Monica Varsanyi, an associate professor at John Jay College, worries that many of her most talented and research-productive peers are fleeing for opportunities at other universities. Especially after using up the reassigned time that the contract provides to junior faculty, she says the 4/3 teaching load makes it hard to sustain research or give students the individual attention they deserve.
History Department Chair Allison Kavey is so stressed from her workload that she has cracked two molars while grinding her teeth at night. She says many of her colleagues also suffer from insomnia, cracked teeth and other stress-induced ailments.
Kavey and Varsanyi are part of a new generation of full-time faculty hires who have rejuvenated John Jay in the past seven years, drawn to a college seeking to boost its research profile. Now younger faculty members are joining with their colleagues in a campaign by the campus PSC chapter, to press the college administration to reduce the effective annual teaching load to 18 hours. They say the change would improve both their teaching and their scholarship.
“We want this so we can keep our best faculty and so our students can get our best work, not our exhausted work,” Kavey says.
“What we are fighting for goes to the heart of the mission of the college,” adds Nivedita Majumdar, associate professor of English and acting chair of the college’s union chapter.
In its demands for a new contract, the PSC has called for contractual teaching load requirements to be reduced CUNY-wide, to support both research and faculty activities aimed at improved student retention and graduation rates (see Clarion, Dec. 2010). The contract currently sets teaching requirements for full-time faculty at 21 hours for senior colleges and 27 hours at community colleges. (The one exception is City Tech, a senior college with a contractual teaching load of 24 hours. City Tech faculty are seeking parity with CUNY’s other senior colleges; see Clarion, April, August and September 2012.)
Faculty at John Jay back the union’s contract demand, but say that their college needs to take its own measures now. Within the current 21-hour requirement, the PSC chapter wants John Jay’s administration to provide three hours of reassigned time, in recognition of time spent on unsponsored research.
Such acknowledgement is common at several other CUNY senior colleges. “The current policy in our School of Arts and Sciences is that if you’re clearly engaged in research, you’ve published a couple of articles in the last couple of years, you should get the time,” said Glenn Petersen, sociology and anthropology department chair. Faculty members working on a book or other longer-term scholarly project are included as well.
This is an advance in equity within Baruch, Petersen explained: until recently, reassigned time for unsponsored research was common at Baruch’s schools of business and public affairs, but much harder to obtain within its Weissman School of Arts and Sciences. After pressure from the liberal arts faculty on the college administration, now it is being made broadly available to research-active faculty at Weissman as well. “This is a real boost for faculty morale,” said Petersen.
At the community colleges, where the 27-hour teaching load is CUNY’s heaviest, PSC leaders told Clarion that expectations for research have been on the rise. Recognizing this in their teaching load is essential, union leaders said.
At John Jay, a petition in support of change has so far been signed by more than 250 of the college’s full-time faculty or about 70%, including chairs from 15 of 23 departments. Majumdar says 30 chapter members volunteered to gather signatures, both by speaking at departmental meetings and by holding one-on-one conversations with colleagues. “The level of participation has been unprecedented,” she says. “Interest in the union has never been so strong.”
The cost of the reform, Majumdar says, would be less than 2% of John Jay’s annual operating budget. “They can find the money,” she insists. Other senior colleges have addressed this problem, Majumdar said – and as John Jay defines itself more and more as a research institution, it must do the same.
John Jay College has seen a slew of changes in recent years as it approaches its 50th anniversary. The school admitted its first all-baccalaureate class in 2010, and several new liberal arts majors have been introduced. Fifty percent of full-time faculty have been hired in the past seven years, and a 13-story vertical campus equipped with state-of-the-art classrooms, new cyber lounges, computer labs and cutting-edge science facilities opened in 2011.
In March 2011, the college told the Middle States Commission on Higher Education that as John Jay has prioritized “promoting and recruiting a research-oriented faculty” in recent years, the result has been “a dramatic increase in grants and sponsored research, as well as a faculty that dominates professional meetings on criminal justice.”
Amid such changes, the 4/3 teaching load has come to seem increasingly archaic and has left John Jay faculty deeply frustrated. “The college is reinventing itself in a new and positive way. But in this new climate, teaching load cannot be the one thing from the past that is unassailable,” says Majumdar. And in fact, the college’s 2011 statement to Middle States conceded that “maintaining the balance [between scholarship and teaching] is increasingly a challenge.”
The release last fall of a faculty survey by the Harvard-based Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education (COACHE) underscored faculty frustration at John Jay. The survey profiled John Jay and five peer institutions – Hunter College, Queens College, CSI, SUNY Buffalo State College and the University of Wisconsin-Parkside. Among this cohort, John Jay ranked lowest on all 11 benchmarks deemed critical to faculty success. Teaching load was ranked as the worst aspect of working at John Jay by 53% of respondents, with lack of support for research (17%) and too much service (16%) second and third. Compared with other schools in the survey, twice as many faculty at John Jay said they were dissatisfied with their teaching load.
They were shocked,” Kavey says of John Jay’s administration. “They thought the report would show how happy we all were.”
Kavey, an associate professor who began working at John Jay in 2005, said the challenge of the 4/3 course load is compounded by class sizes of as many as 40 students, a high percentage of students who lack college-level skills and the college’s lack of academic counselors. Kavey said she gives extra writing assignments to her students to boost their skills, though it means more grading work for her.
Difficult working conditions in turn spur the most research-ambitious faculty to seek out better prospects, Kavey says. They often leave even before they come up for tenure. “As soon as people get good grants, they leave. They treat this place like a post-doc.”
Varsanyi, an associate professor of political science, gained tenure in November. Her research on state and local immigration policy in the US was buoyed by junior faculty reassigned time guaranteed under the collective bargaining agreement, as well as two National Science Foundation grants. This allowed her to carry a 2/2 course load. Next fall, she is slated to teach a full course load for the first time, a prospect she is worried about.
“I really love my job, but the 4/3 load is very daunting. It challenges everything we do at John Jay,” Varsanyi says. “I don’t want to take shortcuts in my teaching or in my service. I want to maintain high quality in everything I do.”
Varsanyi took the course load petition back to her department and quickly gathered the signatures of nearly all of her department’s 21 full-time faculty – the only exceptions being those who were away on parental leave or sabbatical.
Varsanyi says she too is witnessing the exodus of her peers from John Jay. “I just got an e-mail two minutes ago from a colleague who took a position at Syracuse in part because of the lower teaching load,” she told a Clarion reporter in the middle of a phone interview. “My concern is that all these talented junior faculty hired in the last five or six years will go on the market and try to leave because they are highly productive scholars and the 4/3 teaching load presents an untenable situation.”
Distinguished Professor of History Gerald Markowitz says that young faculty members carrying a 21-hour annual course load face additional hurdles such as growing demands for student assessment and committee work. “It makes it difficult for junior faculty to sustain their research agendas after they’ve used their contractual reassigned time, and it’s an obstacle to tenured faculty research as well,” says Markowitz, a member of the chapter executive committee.
“Reducing teaching load is good for everyone,” said Distinguished Professor of History Blanche Cook. “It means more time for research and more time for students.” CUNY’s teaching loads, she told Clarion, are well above the national norm for full-time faculty.
Majumdar said the outcry at John Jay has caught the attention of the college’s leadership. On January 22, she and Markowitz and chapter executive committee member John Pittman met with John Jay President Jeremy Travis and Provost Jane Bowers to exchange views.
According to Pittman, one obstacle to change is CUNY central administration’s use of metrics that place a premium on colleges increasing the average amount of time tenured faculty spend in the classroom. While having more full-time faculty in the classroom has pedagogical merit, Pittman said, this can best be achieved by creating additional full-time faculty lines – not by making unreasonable demands on current full-timers.
“They want to have it both ways,” Pittman said of CUNY. “They want you to get lots of grants and do research, and they also want you to be in the classroom more.”
Piecemeal measures, warns Majumdar, will not solve anything. The squeeze felt by John Jay faculty is a college-wide problem, she says, and requires a college-wide solution. “The response can’t be more leave time,” doled out to a select few, she explains: that leads to favoritism and will not move forward the college as a whole. “The solution has to be more structural.”
Ultimately, Majumdar says, any prospect for change rests in the actions of a mobilized faculty: “The response of the administration is going to be directly proportional to the pressure we put on them.”