NYC Educators, Once More Left in the Dust

CUNY adjuncts are calling the University administration “exploitative” following the finalization of the 2019 NYS Budget, which makes no mention of pay increases for the adjunct professors that overwhelmingly constitute the University’s workforce.

Part-time educators within the CUNY system say that their current contract does not adequately compensate them enough to make a basic living.

“With all my classes I make about $24,000, so really I make enough to be below the poverty line,” said one anonymous English adjunct.

Facing stagnant salaries and ever-rising living costs in NYC, CUNY adjuncts say they have been forced into a position where they have to voice their discontent for their present circumstances.

Their main point of contention is their current fixed salary of $3,500 per 3 credit course, with many organizing and calling for said salary to be doubled.

“We’ve joked about how you could become the ‘super adjunct’ going campus to campus just to make due,” said Tom Watters, English adjunct of seven years and an active member of CUNY’s staff and faculty union, the Professional Staff Congress (PSC). “After a while you just can’t do that anymore.”

Watters explained the rationale behind the $7K figure per three-credit course, saying it’s based on the least amount that current starting assistant professors are entitled to and agreed upon to be enough to cover the basic cost of living for a single person.

According to the website Investopedia, to comfortably live on one’s own in NYC requires one to earn roughly $40,000 annually after taxes per year – an unlikely prospect for the average adjunct, who makes between $20,000 to $25,000 a year on average teaching a total of six courses between two semesters.

Elaborating on the impracticalities of embracing adjunctship as a full-time job, Watters notes that there are further restrictions and caps on how many given courses they can teach per campus.

Supporters of the $7K increase insist that they just want to keep their education career path in NYC secure.

“I didn’t get into this job to make lots of money,” said adjunct Drew Pham. “I don’t think anyone here has.”

Still, adjuncts expect and demand a living wage for their work.

Across CUNY, this situation has drawn many adjuncts to organize against New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo, who they believe is culpable for this predicament.

Throughout the year, members and supporters of the PSC have held a series of protests throughout the city in an attempt to raise awareness of the plight of CUNY adjuncts. These protests have taken place before the offices of public officials like the mayor, the newly-elected CUNY Chancellor, the CUNY Board of Trustees, and the administrations of various campuses in the CUNY system. These protests have largely been met with little response from said authorities.

Brooklyn College English professor and PSC chapter director James Davis claims that part of what has stymied the State from allocating greater funding to CUNY is an ongoing bureaucratic battle between Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio on how much New York State should be involved in the funding of higher education in NYC.

The PSC’s website accuses Governor Cuomo of effectively causing CUNY to “cannibalize” itself by opting to withhold some of the State funds ordinarily allocated to the CUNY system that would pay for the cost of hired educators, including adjuncts.

As a result of this constriction on a vital source of payment, CUNY has had to turn to relying on the ever increasing tuition students pay to compensate for this predicament, while neglecting other essential campus related costs, thereby adversely affecting students quality of education and the infrastructure and services afforded to them.

“What do you do when the revenue that comes into the operating budget starts to dry up from the state?” Davis asked, rhetorically. “You have to figure out where else to save or where else to get more revenue.”

“From the student they [CUNY] increased tuition to generate more revenue, and on the savings side they hire a few full-time and staff more classrooms with adjuncts that are paid low wages,” Professor Davis added.

He estimates that for every tenured professor at Brooklyn College, there are at least two adjuncts.

In their defense, one anonymous member of the CUNY Board of Trustees inferred that adjunctship has been traditionally viewed as the kind of job not intended for persons to reliably earn a living wage from.

As ten of the seventeen trustees are appointed by the governor, adjuncts and 7K organizers have taken to strongly pushing back against this condescending sentiment regarding adjunct work. They assert that the volume of work they do and the consideration they put into it is not unlike that of the tenured counterparts, with the additional expectation of working with fewer resources.

“It’s exploitative,” contended Heidi Diehl, an adjunct of 9 years.

“Over the years, CUNY has hired more and more people on these lines that were never intended to be a living,” said adjunct and partially-disabled single mother Meg Feeley, rebutting the argument that adjunct positions are strictly supplementary.

As evidence, Feeley pointed to the ‘over-reliance’ of health insurance provided by CUNY that many adjuncts are entitled to, to add credence to her argument that most adjuncts generally depend on such work as the primary means of income now.

For members of the PSC, the combined pressure of organized demonstration across campuses has yet to be met with any form of acknowledgement.

Even after the union took a vote for strike authorization, trying to emulate the successful push for renegotiations in California, the PSC has yet to hear any response from the CUNY Board.

Speaking with some senior representatives of the PSC, full-time tenured professors and adjuncts alike, members have indicated they hold an increasingly dim outlook towards seeing the CUNY administration increase their pay to the PSC’s desired amount ($7,000 per course) anytime soon.

Some adjuncts, like Tom Watters, have grown increasingly frustrated by the lack of discernible change in their present circumstances. He says that his faith in the very union he has been actively involved with for four years is beginning to waver.

“It quite clearly has not worked,” Watters said in reference to the effectiveness of organized demonstrations. “This strategy won’t get us close to $7K. They [union leadership] sort of just don’t talk about the next part of that.”

“There is no hope that collective bargaining would work,” Watters continued. “We would actually have to go on strike.”

This grim attitude has spread among the ranks of the PSC, even at a modestly-sized rally on Brooklyn College’s campus.

A 12-year-long adjunct lecturer from Kingsborough and General Officer of the PSC Executive Council, Feeley noted that she herself lacked the confidence that anything beyond a strike authorization vote would be effective in improving adjuncts’ circumstances.

“I wish I were more optimistic,” Feeley reflected, insisting realistically that attaining ‘7K’ was unlikely to happen anytime soon. “I think we will get something. I don’t know what we will get. Politically, it’s just a bad situation.”