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Home » Clarion » 2020 » December 2020 » Adjuncts face dire situation as CUNY downsizes

Adjuncts face dire situation as CUNY downsizes


Council, PSC slam admin

City Councilwoman Helen Rosenthal sharply questioned CUNY officials.

At a November City Council hearing hosted by both the Higher Education and Civil Service and Labor Committees, the CUNY administration went to great lengths to insist that the nearly 2,000 adjunct workers who were not reappointed this year were not “laid off.” Council Member Helen Rosenthal, to put it mildly, wasn’t having it.

“Non-reappointment means layoff,” she said. “To a human being, it means layoff.”


Rosenthal, who serves on the civil service and labor committee, added that the term “non-reappointment” was itself jargon meant to mask what such a bureaucratic action does to a terminated worker. “[Non-reappointment] is a strange phrase, you know. It’s a double negative and it’s really hard to wrap your head around what that means,” she said.

Rosenthal was speaking directly to CUNY Senior Vice Chancellor and Chief Financial Officer Matthew Sapienza and Senior Vice Chancellor for Labor Relations Pamela Silverblatt, who were representing the CUNY administration. In the tense encounter, Rosenthal demanded to know what actions the administration took to find other cost savings before, as she put it, taking “the drastic step of adding to the city’s unemployment issue” by laying off adjunct faculty members. Rosenthal specifically asked about the central administration’s involvement at Medgar Evers College, which terminated all of its adjuncts who were eligible for 3-year appointments. Silverblatt merely responded that every campus had the autonomy to make staffing decisions on its own.

“Come on. No red flag? Please,” Rosenthal said in regard to the massive layoffs of adjunct faculty at the central Brooklyn campus. “What was your discussion with Medgar Evers College? How do you know that they made every effort not to do that?”

Silverblatt, again, responded that college administrations are “entrusted to manage their schools.”

Rosenthal was stunned.

“I don’t appreciate your non-answer,” she said. “Like a non-reappointment, that’s a non-answer.”


City Council Higher Education Committee Chair Inez Barron, too, wasn’t pleased with the administration’s explanation for letting go 3,000 part-time instructors. “We know that CUNY relies on adjuncts for the bulk of the instruction,” she said. “So why are we now gutting that body that is responsible for delivering that instruction?”

Had the pandemic not occurred, the hearing might have been an opportunity to report some good news for adjuncts: Last year, the union ratified an agreement boosting adjunct faculty pay, as much as 70%, for the lowest-paid instructors over the life of the contract. But the CUNY administration has cited the ongoing state and city budget crisis as a reason for downsizing in the part-time ranks. PSC officials and members have said this has led to longtime instructors losing income and health insurance, as well as swelling class sizes – a problem that has overwhelmed instructors. The union is currently fighting the adjunct layoffs through the grievance process.
PSC adjunct faculty members, laid-off faculty members, full-time faculty members and elected union officers testified at the hearing about the dire situation CUNY’s adjuncts are facing today.

“They rushed to lay off adjuncts even before cuts were applied, revealing the deep structural problem of contingency,” PSC President Barbara Bowen said of CUNY management.

She insisted that the Council “demand that CUNY use $30 million in CARES Act money now to put those adjuncts back on the payroll, regardless of the pressure they are getting from the governor’s budget director, who has been installed on the CUNY Board.”

CUNY runs on adjuncts

CUNY relies disproportionately on adjuncts to teach classes, as well as part-time workers like non-teaching adjuncts, continuing education teachers and college laboratory technicians. All these people (almost half of the CUNY workforce) work tirelessly to provide support and a world-class education for their working-class students and students of color. You don’t become an adjunct at CUNY unless you care about your students. Adjuncts need better working conditions and protections so that we can provide educational and emotional support for our students – whether by helping with difficult coursework, making time to listen to students’ concerns or connecting them with other resources they may need.

Every adjunct knows students who have experienced the death of a family member, faced job loss or became sick themselves. We cannot support our students if we ourselves are worried about losing our jobs and health insurance, or if we are juggling five, 10, 20 or more students. (Best practices for online teaching suggest about 12 students per class.) Part-timers at CUNY deserve to be recognized and respected for the work we do to make CUNY what it is, and yet we are treated as disposable. We are neither paid sufficiently for our work nor given job security.


Rose Squillacote is the PSC vice president for part-time personnel.

In fact, CUNY administration made the decision to lay off almost 2,000 part-time workers in the middle of the COVID pandemic. Thanks to the union’s advocacy, some workers were able to regain their jobs, but many others are left without income and without any insurance during one of the most serious health and economic crises of our time. (COBRA is simply not a financial option for adjuncts, as the cheapest option is about $900 per month.) On top of this, at Medgar Evers and Bronx Community College, CUNY fired dozens of adjuncts who had previously been recommended for a three-year contract, one of the few sources of job security offered to adjuncts. This was an insult both to workers and to the union.

We are demanding that laid-off part-time workers get their jobs and health insurance back. CUNY administration would have us believe they are strapped for cash, but other university administrators have taken meaningful pay cuts – more than a mere five-day furlough – that have allowed their universities to continue to function. We have seen no such decency from CUNY, which has not even used federal CARES Act money to preserve our jobs.


More generally, part-timers simply need to be paid a decent wage. Currently, if I were to work “full-time” as an adjunct (and my earnings are in the higher range of what adjuncts make), teaching six classes a year, I would make $30,000 a year pre-tax – about $19 an hour. This is despite the fact that I have a law degree, and despite the fact that I have a family to provide for. Adjuncts should be paid at least $7,000 per class, should have meaningful job security, and should be given the ability to transition to a full-time position. What CUNY really needs – specifically what the workers and students need – is a free and fully funded CUNY. It is past time to invest in public institutions like CUNY, through legislation like the millionaires’ tax and the New Deal for CUNY. Our dignity and safety demand it. New York’s recovery demands it.

Rosa Squillacote
Adjunct Assistant Professor, Political Science
Hunter College
PSC Vice President, Part-Time Personnel

Adjuncts at 2-years

This past summer, more than 100 part-time positions were eliminated at Kingsborough Community College (KCC), and many others have had their hours severely curtailed – some of whom had worked at Kingsborough for more than 20 years. No committee or any other form of shared governance was consulted in these decisions at KCC.

Community college students are among the most disadvantaged in New York City and the least prepared for college. They need more individualized attention, not less. CUNY is making up for the lost adjuncts by crowding students into larger classes – lowering the quality of their education. Case in point: For the Spring 2021 semester, English Composition 1 at Kingsborough is capped at 29 students, while at Baruch, the same English Comp classes are capped at only 15 students. I ask the council to consider the following question: Why is it that CUNY sets course caps at one of its flagship campuses in line with national norms, yet has no problem with crowding Kingsborough’s students into classes almost twice that size? CUNY repeatedly publicizes its commitment to equity. I ask the council members, Does this sound like equity to you? That CUNY is an institution where inequity is allowed to flourish is obvious. The time has come for our elected officials to demand answers from the decision-makers as to why they have allowed this to happen. Kingsborough’s students are not “less than,” and it is time to stop treating them as though they are.


The use of contingent labor is inexorably linked to the de-prioritization of community college students at CUNY, and this is evidenced by the diversion of funding for the classroom and student support. The disadvantaged students of New York need their elected officials to stand up for them and force CUNY to make the right decisions – decisions that will be contrary to the administrative ethos that has dominated CUNY for years, and that continues to fail our students every day.

Scott Cally
Professor, Communications and Performing Arts
PSC Chapter Chair, Kingsborough Community College

In the libraries

I’m here to speak about the situation of non-teaching adjuncts (NTAs) at CUNY, specifically those in the CUNY libraries. As CUNY Senior Vice Chancellor and Chief Financial Officer Matthew Sapienza noted, NTAs perform work identical to full-time faculty in areas including counseling, advising and librarianship. Yet NTAs are paid at an extremely low rate: 60%, not of their full-time peers, but of teaching adjuncts, who themselves make a fraction of full-time wages. Many of these employees are in the academic “gig economy” and in desperate need of even this form of exploitative employment to survive.

In the libraries, NTAs provide essential reference, instruction and other library services. As full-time staffing levels have dropped and as the hiring freeze has been extended, NTAs have been essential in maintaining any semblance of normal service levels for CUNY students and faculty who depend on the libraries for their academic and scholarly success. Additionally, they have been at the heart of CUNY’s Open Educational Resources (OER) initiatives.


As a result of CUNY’s voluntary and unnecessary decision to follow Betsy DeVos’s optional guidance and the university’s failure to act independently to use CARES Act money to keep workers on payroll as Congress intended, many NTAs have had their hours cut.

NTAs were one of several titles in the PSC to experience harrowing month-to-month employment prior to CUNY adopting a temporary budget, and they may be in that position again going forward. The precarity our adjuncts experience is already terrible, and the level of precarity inflicted on them in recent months is wholly unacceptable. It must not happen again.

In addition to having hours cut and receiving monthly contracts, some NTAs were, from the onset of the semester, only given work until the end of October. Other library NTAs, particularly those working in the area of OER, were reappointed but haven’t been called back to work due to state allocated OER funding not having yet come through.

It’s shameful that the most vulnerable employees in CUNY are bearing the brunt of CUNY’s DeVos-guided choices. It bears noting that, despite the current crisis, CUNY enrollment is near an all-time high. We need investment in CUNY not only to keep our NTAs on the job and in the service of our students, but so that we can fill full-time vacancies with these amazing librarians and grow our services to meet the needs of our record-breaking enrollment.

Robert Farrell
Associate Professor, Library
PSC Chapter Chair, Lehman College

Job cuts hurt

This summer, 2,800 people were laid off across CUNY. Many lost their health insurance if not their job. There was a lawsuit against CUNY for not using the federal CARES Act money allotted to the university ($251,000,000) to keeppaying its employees during this crisis. Legislators such as Congressman Max Rose have written letters to Chancellor Matos Rodríguez stating very clearly that their intent in enacting the law was to support CUNY in keeping employees insured and on the job during this extremely difficult time.


We adjuncts make under $5,000 a class per semester, well under standards determined by organizations such as the MLA. Most likely it is these low wages that have appealed to administrators at CUNY, since we also make up the majority of the workforce. Yet after 2,800 people were laid off, Matos Rodríguez stated on the Brian Lehrer Show that no full-time employees lost their jobs. The idea is that we’re part-time, so expendable. I have 77 students. Does that sound part-time?

Please consider the plight of adjuncts and tax the uber-wealthy to fund our institution and undo the slow bleed of austerity that is increasing now during this crisis.

Ian Ross Singleton
Adjunct Assistant Professor and Adjunct Lecturer, English
Baruch College and City Tech

A personal loss

Along with hundreds of other adjuncts, at the end of June, I received a three-line form email from the college HR director informing me that I would not be reappointed for the fall semester.

My years as an adjunct started in the spring semester of 1972. Yes, that’s correct. Forty-eight ago I became a “temporary” employee. Since that time, I was offered courses each semester by each of the department’s four different chairpersons, until now.

I received not a personal word in regard to my impending departure from the college. Nothing. Not from the department chair and not from the director of HR, in spite of both of them knowing me for decades. I’m not surprised. Over 22 years ago I took a semester off to help a dying parent who lived out of state. When I returned to the college, after my father’s death, I was rewarded by the college for being a caring son with a reduction in rank from adjunct assistant professor to adjunct lecturer. The administrators, at least at this college, are far too busy with important matters to waste any of their precious time or effort on being decent human beings.


CUNY’s administration is an utter disgrace in their mishandling of this mess. It was totally unprepared in regard to how to handle the disaster of COVID-19, and I found that its greatest concern seemed to be how adjuncts like me were going to meet their office hour requirements once we went over to online teaching. I would be happy if CUNY’s administrators signed up for my course. They might actually learn about contingency planning and how to do their jobs as responsible, fair-minded managers.

Bernard A. Bilawsky
Adjunct Lecturer, Business
Queensborough Community College

Reappointed, but not reassigned

In June, I received notice that I would not be assigned any summer session classes at LaGuardia Community College’s English Language Center. I received the same email in August about the fall session, despite having been reappointed, as I have been for three decades at CUNY, for the new academic year. I stand before you, with four decades of teaching experience – three of them at CUNY colleges, two of them at The English Language Center (TELC) – with all the requisite degrees, without a paycheck, without health coverage, without any kind of assurance that I will be assigned teaching hours in the future, and having had to suddenly alter my plans and dreams.


I have become “expensive.” And so has my medication, which formerly cost $20, and now costs $670.

This, after two decades of helping students learn through essay collections containing seven to 10 multi-draft essays each; of spending a minimum of nine hours per week on the essays from only one section; of developing materials for readings, from Shirley Jackson to E. B. White, from MLK to AOC; of having to find innovative solutions to broken copiers and no access to the LaGCC print shop; of having to hustle for whiteboard markers; of having to quickly learn to teach remotely through Schoology, Zoom, Google Docs and Blackboard; of having to figure out scanning with my cell phone; of many uncompensated extra hours with students; of a night class of 26 students in three levels, all of whom excelled.


My students have been pole dancers and surgeons, busboys and engineers, chefs and lawyers, construction workers and TV news anchors, architects and office cleaners, tired Amazon warehouse workers, street food vendors, future nurses, essential workers, teenagers, senior citizens, parents, gay, straight, trans.

Some have fled violence and war. They have had spouses killed in Windows on the World on 9/11, and they have had relatives in ICE detention. They have come from all over the world, and have continued at LaGuardia, CUNY, and other colleges around the city and country.

For 20 years, at TELC, I have provided them with challenge and support. With my adjunct colleagues, I wish to continue doing so.

I respect our challenges. But let’s look to history. As PSC President Bowen has pointed out, Brooklyn College was created during the Great Depression. The crisis should be a shared burden, not an opportunity to balance budgets on the backs of adjuncts, whose contribution to CUNY is almost impossible to overstate, and has never been paid in full.

I respect this crisis. But the crisis will end, and with my thousands of adjunct colleagues I ask that council members and college administrators listen carefully to what we are saying, commit to rehiring adjuncts, to doing what it takes to invest in the largest public university system in the U.S., because not only is it the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do.

Rebecca Vaughan
Adjunct Lecturer, The English Language Center
LaGuardia Community College

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