SPOTLIGHT ON ADJUNCT CONCERNS AT LEGISLATIVE HEARING

 

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NEWS BULLETIN

APRIL 2001

 

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It’s the largest group I’ve seen in 24 years,” said Ed Sullivan, chair of the New York State Assembly’s Higher Education Committee, as he looked at the crowd of 150 people who packed a legislative hearing on adjunct issues on March 9.

More than 80 people spoke at the hearing in lower Manhattan, including part-time and full-time faculty and staff from CUNY, SUNY, NYU and LIU; graduate and undergraduate students; representatives from unions, management, citizen groups and academic organizations; legislators and a college president.

The hearing, jointly sponsored by the Higher Education Committee and the Labor Committee of the New York State Assembly, focused on proposals to end the exclusion of adjuncts from New York State’s disability and unemployment compensation systems, as well as the need to increase higher education funding in New York State to provide adjunct faculty with decent pay and benefits. But beyond these policy proposals, the testimonies painted a vivid picture of adjuncts’ lives: running from campus to campus, teaching full-time loads at less than one-third the pay, preparing intensely for a course only to have it dropped at the last minute for arbitrary reasons, denied adequate office space and support for professional development, denied pay for office hours or remission of graduate tuition at CUNY, ignored for promotion, and abandoned by the institutions they have served when they get sick.

“It is a peculiarity of New York State government that the disability coverage that is mandated for all workers in the state under Workers Compensation Law is waived when the employer is the state,” said David Tillyer, a twenty-year adjunct. “Educational institutions are given the option to provide benefits, which CUNY does for non-teaching employees and full-time faculty and staff. However, because [adjuncts] are employed on a semester basis, part-timers never meet the six-month eligibility requirement.” Tillyer personally experienced the hardship of this omission when he needed surgery.

“The current disability insurance laws must be amended to eliminate the exemption of educational institutions from mandatory coverage for all employees,” said Eric Marshall, PSC Vice President for Part-Time Personnel. PSC Community College Officer Ingrid Hughes and organizer Kristin Lawler, both adjuncts themselves, also testified in support of such a change. PSC First Vice President Steve London urged the legislature to bring CUNY adjuncts into the state disability program for part-time employees.

A parallel inequity permeates unemployment compensation. New York State law exempts educational facilities from a mandate to provide unemployment insurance when “a reasonable assurance of employment” exists. Adjunct faculty receive a notice of reappointment, but this is conditional—“subject to sufficiency of enrollment, financial availability and curriculum need,” as stated in a recent “reappointment” letter from CUNY. In other words, the letter is a guarantee of nothing. Nevertheless, management at CUNY and at other universities have been using such letters to deny adjunct unemployment claims and even seek repayment from adjuncts for compensation they have been awarded.

California now covers adjuncts in the same way as any other seasonal workers, and many speakers called for New York State to change its laws as well. A representative of Assemblyman Brian M. McLaughlin, head of the New York City Central Labor Council (NYC CLC), stated the CLC’s support for these changes, adding that adjuncts have earned the right to parity because of what they contribute to students’ education.

Faced with the long list of people who wanted to testify, Sullivan initially pressed speakers to condense their remarks. But adjuncts, who so often go unheard, felt strongly about presenting the stories and analyses they had prepared. Once a few speakers made this clear, Sullivan said he would stay and listen as long as anyone had something to say. And listen he did, from l0 a.m. to 6 p.m., inviting some to come back to the mike a second time. By the end of the day, Sullivan, the only committee member in attendance, had pounds of written testimonies to take back to Albany, and he promised to report back to Assembly Labor Committee Chair Cathy Nolan (who expressed her regrets for not attending) and the other members of the two committees.

Colleges across the country have become increasingly reliant on an underpaid contingent workforce, changing the structure of the modern university in profound and lasting ways. At CUNY and many other schools, the majority of the workforce is now part-time. Rich Moser, National Field Representative of the AAUP, described the new regime of academic labor as “a sort of stealth system that took shape gradually over time, and was for many years invisible to the public. This new system was created without any kind of public discussion or deliberation or formal policy-making.” Speaking for the PSC, Steve London emphasized that the restructuring of CUNY’s instructional staff into a majority contingent workforce was not brought about by “some force of nature, but by funding policies enacted at the state and city levels.” Therefore, he said, the state and city have a responsibility to deal with the consequences of what they have helped create.  

Speaker after speaker detailed how full-timers and the university itself are harmed by exploiting adjuncts as “cheap labor.” Full-time faculty suffer from an overload of committee work, curriculum development, governance and administrative duties. Students suffer from turnover, the lack of conference time and recommendations for graduate school. Dr. Fred Beaufait, President of New York Technical College, cited the overwhelming burden on the college infrastructure of having to search for and hire almost 700 adjuncts a semester, without sufficient allocations to cover salaries so monies have to be drained from other areas. “Never before in my experience at several major universities in other states have I seen as critical a situation as the one we face at City Tech,” said Beaufait. Others, such as Steve Leberstein, head of the City College Center for Worker Education, former University Faculty Senate President Sandi Cooper and PSC Senior College Officer Nancy Romer all cited the lopsided burden of non-teaching college responsibilities when they have to be shared among so few. “The conditions of part-timers mirror and reflect those of the full-timers,” said PSC Secretary Cecelia McCall. “All of us are carrying the University on our backs.“

CUNY management representatives Vice Chancellor Brenda Malone and Executive Vice Chancellor Louise Mirrer testified that CUNY is making progress toward achieving the 70/30 desired ratio of full-time to part-time faculty. But Bill Crain, a professor of psychology at City College, cautioned that focusing on the full-time/part-time ratio alone, without considering the adjuncts who have served the University, can be deceptive. “At City College, the provost spearheaded an effort to improve the ratio by the wholesale firing of adjuncts,” said Crain. “I don’t find this humane or helpful. One improvement would be to give adjuncts the chance to [teach all their courses] on the same campus. They do far too much scurrying around on the trains from campus to campus. This is time that exhausts them and it is time that could be spent with students.”  

   
Kristin Lawler, Rich Moser, Kathleen Lawrence, Eric Marshall

To resolve the problems faced by adjuncts as well as the wholesale underfunding of CUNY, the PSC espouses a bigger pie—a 12% New York State budget increase for higher education, which would equal $165 million or a 12% increase over last year’s budget—$144 million from the state and $20.5 million from the city. The PSC’s proposed 2001 budget for CUNY provides for a three-year plan to rebuild, and includes pay for adjuncts to hold after-class office hours. “The interests of full-timers and part-timers are linked together,” said London, arguing that improvements for one group will help the other. He noted that the PSC is pressing for the principle of “parity pay“ in its collective bargaining with the University, and urged Sullivan to support a CUNY budget that could fund a fair contract.

The PSC’s viewpoint was supported by the representative from United University Professions (UUP), the nation’s largest higher education union, which represents more than 24,000 academic and professional faculty at SUNY. Eileen Landy, a member of the UUP Executive Board and co-chair of its Part-Time Concerns Committee, said, “The UUP goal is to make part-time employment more expensive and less attractive to management and to limit the exploitation of our valued part-time colleagues. We are working to develop codified provisions for tenure and promotion of part-time faculty, as well as sabbatical leave.”

Vinny Tirelli, adjunct and CUNY Graduate Center PhD candidate in political science, analyzed the social roots of this multi-tier caste system. “The part-time faculty system is not simply about saving money by paying faculty less,” said Tirelli, whose dissertation is a study of contingent academic labor. “It is a hidden disparity that covers up inequality and hierarchy.…Local as well as national trends reveal the highest concentrations of part-time faculty at community colleges and at urban public four-year colleges with large populations of disadvantaged students.”

Some adjuncts documented their impressive scholarly and artistic work despite the obstacles they face. Others focused on their relationships with their students. Kathleen Lawrence, a novelist and Adjunct Lecturer of English at Baruch who has taught at CUNY for l7 years, said, “Our Web site boasts that Baruch College is the most ethnically diverse campus in the U.S.—but doesn’t that also mean the world? ‘We are the world,’ I tell my classes, and they smile. They know it. A Baruch classroom is an exciting microcosm. Is this world of our future—these talented young people—not worth educating?”

“Yes, you are the world,” responded Sullivan. “And the reason there are forces in this city who are attacking CUNY is because they know that you are educating the kids who are going to take over—from them. They’re not paranoid—they’re right to be afraid. And that’s why we have to keep fighting.“

It was late afternoon when student Nana Henderson came to the mike. She spoke about how much her adjunct teachers at the City College Center for Worker Education were helping her. “I suffered from math anxiety and I had a great adjunct teacher, Mr. Sokol….

What would I have done without him, or Mr. Smith, who helped me to get over it?” Henderson, who enrolled in college after many years as a grassroots activist in Harlem, sees a connection between adjuncts and community organizers. “We’re both working not just for ourselves, but to improve the quality of life for others. Adjuncts understand what it is to struggle. You are all my comrades.”

The fact that adjunct concerns have been ignored for so long brought a special intensity to much of the testimony. Many called the day historic.

For CUNY Adjuncts Unite!, the independent group that requested the hearings, it is just a beginning. Working with the PSC Strength in Numbers Campaign to enroll adjuncts in the union, as well as with other academic, labor and social justice groups, it plans to intensify and broaden its organizing efforts. “We’re part of a national movement,” said Marcia Newfield of BMCC and LIU, editor of the CAU! publication, The Adjunct Alert. “It has taken adjuncts a long time to find our voice, but we’re going to keep going, just as did the longshoremen and the garment workers, the coal miners and the hospital workers, the actors, screenwriters, transit workers, and musicians.”