculty teaching at colleges in the nation as the AAUP recently reported.
State government plays an incredibly important role in funding higher education. For the last few years we have seen a scary pattern of defunding higher education by governors and legislatures in states with historic public universities. We are in a state with a self-proclaimed progressive governor, and CUNY is a progressive public university by many measures. However, when 60 percent of your faculty is underpaid and overworked, you fail to be able to call yourself progressive. We must end this inequality and we can begin to do it in this contract.
I call on you as trustees to oppose austerity for CUNY. Take a public stand for a contract that is fully funded, includes real raises for all and increases adjunct pay to $7K per course.
Deborah Gambs is an associate professor of sociology at the Borough of Manhattan Community College.
By CURTIS IZEN
I am also a proud alumnus of the CUNY system. What I am not proud to say is the lack of financial advancements I have received in the past 25 years of teaching.
The cost of living goes up every year, but not my salary. My responsibilities and professionalism increase each semester, but not my salary. My class size increases as well, but not my salary.
Like many of my colleagues, I am a dedicated instructor who finds the current adjunct pay deeply unfair. The technology supplementing our courses has changed but not the realization that adjuncts deserve more financially. Let me explain what it’s like to be an adjunct for CUNY – a position that truly seems to go unrecognized. It is subject matter experts working in the field being able to give cutting-edge skills to our students. It is answering emails on weekends and evenings because you know that if this is what someone else would do for you.
It is creating dynamic lessons and video recordings to explain difficult concepts and incorporating new technologies to engage your students. It is meeting students before or after class on your own time when they ask for help. It is finding open-resource course material to help alleviate the high cost of textbooks that students endure each semester. It is spending countless hours grading papers and exams while working around the clock to get grades in so students can register for the upcoming term.
It is writing recommendation letters and helping students win scholarships. It’s taking educational workshops and getting certified on topics so your students will benefit from your knowledge.
Adjuncts teach thousands of courses each semester at CUNY. To ask us to continue without the proper financial support undermines the work we do inside and outside the classroom.
How can CUNY expect to recruit and retain truly dedicated and passionate professionals when we are not compensated as such? I call on you as trustees to oppose austerity for CUNY. Take a public stand for a contract that is fully funded, includes real raises for all and guarantees $7K per course for adjuncts.
Curtis Izen is an adjunct instructor in information systems and statistics at Baruch College.
By MARIAMA KHAN
As an adjunct, I have the right academic qualifications that were earned in North America, Europe and Africa. I also have a rich and a diverse professional experience from these three continents. I’m a scholar with an excellent practitioner background. I love the work I do at Lehman College. I bring commitment, passion and all the energy in me to my work.
My work at Lehman College means a lot to me. I confess that before getting this job, I’ve previously faced extended underemployment and unemployment. Irrespective of my academic qualifications and professional experience, I’ve done low-skilled jobs just to survive. I’ve worked in a laundry facility, folding clothes. I’ve worked at Dunkin’ Donuts, selling coffee. And I’ve even tried working in a chocolate factory as a factory hand.
As a single parent with two sons, I faced acute deprivation with my children. Following months of lack of employment and an excruciating job search, it was a huge relief to get an adjunct lecturer position in the Africana Studies department at Lehman College. I remember the day I rushed to my kids to break the good news to them. My younger son sighed and said, “Thank God. We have to pray for the people who gave you this job.”
So, for me and my children, my job at Lehman College is like a dream come true. I finally came across an employer who saw the merit of my qualifications and experience, to offer me a job. However, I come to realize that while this job gives me more income than all other jobs I’ve previously had in the US here (except one), my total earnings on the job were still not able to adequately provide us with our basic needs like shelter, food, clothing, educational and medical-insurance-related expenses.
As I speak to you, my sons and I continue to live in a tight single room located in a degraded basement in Brooklyn. On September 23, I returned from doing our laundry and found that my landlord had thrown our things out and locked us out of the room. I had to call the police because we had nowhere to go. When the police came they got into the basement to speak to me. Surprised at the conditions there, one of them asked me, “How did you come to live here? This is not a good place to live.”
I explained that I was facing poverty. I’ve not been able to make enough income to get us a decent place. Later, I received an eviction notice from my landlord’s attorneys asking me to leave the room before or by the end of November. Our bad living environment has come along with constant insults and bad words from the landlord. For countless times, I have looked into the dejected faces of my young sons and asked, “How can I get a supplementary job to get us out of this cruel situation?” I’ve contacted several brokers and apartment owners to get a house, but always. I’m told my income is small.
As things stand today, I’m still not able to find us a decent place from the income I’m making as an adjunct.
Mariama Khan is an adjunct lecturer in the department of Africana studies at Lehman College.
K-12 to CUNY
By TED KESLER
During 15 years of service, I became a celebrated New York city public elementary school teacher. The New York Times did a nine-part series about my third-grade class. I literally became the most public public-school teacher in the world. In 1997 I earned the prestigious Bank Street College Early Childhood Teacher of the Year Award, and in 2001 I earned my National Board of Professional Teaching Standards license. I was now ready to become a teacher educator and researcher of strong pedagogical practices.
When I made the transition to teacher education, I was so proud to accept a full-time position at Queens College, one of the senior colleges in the renowned CUNY system. Queens County is also the single most diverse county in the United States.
Members stayed late into the night to ensure their voices were heard.
I firmly believe that public education is one of the stalwarts of what makes America great. Empirical studies bear this out. For example, a 2017 op-ed in The New York Times reports that CUNY propels “almost six times as many low-income students into the middle class and beyond as all eight Ivy League campuses, plus Duke, MIT, Stanford and the [University of] Chicago, combined.”
In other words, CUNY does more to enable people to achieve our increasingly elusive American Dream than any institution out there. What could be a more productive use of taxpayers’ money?
I maintain unwavering commitment to this purpose as a tenured, associate professor, co-director of Queens College’s graduate program in elementary education. However, I also live in a constant state of frustration under the weight of austerity that glares at me and my students as we proceed with our mission of producing the next generation of great New York City public school teachers. The classroom where I teach this semester is decrepit and depressing. Three weeks ago, during class, a water bug dropped from the exposed ceiling onto one of my students’ notebooks.
For years I worked without a raise, so with inflation, I was earning less each year. Had I remained a public-school teacher – a job I loved – my salary would still pay me $25,000 or $27,000 more than my current salary.
Based on my personal story, I call on you, as trustees, to oppose austerity for CUNY and to take a public stand for a contract that is fully funded, includes real raises for all and increases adjunct pay to $7K per course.
Ted Kesler is the interim PSC chapter chair at Queens College, where he teaches elementary education and children’s literature.
A chair’s view
By JOHANNA LESSINGER
My own department, with at present eight full-time faculty, also hires some 40 adjuncts each semester to teach all the courses we are committed to offering. This is not unusual – all of CUNY depends heavily on an adjunct teaching force to fulfill its educational mission. It is exploitative. It is not an ideal system. But it is what we are stuck with for the moment. How do we make it viable? One answer is raising adjunct pay, as has already been done in other parts of the country.
My own job consists, along with teaching, in hiring, mentoring and supervising our department’s large adjunct work force. It is in the interests of our department, and its students, to keep this work force stable – to attract the best teachers, and to nurture them so that they mature, learn to teach a range of courses and become able to give the best education possible to our students.
Unfortunately, CUNY’s current inability or unwillingness to pay adjuncts adequately has a shattering effect on our ability to maintain that stability. Because of poverty, our adjunct work force, despite our best efforts to retain our most talented teachers over the long term, is constantly churning. We lose people each year – not, alas, to the full-time teaching jobs they deserve, but to other institutions that pay better, or to nonacademic jobs in the private sector. Person after person has told me how much they enjoy teaching at John Jay, how much they love their students, but that they simply can no longer afford to teach at CUNY.
Johanna Lessinger is the department chair of anthropology at John Jay College.
By ELLEN SEXTON
I am aware of the good work that is being done throughout CUNY with opening up scholarship and creating open educational resources. But open resources are not cost-free, and cannot be used to excuse an austerity budget. They may be free to the reader, but their creation, curation, description, discovery and distribution require workers.
Our students and faculty require access to scholarly literature that currently resides behind paywalls, and tools to search that literature. They need to read secondary materials that describe, analyze and contextualize our world. They need to see films and documentaries. They need books. This content is not free, and costs increase every year. Our vendors typically raise their prices 5 percent each year.
If our materials budgets do not also increase at at least the same rate, our funds are effectively cut. That manifests as a reduction each year experienced by our students and faculty in the library resources available to them.
I’ve been at John Jay College of Criminal Justice for 23 years and I’ve seen what the university and college can do to ensure our students succeed. To support student success, professors, including library faculty, must be present. Our last contract increased the annual leave available to library faculty to pursue their research agendas, as they are required to do, but did not include funds to cover additional full-time library faculty, so we have had to cut library services on campus. This is a reduction in services despite an increase in the numbers of students using the library.
Ellen Sexton is an associate professor in the library at John Jay College.
By DAVID JONES
In the statement announcing the agreement, Executive Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Vita Rabinowitz specifically highlighted the intended benefits of “the additional time faculty will now spend meeting and advising students, as well as on their research and scholarship.” She stated that this additional time was “critical…to CUNY’s goals of increasing graduation rates and remaining a premier research university.”
Unfortunately, since this statement, a major threat has emerged to the achievement of these goals.
Contrary to the stated intent of providing faculty with additional time, the senior colleges are currently responding to the agreement by taking away existing processes for providing faculty with time outside the classroom. The result has meant that for a majority of faculty on these campuses, there will be zero net increase in time outside the classroom. Hence, there can be no reasonable expectation that the agreement will in fact increase graduation rates or benefit CUNY’s scholarly reputation.
What is the reason for this counterproductive cannibalization of existing processes? College administrators have informed us, quite explicitly, that the direct cause is the failure of CUNY to fully fund the Teaching Load Reduction Agreement. Colleges have not been provided with the money to allow replacement of current courses by new full-time faculty. Consequently, they feel compelled to cut existing programs in order to pay for the Teaching Load Reduction Agreement.
As bad as failing to achieve the agreement’s stated goals might be, this is not the only problem with its current implementation.
Even more troubling, the retrenchment actions on the part of the senior colleges may actually be creating a perverse disincentive for scholarly excellence. Why? Some of the programs that colleges are phasing out in order to pay for the agreement are programs that incentivize and reward faculty publication. If this is done, the practical result will be that the only faculty who will receive an effective reduction in their workload as a result of the agreement are those who are non-research active. Accordingly, faculty who are currently research-active will rightly perceive diminished incentive and appreciation for scholarly productivity at CUNY.
In summary, while the shared goals of the Teaching Load Reduction Agreement are laudable, in practice its outcomes may be the opposite of what CUNY intended. These perverse outcomes can only be avoided if the agreement is fully funded.
I call on you as trustees to oppose austerity for CUNY. Take a public stand for a contract that is fully funded, includes real raises for all and increases adjunct pay.
David Jones is a professor of political science at Baruch College.
By SUSAN DIRAIMO
A few years ago I had the honor of having Lowell Hawthorne, the founder and owner of the Golden Krust Bakery, which opened in 1989, as my student. I require my students to do an investigative report and do volunteer work in a soup kitchen, food pantry or homeless shelter. Lowell Hawthorne did his report and after doing the report and volunteer work he donated $16,000 to the soup kitchen to fix their kitchen.
Lowell was an exceptional student. Last year, I was going to call him to ask him to set up a scholarship in his name at Lehman College, because he was so successful and continued to be part of the Lehman community.
But I was too late – he shot himself to death. If only I had called him the week before his death, he may have lived. As an adjunct I was running from college to college that week, too busy to call him. I was running from Lehman to City College to earn a decent wage. I wished I had called him. His obituary appeared in The New York Times. He was the hardworking son of a Jamaican baker who opened his own bakery in New York. Many mourned and we still do.
I am not arrogant enough to think I could have saved him, but I know that I need to have more time with students and former students.
Adjuncts need a living wage, $7K a course – we should not have to run from campus to campus. Call on the governor to fully fund our contract. I call on you as trustees to oppose austerity for CUNY.
Susan DiRaimo is an adjunct instructor at Lehman and City Colleges.
Tell it to Albany
By DAVID UNGER
David Unger, a program coordinator, has seen CUNY austerity both as a student and a staff member.
The majority of our courses are taught by adjunct instructors, many of whom have been teaching with us for years. They continue to teach our students – to give of themselves and their time – though we pay them poverty wages. As an administrator, I have been in the position of telling adjuncts that they do not have classes for the upcoming term, of watching as they begged for additional work so they could cover their rent or pay for their healthcare expenses.
As a grad student, most of my courses have been taught by adjuncts – also remarkably dedicated, giving people – given the poverty wages they are receiving. This is not OK.
You have the ability and power to fight with everything you have to ensure that contracts are fully funded by Albany. You have the ability and responsibility to fight for a budget that includes money for $7K per course for adjuncts and real raises for all.
There are, unacceptably, major problems with equity – not only for adjuncts, but among full-time staff as well. There are major issues of racial and gender-based discrimination in wages – issues that will require a fully funded CUNY to solve.
The “greatest urban university in the world” should be an example of raising standards and pushing boundaries to ensure equity and justice, not complicity in lowering them and keeping people in poverty and discriminated against.
In this past year, you signaled with the creation of the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies that the dignity of work and the people of this city matter. Now is your opportunity to make sure those same ideals are upheld in the budget and the contract. We will be watching.
David Unger is a program coordinator at the School of Labor and Urban Studies.