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The Underrepresented Majority: Adjunct Professors’ Fight Continues After New Contract

The Adjunct Project is currently working on opening conversation about improvements to the new contract. Their most recent event, “Towards a Just Contract in 2017,” was held at the CUNY Graduate Center and hosted five panelists to talk about the issues they have faced as adjuncts. PHOTO/ Radhika Viswanathan

By Radhika Viswanathan

Published: October 26th, 2016

As September 16 approached, Simone Kolysh, an adjunct professor in the Brooklyn College sociology department, was awaiting her first paycheck for the semester.

“Everything was being held off until September 16—medical checkups, shopping. Summers are difficult for most adjuncts so we wait for that first paycheck with bated breath,” she said.

But Kolysh was in for a shock; on the day before she was due to be paid, she received an email from the sociology department notifying her that she would not be paid the next day. Trying to understand why, she spoke to the heads of her department and requested they speak to Richard Greenwald, dean of Brooklyn College’s School of Humanities and Social Sciences. They were unable to find out more.

“[Administration] just passes the buck around,” Kolysh said, shaking her head. “It’s like dealing with my two oldest kids who will just point at each other and say, ‘He did it.’”

In the end, the reason was chalked up to a paperwork issue, leaving no one accountable. Adjuncts were given the option to either receive emergency paychecks or wait until the official paycheck could be issued. The emergency paycheck would give adjuncts 60 percent of their pay, with a requirement that adjuncts pay back the check as soon as they received their full salary. While many took this option, other adjuncts—including Kolysh—were worried the emergency check could disrupt their direct deposit and decided to wait until the college could issue their salaries. Finally, on September 28, the adjuncts were paid.

This story was not limited to just the sociology department. The same morning, Kate Ruebenson, an adjunct in Brooklyn College’s English department, began receiving emails and text messages from fellow adjuncts who suspected that they hadn’t been paid. A friend of hers had been trying to buy a sandwich—expecting his paycheck to have been deposited—and was dismayed to find that his credit card had been rejected. Hearing what had happened to him, she checked her own account and found that her salary had not been deposited either

After hearing about the situation from her colleagues, Ruebenson learned that many adjuncts throughout the City University of New York (CUNY) had not been paid. “We still don’t know why; the sociology department got a different explanation than the English department, and the explanations were only given after we said, ‘Hey, why haven’t we gotten paid?” she said. “That’s hugely problematic that we have to find out about it in a very back door kind of way.”

Brooklyn College administration was not very forthcoming either. However, a spokesperson did say, “Departments are analyzing the reason why this happened so it can be avoided for the next semester and make sure glitches like this don’t happen again.”

It’s well known that adjuncts are considered the lowest tier of faculty positions at the university level. Holding more than half of CUNY teaching positions, they do not feel they are given the amount of respect they deserve.

“We’re basically exploited workers,” said Hamad Sindhi, an adjunct professor in the sociology department who currently teaches at Lehman College.

This September’s paycheck was to be the first after new contracts had been established over the summer, and many adjuncts say they are not satisfied with the changes it brought. However, with the current contract expiring next year, adjuncts across CUNY are trying to advocate for their needs in the next one.

The main change the contract brought about was a retroactive salary increase of about ten percent; for adjuncts, that’s about $300 per course. This salary increase does not even bring CUNY adjuncts close to the salaries that their counterparts in other states make. Part-time lecturers (the term used for adjuncts at Rutgers University) in a New Jersey public school have a contractual minimum of almost $5,000 per three-credit course. As of 2014, the University of Connecticut paid its adjuncts $1,500 per credit (or about $5,000 for a three-credit course). The discrepancy between these numbers and the $3,000-per-course salary that CUNY adjuncts make is compounded when one considers that the cost of living in New York City is the highest in the country.

Regarding the contract, Sindhi added, “It was a bad deal for adjuncts. It raised our incomes, but our incomes are still the lowest in the tri-state area.” In fact, Sindhi has found that his discretionary income has gone down because the salary increase was actually lower than his rent had increased over the past years.

Many adjuncts feel that the poor contract is a result of lack of union representation. “Along with pretty much every adjunct I’ve spoken to, I don’t think we are being fought for,” said Ruebenson. “We make up such a large proportion, it’s sort of wild to me that we’re not really considered.”

Some adjuncts are in a unique position because they are also graduate students at the CUNY Graduate Center. Therefore, they are taking classes, doing research, and working on their theses in conjunction with preparing for the classes they have to teach. Although some have fellowships and tuition remission, which lighten the financial burden of being a student and a teacher at the same time, these perks expire after five years and most graduate students do not graduate within that time frame. Although the CUNY Graduate Center does not provide statistics on five-year graduation rate, figures released by the National Science Foundation in 2014 showed that the average time-to-degree was over six years, across all disciplines.

Trying to balance graduate work with teaching duties leads to an unfortunate cycle: “You have to do your primary work, research and scholarship so you can get your Ph.D. But you’re also teaching. So almost no one graduates within those first ten semesters,” said Sindhi. “Since I have to pay tuition this year, I had to pick up another class, so I’m unable to do my Ph.D. work. We’re not financially supported, and we also we can’t hold a full time job.”

While many have said they are unhappy at how little their salaries have changed, the contract was passed with a 92 percent majority. Why was the contract so overwhelmingly supported if union members have such misgivings?

“People have had nothing for so long, I suppose it’s like the worse of two evils,” said Kolysh, who was part of the minority that voted “no” on the contract. “If your standard is the lowest of the low, any contract is good.”

Compared with not having a contract at all, the new contract did give adjuncts some benefits. “There were stipulations that are leaps and bounds compared to how adjuncts were treated before,” said Yasmin Gruss, the adjunct liaison for the Brooklyn College chapter of the PSC-CUNY faculty union.

For example, adjuncts who have worked consistently for ten semesters—teaching at least six credits per semester—are eligible for a threeyear appointment, which offers them a much higher level of job security than the previous situation, which offered no security whatsoever.

However, the adjunct voice is still not heard because of lack of union participation.

“At the last PSC chapter meeting, there were about four adjuncts there,” said Gruss. “I know adjuncts are busy and it’s really hard to volunteer time to do things, especially when we’re already so overworked, but if the majority of people at the meetings were adjuncts, even visually, I think the impact of that would be great.”

Unfortunately, most adjuncts have been jaded by years of feeling that they aren’t being heard. “To me, it’s like which came first, the chicken or the egg?” said Ruebenson, “One reason why adjuncts don’t go is because nothing seems to happen; their voices aren’t heard. But of course on the union side, they say it’s because adjuncts don’t come.”

Adjuncts, specifically graduate students, also have a hard time coming to terms with the fact that they have to organize to get what they believe are basic rights. “Coming into grad school, I wanted to learn. I wanted to teach. I mistakenly believed that it would be this environment of gaining knowledge and learning to make myself marketable,” said Kolysh, wiping a tear that had slipped past her eye and rolled down her cheek. “You don’t go into a Ph. D. program thinking you’re going to be so desperate that you’re going to have to organize a strike or a labor movement.”

A special case is the CUNY Graduate Center chapter of the union, which is mostly made up of graduate students rather than full-time professors. Chloe Asselin is the liaison for that chapter. “We’re trying to build adjunct power,” she said. “At the moment, we need more membership drives to get adjuncts to be part of the union.”

Here’s how union membership works for public employees in New York State: Everyone pays an agency fee to get the benefits of being protected by the union, including the benefits of the new contract. However, in order to become a member—with voting rights, the ability to run for office, etc.— one must fill out a membership card. “A lot of people don’t realize you have to sign this card to be a member,” said Asselin. “So if you look at positions of leadership, there are very few adjuncts.”

In an effort to strengthen the adjunct voice, several members of the Graduate Center created an organization called the Adjunct Project. According to their website, the goal of this group is “to improve our collective position as student-workers at CUNY” and “promote a culture that emphasizes a different set of values, replacing the academic culture of competitive individualism with one of support and solidarity.”

“I’m really happy to be part of the Adjunct Project,” said Rafael Mutis, who is one of the coordinators of the Adjunct Project. “I think we take up a lot of slack of what the PSC does not do, like a lot of the grass root work.”

After five years with no contract, this summer’s deal between CUNY administration and the PSC-CUNY Union seemed a long time coming. But the contract will expire in 2017 and negotiations for the next contract begin in November. All members of CUNY faculty are looking forward to improving a contract that they felt did not address many of their concerns.

To that end, the Adjunct Project held an event on October 20 called “Toward a Just Contract in 2017: A Roundtable on Critical Issues.” A panel of five graduate students who also worked as adjuncts spoke about their experiences and what they felt needed to be implemented in the next contract.

One of the most prominent subjects touched upon at this event was creating a bridge between the two tiers of faculty: part-time professors and full-time professors. “I think the mission of the place is admirable: a public university that takes research seriously,” said panelist, Cihan Tekay, an anthropology student and adjunct. “This two-tiered system can affect the solidarity we have, poisoning this mission. … It’s really unfair and we shouldn’t be complicit in this.”

Adjuncts in the PSC Union are also working on building relationships with full-time faculty. “Cross-title solidarity—full-timers and adjuncts all supporting each other—is really important,” said Gruss. “We’re all faculty and a lot of these changes are across the board. For example, no one has received their back-pay yet.”

“I think the organization of professors is one of the most important things we can do,” said Immanuel Ness, a full-time Political Science professor whose research specializes in labor and worker movements. “We shouldn’t divide ourselves amongst one another. Try to live in a NYC apartment for $3,000 a month as a full-timer—forget it. We need to increase the pot for everyone.”

Just one full-time professor was present at the Adjunct Project’s roundtable event. When he asked, “What can I do?” he was met with applause from everyone in the room. “If, over time, we can create more solidarity, that can lead to more representation for adjuncts,” said Gruss.

But here’s the real issue: Most adjuncts are probably correct in thinking that union membership is not going to help much. And that is not the fault of the union. “This is endemic to all universities and colleges across the us and across the world,” said Ness, “There is a general attack against higher education, which is a serious issue.”

One of the most famous recent examples of this “attack against higher education” was the student and faculty walkout at Long Island University (LIU). “My mom is a full-time tenured professor in LIU and her her paycheck was frozen,” said Ruebenson. “She has reached the upper echelon of ‘professor-dom’ or whatnot, and she still has to deal with this.”

Lack of respect for educators is prevalent in our country’s education system much earlier than college. Dr. Steven Paine, a Vice President at McGraw-Hill, was interested in understanding why the United States’ scores on the 2010 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) was so incongruous with the amount of money we spend per student. He compared our education systems to others around the world and found that the countries that performed best on the exam were ones that paid their teachers the most. And although teachers in the United States work longer hours than their counterparts in other countries, proportionally, they make much less.

To summarize the main problem with higher education, he wrote: “Teaching in the U.S. is unfortunately no longer a high-status occupation.”

Of course, adjuncts agree with this sentiment. “The real attention has to be why we’re not already getting paid more; the fact the union has to fight for us in the first place.” Ruebenson said. “Why can’t professors expect to have a higher quality of life?”

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