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Home » Clarion » 2024 » June 2024 » From the streets to the boardroom

From the streets to the boardroom

Members take anger to the bossesBy CLARION STAFF

Members (and their loved ones) from around the city demonstrate outside of City Tech in Brooklyn. (Photo Credit: Paul Frangipane)

Students and members came out in force on April 1 to a CUNY Board of Trustees hearing at City Tech in downtown Brooklyn to demand that the administration advocate for more investment in CUNY and reach a fair and just contract settlement with the PSC.

Going into the summer, the union is continuing to fight for a contract and securing full funding for CUNY from the city and state. Part of that battle is over, as the state legislature and the governor have finalized the state budget. According to the governor’s budget presentation, it includes $1.2 billion for SUNY and CUNY capital projects and $207 million for SUNY and CUNY operations.

Like the past two years, this year’s state budget includes more CUNY operating aid than the previous year and $40 million more than was in the governor’s executive budget in January. From the PSC’s perspective, however, this falls short of what the union and its allies have advocated for. While the PSC and other progressive advocates are fighting against Mayor Eric Adams’s austerity budget proposal, City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams and other city lawmakers have vowed to fight for more funding for CUNY in the city budget.

At the bargaining table, CUNY has put forward an economic offer, which the union believes falls very short of what members deserve. CUNY also wants givebacks on job security and other protections.

MANAGEMENT OFFER

The union said in a recent bargaining update: “In further response to CUNY management’s comprehensive proposal of March 27, the PSC presented an economic counterproposal that would meet our members’ real needs. Management had proposed a four-and-a-half year contract with across-the-board raises every 13 months for four years. With pay retroactive to June 2023, the raises that management proposed total a compounded 12.82% over the contract. They included funds for additional equity raises, an increased Welfare Fund contribution to support our supplemental benefits and a $3,000 ratification bonus – a feature of other public-sector contracts in this round – but restricted the proposed bonus to full-time employees. The PSC’s counterproposal included areas of salary equity that will require more money than management proposed, a higher Welfare Fund contribution, pay that is fully retroactive for all members back to the start of the contract and annual across-the-board raises of 5.5% in 2023, 5.5% in 2024, 3.5% in 2025 and 3.5% in 2026 for a total compounded rate of 19.23%.”

The union continues to fight on all of these fronts. The April BOT action was a big part of that fight. Below are excerpts from some of the fiery testimony members delivered.


Kicked to the curb

I started teaching as an adjunct more than 20 years ago, in the fall of 2003, and I joined the Brooklyn College part-time faculty in 2016. It will come as a surprise to exactly no one in this room that it isn’t easy to make a living solely as an adjunct – the pay is low, the job security tenuous, the benefits rare.

Members marching with sign that says don't fool with adjuncts

Brooklyn College adjunct Helen Pfeffer calls on CUNY to show more commitment to students. (Photo Credit: Paul Frangipane)

So why do any of us do it? In my case, teaching felt like something I was meant to do. I came to it with a good deal of real-world experience in my field, and I wanted to pass that knowledge along. Working with students to achieve their academic and creative goals, and adapting to the changes this world has thrown at all of us in recent years has been an immense source of personal and professional satisfaction for me. I’m certainly not alone. In the two decades I’ve been teaching, the dedication of my fellow adjuncts, who go above and beyond what’s required of them, who freely give of themselves both to their colleagues and their students, is a source both of pride and of awe to me.

We are now being challenged as never before. All of us have seen our courses eliminated or reassigned to full-time faculty. We’re being asked to teach at less desirable times. We have little assurance of continued employment – less than in prior years, in fact – and perhaps most damagingly, because of all this, it is now almost certain that I will lose the health insurance that took me years to qualify for.

However, I won’t say I feel unappreciated. The full-time faculty I teach alongside, and the succession of department chairs I’ve answered to, have not been reticent about letting me know that I am valued. Which is very nice. But. I note here that my area of expertise is television writing and production. And I teach my students that to be effective at this, you need to show, not tell. It’s time to show us what you and we know to be true – that we are essential to the success of Brooklyn College. And the way you do that is by matching our commitment with yours.

Helen Pfeffer
Adjunct lecturer, television and film
Brooklyn College


Decade in wait

I have only spoken here one other time – the day 10 years ago when you made me a distinguished professor. I told you that day what an honor it is to get to teach Brooklyn College students – as I traveled around the country, speaking at so many universities, I was always so glad to get back to my CUNY students.

Jeanne Theoharis fears CUNY has stopped seeing students as ‘future leaders.’ (Photo Credit: Paul Frangipane)

The kinds of conversations we have in class across boundaries of religion, race, ethnicity and experience, the tenderness and care students show with each other and me, the ways they articulate the power of education model the best of what this society can be.

Ten years later, I feel that more than ever. While I have spoken at hundreds more places, there is probably no place I feel more optimistic about the possibilities for this country than in class at Brooklyn College. I have watched my students become lawyers and activists, teachers and committed public servants.

But I am here today because I fear that you have stopped seeing our students as the future leaders of this country. CUNY administration has put forward changes to the bylaws that seek to move control over which courses are scheduled and which professors are hired from departments and chairs to deans and provosts. This would imperil the kind of rich and wide-ranging education our students deserve. Various explanations have been offered for these changes: This would make CUNY more “efficient,” respond to “student demand,” help consolidate CUNY’s resources and prioritize what students need to “get jobs” and away from “boutique courses.”

NO CEILING

I got my undergraduate degree at Harvard and my doctorate at the University of Michigan. You don’t hear those students described in terms of efficiencies and education to get jobs. Those students get to shop in the boutique. They get to have education for education’s sake, decided by faculty in the departments who are the experts in their fields, because it is understood that they warrant a wide, unbounded education to be able to excel in whatever they put their mind to.

So should our students. They don’t deserve a ceiling, and what those bylaw changes do is lower the ceiling over our students’ heads.

Last year, when the Supreme Court came back with its wrongheaded decision against Harvard’s race-conscious affirmative action, and scores of articles were published about the importance and fate of diversity on college campuses, I kept thinking: Surely CUNY’s chancellor, vice chancellor or Board of Trustees will step up and write a powerful piece in The Times or The Chronicle saying that one of the most important things people who care about diversity in the university can do is fully fund public universities like CUNY.

I am still waiting for that article. Instead, you are contemplating changes to the bylaws that will make CUNY worse, more vocational, give students even less of what they deserve while further corporatizing the University. Ten years ago, I told you how proud I am to teach at CUNY. Now I come here today to demand that you be as proud of our students and their potential as I am, and push for full funding and a new deal for CUNY, and reject these bylaw changes.

Jeanne Theoharis
Distinguished professor, political science
Brooklyn College


Step by step

I have worked for over 12 years in an Assistant to HEO line, and while I could be censured for want of ambition, I could also be praised for my dedication. I have had a good home for the past many years, and had not thought to move, preferring to place my ambition elsewhere.

By now, the majority of jobs that are on the HEO Assistant line offer salary ranges that are below what I currently earn. With the passing time, my salary incrementally grows, which should be a blessing, but which, paradoxically, has this negative effect of placing me out of positions for which I might be considered, given that the advertisement of a certain salary rate also signals an intention not to pay a higher one.

This is the reason why I testify in support of the argument for more steps. I have already made a request for reclassification within my department, but it has been answered by the director with the reply that the budget does not allow for it, even as both he and my supervisor, who is his direct report, recognize my good work and say so. The director and a loyal employee of his from his former place of work, for whom he created a new Assistant to HEO line, have themselves been newly hired over the past two years, which suggests that, while he might be in good faith in his reply, he fails to perceive the unfairness of it.

CONTINUED GROWTH

So with reclassification blocked, it is clear that I must pursue the path of “up and out” as the only route to promotion. Adding steps in the salary scale would allow me more time to do so without running into the Assistant to HEO salary cap, and I need the time on account of the diminishing number of HEO Assistant positions available at my current salary rate.

I have always been of the view that, if CUNY is intended as a vehicle to propel students into the middle class, the same should hold true for its faculty and staff members, so I think it is a reasonable request to allow for continued growth in a position in which I have excelled while waiting for an opportunity for a forced choice to present itself.

Brad Rappaport
Coordinator, Continuing Education Programs
Hunter College


Need multiyear appointments

I was asked to speak today about the devastating effects of dismantling the three-year contract program for adjuncts, and that’s what I planned to do. Removing the paltry job security I now have will, indeed, be devastating for me and many others – it will make our lives even more hand-to-mouth, more stressful, remove any respite from the looming specter of financial insecurity and desperation we all face.

Woman with a scarf speaks into bullhorn.

Jessica DeCoux: ‘CUNY is being murdered, choked of resources.’ (Photo Credit: Paul Frangipane)

But you know that already. Just like you know, because you have already heard it dozens of times from people like me, that we adjuncts are the victims of massive wage theft at CUNY’s hands, that we and our students are being deprived of basic resources, that we are underfunded and exploited. You already know this.

The question is, “Why is it this way?” The answer we get is that there’s no choice. We have to balance the books, to run CUNY like a business. And that would seem to be your mandate, given that there’s only one faculty member and one student among you. The rest of you are in banking, law, finance, PR, etc. – you’re businesspeople, meant to run CUNY like a business. That in and of itself is a horrifying prospect, but if that is the goal, then nothing that CUNY does makes sense. Good businesspeople do not toss out competent and experienced employees at the first sign of downturn, only to spend money and time rehiring less experienced people a few months later when the numbers rebound. Good businesspeople do not deny their employees access to basic photocopying services, or mold-free workspaces, or reliable access to toilet paper. Good bosses don’t rewrite their bylaws to take decision-making ability out of the hands of the only managers with any practical, day-to-day knowledge of their departments. Good businesspeople lock in their valuable employees and provide them with the resources they need to succeed.

Your decisions and policies only make sense if we acknowledge that they are not meant to keep CUNY running; they’re meant to kill it. Whatever you think your role in CUNY is, the fact is that your job is to preside over the world’s slowest execution. CUNY is being murdered, choked of resources, and all of your short-sighted budget-balancing policies only hurry the process along. We here on the ground, the ones who love CUNY, may not be able to stop you, but we’ll keep screaming while you do it. This is one of those screams.

Jessica DeCoux
Adjunct lecturer, English
City Tech


Things fall apart

As I went to the third-floor cafeteria to get some lunch today, I saw all the signs of a rainy day in New York. A bright yellow plastic rain catcher the shape and size of a kiddie pool lay near the exit. Two buckets were strategically placed on the third floor of the West Building, the main hub of Hunter’s 68th Street campus, a familiar sight from heavy showers past.

Woman speaks into bullhorn

Sarah Chinn outlines how austerity is taking a toll on Hunter College buildings and services. (Photo Credit: Paul Frangipane)

It wasn’t all bad, though. The handwritten “Broken” sign that had been on one of the four elevators that could take me up to my 12th-floor office was no longer there, although it lay enigmatically on the floor. (It was sort of a Schrödinger’s cat moment: Given the lack of clear information, the elevator could be said to be both broken and working at the same time.) Luckily, the mystery was solved when the double doors opened and a tightly packed crowd was disgorged from the interior.

NOTHING WORKS

I had forgotten to get a fork for my lunch; fortunately, I kept spares in my office. I couldn’t just pop down to the cafeteria and pick one up –napkins, forks, spoons, salt packets and condiments are no longer on top of a counter by the cash registers. Instead, as a cost-saving measure, cashiers dispense them one by one.

Once back in my office and fed, I wasn’t able to make copies for my next class: Both of our copiers were broken and faculty were told that they wouldn’t be up and running for at least four days. Well, I thought, I can just run over to the senate office and make copies there. But then I remembered that all the copy machines and printers throughout the office were out of toner, because the funding for office supplies for the Spring semester hadn’t come through yet. So I ended up using a scanner app on my phone, emailing the file to myself, and uploading it to Blackboard so at the very least students could look at it on their phones.

This was a pretty good day, all things considered. It was cool enough that I didn’t have to run a fan, a necessity when my office reaches 80 degrees, given the risk of blowing the electric circuit. A couple of times when I was department chair, we tried to run the fan in the main office while using the printer and shut down the electricity in half the offices on the 12th floor. We should have known better: The same thing had happened the previous winter when it was so cold that we had to use a space heater in the department office and blew the fuses for the whole floor.

Plus, three out of the four stalls in the 11th-floor women’s room were working (in Hunter West, men’s rooms are on even-numbered floors, women’s on odd numbers – an efficiency from the building’s construction). And since water was constantly running in one of the toilets, I was saved the extra effort of flushing.

This is what austerity has brought us to. And the West building is not nearly as bad as North, where whole science labs have had to close down because they are so decrepit. Faculty, students and staff are implicitly being told that because we’re at CUNY this is all we deserve. But let me say this now, once, and clearly: We deserve better – and more.

Sarah Chinn
Professor, English
Hunter College


Defend the outer boroughs

I am here today to testify and advocate for resources for the colleges in the boroughs other than Manhattan. In times of austerity and scarcity, the distribution of resources is not the same at every campus. For several years now, and especially in the science disciplines, there has been an unequal allocation of resources for the oldest senior college campuses. After the Decade of Science, CUNY decided to provide more support to the campuses in Manhattan (mostly City and Hunter College). Thus, from 2010 to 2020 there were more hires, and CUNY established the Advanced Science Research Center, and supported the construction of new buildings and laboratory rental space at outside medical schools. Now there are construction projects underway at Baruch and Hunter. Do not get me wrong, I am happy for these colleges, and I collaborate extensively with the ASRC. I am not advocating for removing resources from these places. On the contrary, I came to tell you that providing resources is strategy that works. When you invest and allocate resources, you can hire faculty members who in turn will excel, providing outstanding education, scholarship, prestige, grants, initiatives and resources for their colleges and the University, enhancing the overall university classification ranking and students’ education experience.

AFTER COVID

However, in moments of austerity when CUNY makes cuts and stops, reduces or slows down meaningful capital projects, this is not done equally across the University. The colleges in the outer boroughs have suffered a real disinvestment. They have suffered accumulative hiring cuts over the years, and they have not undergone necessary renovations and maintenance of buildings. Many students are forced to go to other Manhattan colleges in CUNY, which affects enrollment and makes the outer borough colleges look like the bad guys. You may think that we should have a consolidation of resources, and that students can travel. This would be true for a typical young college student, not working and without family obligations. This profile only represents a fraction of our students. When you do not invest in personnel and infrastructure in the outer boroughs, you are forcing students to travel, limiting their educational opportunities due to long commutes. Our students deserve to choose campuses that are convenient to them geographically and close to their communities. Our faculty and staff members also deserve better.

Board members, this is an issue of equity and CUNY needs to address it now. At the outer borough colleges, we need investment to support our educational mission, and initiatives that will bring funds to the whole University and will increase enrollment. NYC is not only Manhattan, and CUNY is also not only Manhattan but the biggest urban university in the world! Please, board members, do not forget the outer borough colleges. Please advocate for a more generous budget from New York State.

Maria Contel
Professor, Chemistry
Brooklyn College


A new ethos

The events following the pandemic have left us with new obstacles to deal with. According to the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research organization at Arizona State University, 16 million students missed more than 10% of school days during the 2021–22 school year, twice as many as in previous years. The CRPE also noted in its “State of the American Student” report in September 2022 that more than eight in 10 public schools reported “stunted behavioral and social-emotional development” in students because of the pandemic, according to researchers.

Going forward, a focus on student-centered policies and programs that improve access, completion and equity in our higher education systems will be critical. And for all the many problems created by the pandemic, it also provided an opportunity to innovate and invest in approaches that are known to work.

FEAR OF RETURN

In October 2022, during a daylong convention entitled “Beyond Recovery: Seizing Opportunities to Transform Education in a Post-COVID Era,” U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona shared, “One of my greatest fears is that we go back to how education was in 2020.” Specifically, a system “that didn’t work for too many students who look like me. Returning to the same system would be failing our students.” He went on to note, “Those who were vulnerable were hit the hardest.”

When challenged to list the changes he considered most critical, Cardona named mental health support, which he went on to say, “has to be pervasive.”

It is with this ethos I encourage you to view our work and imbue such practices in our code of conduct.

We must strive to do more than return to the way things used to be after the setbacks caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The main purpose of student conduct systems is education. The goal is to have each incident of misconduct create a learning opportunity for the student. In addition, conduct officers strive to repair any harm done to the community. People make mistakes. Our students are going through a pivotal developmental time in college. We want students to be successful, and that includes providing support that helps them to learn from mistakes, and more importantly, with the goal of the holistic development of the student experience.

REIMAGINE

Charting many of our actions from the remnant that is the Rules and Regulations for the Maintenance of Public Order Pursuant to Article 129-A of the Educational Law will not meet this goal. It is time we as a University reimagine how we address and resolve behavioral concerns that may come through the student conduct process. One that focuses on a restorative, educational approach, and collaborative conflict resolution to empower students to make better decisions in the future. Embedding restorative practices in student conduct is an approach adopted by many institutions of higher education. Across the nation, these practices have proved to be an effective method to address such behaviors and help participants better understand the root cause of behaviors that often surface as mere student conduct violations.

Kevin Adams
Director of Community Standards
Medgar Evers College


Lesson learned?

Hello, and welcome to our first day of ENG 110 Expository Writing at Hostos Community College. My name is Craig Bernardini. You can call me Professor Bernardini, or Mr. Bernardini, or Professor; you can call me Craig, if you feel comfortable doing so. I need to get a certified roll, so please make sure to sign the sheet that’s going around. We may also need to check your bursar’s receipt, to make sure you’re in the right place. I’m going to spend a fair amount of time today reviewing the syllabus with you and taking any questions you have. But this is a writing class, we’ll be writing almost every day in class, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. One of my goals this semester is to persuade you that writing isn’t simply transcribing some pre-existing thought; it is actually a way of shaping thought, and by doing so coming to think more clearly and with greater sophistication. As the saying goes, “How do I know what I think until I read what I write?”

My colleague Professor Robertson, from whom I have learned a great deal, uses the term “thINK” (like “thinking in INK”) to describe these in-class writing activities (and they needn’t always be in class) that give us the opportunity to articulate our ideas in writing, and hence come to know our thoughts better and indeed think more clearly. Sometimes I’ll use these thINK activities to present you with hypothetical or “what if” scenarios, which I like to call thought experiments, a term scientists use to describe experiments carried out in the mind instead of in the lab. Here, our lab is the sheet of paper in front of you.

THOUGHT EXPERIMENT

Our thought experiment for the day – one that is, alas, far from hypothetical – is on the screen behind you. Follow along with me as I read: In the classroom next to ours, a teacher is teaching the same course, Expository Writing, ENG 110. Quite possibly she has the same degree I do, a doctorate; at minimum she has an MA or MFA. She produces scholarship, as I do. She has been employed at the college for almost as long as I have. However, this teacher makes about a third of what I make. Again, same classes, and quite possibly same degree. I also have tenure, which is a form of job security. Because she’s been here for several years, she’s on a three-year contract, which ensures she’s able to get a couple of classes here every semester for those three years. That gives her a little bit of job security, too, so she can breathe a little easier, and worry a little less about how she’s going to pay the rent next year, how she’s going to feed her kids – though her salary is far from adequate to make ends meet in New York, it must be said. These three-year contracts are part of a pilot program that’s sunsetting this year, which means that, when her contract expires (and hers does at the end of the school year), she goes back to having almost no job security at all. Most egregiously, our employer, the City University of New York, is trying to weaken these three-year contracts, by shortening them to just two years, making people wait 12 years before they’re even eligible – that’s more than twice as long as it took me to get tenure! – and weakening the protections these contracts afford. In other words: They want this long-standing colleague, teacher and scholar who makes a third of what I do for the same work I do to have even less job security than they do now.

Pretend for a moment – this is a thought experiment, remember – pretend for a moment you run the University. How do you justify to her, or to me, ethically speaking, the fact that she is paid one-third of what I make for virtually the same labor I do, and that you’re weakening the modest amount of job security she actually has? Take a few minutes to write your answer, and then we’ll have a share-out.

Time’s up. Is your sheet blank? That’s because there is no ethical justification for the situation I have just described, and you know this.

Craig Bernardini
Professor, English
Hostos Community College


Think globally

In 2019, our department physically shrank when management relocated the entire complement of academic advisers stationed across campus to the library building. This move triggered a cascade of relocations that pushed me into my colleague’s office space. She, in turn, was shoehorned into the cramped reception area with the secretary, where she operates to this day.

Not only are we subject to a substandard working environment, but we have also lost key services and programs over time. When COVID-19 shut down the world in March 2020, we had to abandon our participation in the Global Citizenship Alliance, a prestigious leadership training program where students from other U.S. universities discuss issues of worldwide importance and how to become agents of change in their communities. At the outset of the pandemic, the college took away the funding for us to participate in this singular program. Despite persistent lobbying by our department head, these funds have not been restored, nor has the college given any indication that they ever will be.

OFFICE SLASHED

As we are about to conclude our second year of resumed on-campus operations, austerity continues to undermine our basic administrative functions. Our OTPS budget has been slashed repeatedly and we sometimes must wait weeks or more to receive supplies to keep the office running. Last year, I spent nearly 30 minutes using a paper cutter to convert a stack of legal paper to letter size so we could print and distribute to our caseload documents critical to their immigration status.

However, all this pales in comparison to the hardships ahead if the management continues to fail to invest in CUNY. Last June, our office assistant left her position for another job, resulting in a 25% staff reduction and forcing our staff to divide among ourselves the variegated roles the office assistant performed. Such a loss was especially grievous given that we onboarded 100 international students for the Fall 2023 term and are currently expecting over 120 for Fall 2024. Now that the crisis phase of the pandemic is past and the world has reopened, students overseas are able to obtain an F-1 visa to come to Queensborough. This has created a population surge the likes of which we have never seen. Because of this massive influx, students must wait weeks before they can see me for advisement, and as there are nearly five months left before the start of the fall term in late August, the number of new students will only grow.

Instead of pushing for more spending cuts and savings by attrition, the Board must lead the charge for greater investment.

Jeff Ballerini
Academic Advisor
Center of International Affairs
Immigration and Study Abroad
Queensborough Community College


Published: May 19, 2024

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