John Jay College of Criminal Justice (Credit: Erik McGregor)
It came as a complete surprise to many when it was announced that John Jay’s department of communications and theater arts would be eliminated at the end of Spring 2023.
“I was stunned. There was no indication that it was closing down,” said Richard Hoehler, an adjunct lecturer in the department who had been teaching there for five years. Hoehler said that he found out early this year that there would be no fall classes through a phone call related to his class scheduling for the fall semester. “I started looking for work,” he said.
But after the John Jay PSC chapter organized with students, adjuncts and full-time faculty, theater classes were saved.
Early this year, adjuncts from the department came to the PSC chapter at John Jay, which brought up the issue at a labor-management meeting.
“We led with the students. Here are working-class students clamoring for a liberal arts program at a criminal justice college. If you’re doing this, the PSC is going to continue to organize,” said Nivedita Majumdar, the chapter co-chair and a professor in the English department. “These are well-enrolled classes so what is the justification for shutting [them] down? [Administrators] didn’t offer any specific response.”
The union’s action clearly had an impact. The next day, the chapter learned that the administration was working on a solution. Ultimately, it moved theater classes and a theater minor to the English department, and by the Spring 2024, there should be a full roster of theater classes housed there. Full-time faculty have found placements in other departments at the college. This coming fall, there will be fewer classes, but the chapter will be working to find other classes for impacted part-time faculty members.
Several years ago, John Jay decided it would eliminate the department at the end of Spring 2023. But this was not known to many in the department, including the students. Slowly, over the years, full-time lines were denied in the department. Despite no low enrollment issues and its role as a vital arts department for the John Jay community, the closure was greenlighted by administration – without any college-wide discussion.
“The department has helped many students make sense of their lives, overcome fears, and gain confidence. Not only does it act as an outlet for students to get in touch with their inner beings, it allows them to understand the people around the world,” stated Michelle Ramos, a John Jay student who wrote an online change.org petition that garnered more than 1,500 signatures. “Getting rid of the communication and theater department has the student community at John Jay college saddened and outraged.”
The theater classes are taught by adjuncts. Without a department and without classes to teach, they face unemployment.
“I really love working at John Jay. I love the students. For the last 30 years, I’ve worked in high schools and community centers all over the city,” said Hoehler. “I just have a real connection with [the students]. I love the Black Box Theater. Everything is there to make a beautiful department.”
Hoehler hopes that theater classes in the English department don’t just get on the roster, but are supported and advertised, and that a theater minor is retained so that the program can develop. And John Jay students feel the same.
Elizabeth Hovey, chapter co-chair, recalled a powerful moment during a mid-March campus town hall meeting where Hovey’s testimony was followed by a John Jay student.
“A student got up and talked about how meaningful theater was to him. He talked about how much he cherished his adjunct faculty members and [asked] couldn’t the college be loyal to them and to the work they had done.”
Another student spoke, to say student productions would not continue without a department. They wouldn’t have the support.
Benny Heredia, who is majoring in criminology and minoring in film studies at John Jay, said acting classes have changed his life. Performing last fall in a play about acting and academic growth helped him find his confidence, he said.
“I’ve never really done acting before,” Heredia said “I’ve always watched movies and admired actors. I never knew I could do that.”
Published: June 21, 2023