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Q&A with James Davis, PSC Chair, in Wake of CUNY Contract Negotiations

James Davis represents a body of CUNY faculty members who will take part in negotiations of a new faculty contract, a process that was extremely delayed in the past go-around. PHOTO/ Brooklyn College
James Davis represents a body of CUNY faculty members who will take part in negotiations of a new faculty contract, a process that was extremely delayed in the past go-around. PHOTO/ Brooklyn College

By Adam Zaki

Published: December 6th, 2017

James Davis is a professor here at Brooklyn College who teaches in the American Studies Program and the English department. Within the English department, Davis is also the deputy chair for graduate studies. He has published various works, including Eric Walrond: A Life in the Harlem Renaissance and the Transatlantic Caribbean (2015) and Commerce in Color: Race, Consumer Culture, and American Literature, 1893-1933 (2007). Some of his accomplishments and accolades include Brooklyn College’s Claire Tow Distinguished Teacher Award and the Whiting Award for Excellence in Teaching in the Humanities. Davis is also the Professional Staff Congress (PSC) union’s Brooklyn College Chapter Chair, a position he has held since 2015. 

Q: Some may argue that reliable adjuncts are hard to find and are difficult to work with students because, as part time faculty, they are not required to make themselves available on a regular basis outside of the classroom. What are your thoughts on this? Have you had any issues with adjunct faculty in the English department? How can you possibly justify a salary increase for these individuals with the current financial state of CUNY? Will their campus obligations increase as well?

A: Adjuncts are hourly employees. They’re not paid to be on campus beyond their teaching schedule unless they teach at least six contact hours in a semester, in which case they are paid to hold one office hour per week. The question is how much more labor do you want to ask adjuncts to donate for free. Every time they write a letter of recommendation, attend a department meeting, hold office hours for the one course they teach at a given campus, they are donating labor to the university. Many adjuncts do these things because they care about their students and support their departments, but it’s unreasonable to expect them to do them uncompensated. Why are adjuncts not paid to hold an office hour for every three-hour course they teach? You’ll have to ask the university administration. The union has asked for this for a long time—it would be better for everyone—but all we could get was one paid office hour per six credits of teaching on one campus. You ask how a salary increase for adjuncts can be justified given CUNY’s current financial state. How can we justify continuing to suppress their already terrible wages given the work they perform for the university? Without adjuncts, 52 percent of the courses offered at Brooklyn College would be unstaffed. That percentage grows when one looks only at general education courses. Adjuncts are in effect subsidizing the college as it endures a withdrawal of financial support from New York State. Rather than ask how a salary increase can be justified for the 11,000+ adjuncts who keep CUNY courses staffed every semester, ask how CUNY can afford rent on the Chancellor’s $19,500 per month Manhattan townhouse. Ask how it can afford the raises the Board of Trustees just approved for all employees on the Executive Compensation Plan. We’re looking in the wrong place for cost-savings when we ask the most-exploited and least-secure employees to make additional sacrifices.

Q: What does “material support for department chairs” entail?

A: That means compensation for administrative work performed outside of the contractual academic calendar, which is a nine-month calendar. The other months are considered annual leave and are uncompensated by the university, so the union wants to make sure department chairs, who are members of the teaching faculty, receive adequate support for administrative work performed above and beyond the academic calendar.

Q: What justifies a tuition waiver for faculty’s children? Why do you think this is a reasonable claim? (With the proposed salary increases, one can argue that the low-cost CUNY tuition is more affordable for faculty now then it was ever before.)

Tuition subsidies for the children of university employees are actually pretty common in American higher education. Indeed, in many universities it’s so established as to be considered almost a right rather than an entitlement. It’s a cost to the university, of course, but it’s a tiny expense in the overall budget picture and it helps to recruit and retain professors.

Q: What rights related to “distance learning” do you or faculty feel aren’t being protected? Do you have an example?

A: A professor develops an online course on her own, teaches it at CUNY, and loads all the materials onto Blackboard. Who owns the intellectual property? A professor is paid by the university to develop an online course, teach it, and train others in her department. Different scenario, different implications. The union is pursuing clarity on the many implications as curriculum development and instruction move outside the conventional classroom. CUNY’s recently announced Strategic Plan places enormous emphasis on online education; it’s clearly seen as a win-win scenario for students, who may benefit from not having to commute, and for the administration, as tuition revenue can expand without the expenses of traditional brick-and-mortar facilities. We want to ensure the faculty don’t miss the chance to embrace a brave new online world. For more details, I would recommend reviewing items 20-23 of the PSC bargaining agenda:


 Q: A demand includes “anti-bullying language.” Seriously? This is extremely unclear and puzzling. Between whom? Who is the bully and who is the victim?

A: Protecting employees against bullying in the workplace is an important responsibility of any union. The PSC represents not only teaching faculty but also professional staff, the people who work in the offices of Academic Advisement, Bursar, Registrar, Financial Aid, and the offices of the Deans and Vice Presidents, among others. While what constitutes “bullying” may be open to interpretation, the demand is simply that the union and the university collaborate to “develop contractual language that prohibits workplace bullying” because instances of bullying behavior—whether by peers or by supervisors—occasionally occur in CUNY workplaces.

Q: You made a claim in class that a goal is to require full-time faculty to teach less so they can “write books and stuff.” If granted, who will replace these teaching hours? Adjuncts that are getting paid three times as much? Please elaborate.

A: By “write books and stuff,” I mean the work that professors are expected to do when not in the classroom. That includes scholarship, research and/or creative work as well as student mentoring. It’s not possible to become a college professor without an active research agenda, and failing to maintain that agenda leads at worst to being fired or being denied tenure and at best leads to professional stagnation—denied promotion.  This is to be expected at a research-oriented institution such as Brooklyn College; incentives are in place for professors to pursue research, and students benefit from a research-active faculty. The tension, however, is that time spent on scholarship and creative work is time not spent preparing for class, assessing student learning, developing new courses, revising programs and mentoring students, all of which faculty also want to be doing—they are the reasons we went into teaching—but which suffer when we have inadequate time or resources to succeed in research and scholarship. In recognition of that fact, CUNY agreed in the last round of bargaining to reduce by three credit hours (typically one course) the annual teaching load of full-time faculty members across the entire university. I would refer you to page 30 of the Memorandum of Agreement for the 2010-2017 contract: http://psc-cuny.org/sites/default/files/MOA_2010-2017.pdf

The question of who will replace these teaching hours and what they will be paid is an excellent one. It’s the subject of current negotiations, so I can’t address it directly, but of course the best result for students—and the one the union is advocating—is that additional full-time faculty will be hired to staff the courses that were previously taught by full-time faculty.

Q: Many of the union’s claims are fiscally related. This is the university’s biggest issue. How can all of this increased spending possibly have a positive impact on the system?

A: I think you’re asking where the employees get the temerity to demand a raise when they know the boss is struggling financially. In our case, it’s the job of our bosses—the Chancellor and the Board of Trustees—to ensure that the university is adequately funded, that it stewards its funds responsibly and effectively performs its stated educational mission. If university leaders are incapable of securing sufficient funding and budgeting this in such a way that adequately supports the people performing and supporting instruction, that’s an indictment of the bosses, and the employees shouldn’t be blamed for demanding what they deserve. You tell me why Governor Cuomo has starved CUNY’s budget; I’d like to know the answer. You tell me why CUNY is still paying former Chancellor Matthew Goldstein (not current chancellor, former) $200,000 per year when he’s not even chancellor any more. CUNY students deserve great professors and educational support from the offices around campus, so the university has to invest in those things if it wants good people to come here, bring their energy and innovation and stick around.

Q: The flyer claims that these demands are put in such a way that it won’t increase tuition for students. Where is all of this money going to come from?

A: CUNY is a public university, it should be publicly funded. That means the city and state has to dedicate sufficient resources. Can CUNY’s senior colleges really be called public if one-third of their revenues come from privately-sourced student tuition? I understand the concern that raises come at the expense of students, but that fundamentally misses the problem. The question is how does the university begin to reverse the trend of public disinvestment that has burdened students with increasing tuition and stagnated faculty salaries. Remember, CUNY was free to all full-time daytime students for many decades; somehow professors still got a paycheck. In fact, up until the 1970s, CUNY faculty salaries compared favorably to our colleagues at private universities, like NYU and Columbia. Since then, we’ve seen wage erosion relative to real dollars and relative to our peers at other institutions, and tuition has increased at CUNY independent of whether or not professors were getting raises.

Q: “Say no to more austerity and yes to a fair, timely contract.” How would you say these demands are equally fair for students, faculty and CUNY?

A: Austerity is an artificial budget scarcity imposed on the entire university. By “artificial” I mean there is no lack of money in Albany, there’s a lack of political will. “Saying no” to that means demanding more for everyone at CUNY but especially for those who suffer the most from its systematic defunding—the students and staff. Who suffered when the last contract dragged out for more than six years? Not just faculty bank accounts or our wardrobes or our 401(k) plans, but also the academic advisors, the ESL instructors at the community colleges and, of course, the students, whose likelihood of being taught by genuine academic talent is diminished when retiring faculty can’t be replaced, when every professor is a flight risk and when CUNY job offers are declined in favor of better quality of life someplace else. That’s why we want this contract settled swiftly and fairly: because it is better for the university’s educational mission.

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