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Home » Clarion » 2019 » September 2019 » Dept. chairs crushed by austerity: PSC report

Dept. chairs crushed by austerity: PSC report


Union offers fixes

The past decade of austerity at CUNY has made the job of department chairs increasingly difficult – and these faculty leaders describe being overworked, overmanaged and underresourced in a union report released in June.

The report, based on interviews with 136 current and former department chairs around the university between February 2016 and July 2017, found several factors that imposed hardships on department chairs: “the exponential expansion of the department chair workload, particularly of clerical and administrative work; the impact of freezes or deferments of full-time faculty hiring; insufficient compensation in both time and money; inadequate administrative support and resources; the effect on department functions of the shortage of full-time faculty and over-reliance on adjuncts…and the erosion of faculty governance in ways that undermine the chair’s authority to lead the department.”


In presenting the report at the June 20 Delegate Assembly, PSC President Barbara Bowen said that the findings were a “particularly illustrative study of what all faculty experience.” She noted that it was no accident that the study came out just as contract talks with CUNY intensified. Among union demands on the bargaining table is a provision that department chairs receive additional support. Bowen said, “This study leverages support for the department chairs’ demand.”

In the interviews, chairs offered “devastating” assessments, as Bowen put it. “Chairs…stressed an ongoing ‘administrative creep,’ as deans and provosts push more of the work once done in their own or other administrative offices down to departments. As a result, chairs are expected to oversee the academic well-being of departments while simultaneously taking on the work that shrunken or shuttered administrative student support offices no longer provide.”

The workload has become especially onerous, department chairs said, as they are expected to “be available by email 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” and that “the abundance of clerical tasks erodes time for 1) mentoring, nurturing and developing junior and mid-career faculty; and 2) guiding curricular reform, pedagogical and scholarly innovation, and other changes to meet the needs of a changing and complex teaching and learning environment.”

The report found that lack of adequate compensation was another significant problem.

“Colleagues elsewhere in the profession are shocked to learn about our workload,” one chair said in the report, “but they are even more shocked to learn about the chairs’ conditions of work, including the lack of compensation we receive throughout the nine-month contract period, as well as our summer pay, which is increasingly contingent upon our physical presence on campus no matter how much labor goes into chairing from home and elsewhere.”

Chairs also found that their pedagogical authority has been undermined by administrators who reject new courses not on pedagogical grounds but rather on financial ones. One chair observed, “Although I have served as chair for a long time, I will not put myself forward again for another term, and even wonder if I can stand fulfilling the obligations of this one, given the 24-7 nature of the job and lack of respect shown to department chairs by the dean, provost, president and CUNY Central.”

The report notes that because of decades of government underfunding, department chairs are often forced to deal with classrooms that are either too cold or too hot or don’t have enough space for classes to take place.

The report also noted that adjunctification of the professorate has had an effect on chairs’ roles.


The report said, “The growing imbalance between full-time and contingent labor has created more work for chairs because they increasingly must manage dozens of hourly employees – their hiring, course assignments, their classroom locations and work spaces, their pay, their teaching evaluations and observations – every semester. CUNY’s overreliance on part-time faculty to fill the gap left by underfunding often creates a revolving door of employees with no institutional memory and little or no time or expectation to perform departmental service. CUNY’s inadequate pay for adjuncts also makes recruitment and retention difficult and deeply undermines morale in the department as a whole.”

The dire situation for department chairs affects not just faculty morale, but the quality of education. A key takeaway from the report is this: if educational leaders are overworked, overstressed and underresourced, the problems associated with austerity will inevitably undercut the quality of education for CUNY students.

PSC Secretary Nivedita Majumdar noted that it was important for CUNY administrators, especially the new chancellor, to listen to the voices of department chairs and look to make substantive fixes. “These voices,” Majumdar said of the department chairs’ interviews during the June Delegate Assembly, “are especially key.”


The report offers several solutions:

  • “Compensation: To incentivize professors to take on the burden of chairing departments for the benefit of students, junior and mid-career faculty, and the larger institution, CUNY needs to compensate them properly, in time and money. A reasonable amount of compensation would be teaching no more than one course per year and receiving at least a $10,000 stipend while serving as chair. Such compensation would be commensurate with what chairs receive at comparable universities, including public universities.”
  • “Reassigned time: Every college needs to have a documented, fair and equitable rationale for the reassigned time it currently provides to department and program chairs. The current allocation of reassigned time is too often arbitrary, inequitable and based upon questionable statistics. Consultation with departments and department chairs is needed to create a more equitable formula for reassigned time. The formula should take into account the size of departments and the support systems available to assist with daily, semester-long and year-long demands.”
  • “Support staff: Every department needs support staff who have the talents, skills and training needed to meet the challenges of the position. Every department, regardless of size, should have at least one HEO who can help to lighten the administrative load of the department chair.”
  • “Support for scholarship: Chairs have little or no time for scholarship, yet CUNY holds them accountable for scholarly production. Consequently, many department chairs see the need for a cap on chair service unless conditions and supports for chairs change substantially. Some chairs recommend a limit on the number of terms or years a chair may serve. Given the current lack of institutional support, some chairs recommend that department chairs should not have to serve in the summer, allowing them time to do scholarly or creative work. In this case, colleges would have to pay summer deputies to do the work, compensating them properly and providing the training and authorizations they need. A better solution would be to compensate and support chairs fairly while also providing targeted support for their scholarly work.”
  • “Seniority: No assistant professor should be pressured to serve as department chair and no associate professor should serve as a department chair until she or he has begun to meet the scholarly expectations required for promotion to full professor.”
  • “Full-time faculty: To meet the educational mission of the University, CUNY needs to place more emphasis on hiring additional full-time faculty members and secure the resources to do so. Administrators, removed from the challenges of instruction and academic discipline, cannot substitute for chairs. CUNY Central needs to ensure that certain administrative work currently done by department chairs is returned to being the responsibility of deans and provosts, that student support service offices are properly staffed and that departments receive the support staff they need.”
  • “Part-time faculty: CUNY needs to end its reliance on part-time faculty. Adjunct faculty now teach the majority of the University’s courses, a ratio that is a far cry from the goal once routinely included in CUNY Master Plans of 70 percent full-time faculty and 30 percent part-time faculty. The overreliance on adjuncts, coupled with exceptionally low adjunct pay, places special strain on department chairs. Until the ‘missing’ 4,000 full-time faculty positions are restored to CUNY, department chairs will continue to be structurally impeded in their responsibilities.”


The report was sponsored in part by a New York State United Teachers grant. Interviews were conducted by Jocelyn Wills, professor of history at Brooklyn College, and Michael Spear, assistant professor of history at Kingsborough Community College. The report was also facilitated by Michael Fabricant (PSC legislative chair), Nivedita Majumdar (PSC secretary), Francis Clark (PSC communications coordinator) and Deborah Bell (PSC executive director).

The full report can be viewed online.

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