“If you don’t want to fight with Albany to fund the university and you don’t want to preside over the greatest dismantling of a public institution, quit,” Pamela Stemberg, an English Adjunct Assistant Professor at the City College of New York, told the Board of Trustees of the city’s public university system Oct. 22.

More than 170 faculty members, union advocates and students at the City University of New York urged the board members at a Baruch College hearing to push for the state to fully fund the cash-strapped system. It was held before the trustees—10 of whom were appointed by Governor Cuomo—will vote on CUNY’s budget for 2019-2020.

A CUNY spokesman said that the Board was "negotiating with the union at the bargaining table, not through the press."  

Want Adjunct Pay Doubled

The majority of the advocates urged the board to publicly support the fight for adjuncts to be paid $7,000 per course. They currently average $3,500 per class, and earn about $28,000 a year.

“I know that you know you underpay the majority of your faculty. You also know that low-wage workers are a civil-rights issue,” Ms. Stemberg said as faculty members behind her unfurled a banner with the signatures of thousands of colleagues urging the board to support increased adjunct pay. “You have 12,000 low-wage workers holding up this university.”

Several speakers pointed to the irony of CUNY’s subway ads, which tout it as “the greatest urban university in the world.” The system has been praised for lifting six times as many low-income students into the middle class as all of the Ivy League schools combined.

“ ‘This is the greatest urban university in the world. We provide economic mobility.’ How can you say that when you don’t provide it to the people who are actually doing the work?” asked Rebecca Smart, an adjunct at Borough of Manhattan Community College and Baruch College.

Some Adjuncts Homeless

A few faculty members told stories of adjuncts they knew who were homeless. Joyce Timberlake, an adjunct lecturer at Baruch, said that because the part-time staff performed so much unpaid work, they earned less than minimum wage.

“We are a powerful stakeholder group in this institution. In fact, we possess so much power that we could bottleneck this bureaucracy,” she said. “We could refuse to spend our personal uncompensated time doing tasks such as certifying rosters, uploading textbook orders to CUNYfirst, writing recommendations for students, responding to inquiries about at-risk students or simply fail to submit grades to the registrar. If you think our work here is worth so little, I challenge you to consider the magnitude of our power.”

The educators lamented that they were not properly able to spend time individually helping students. They noted that the budget issues have hurt students’ education, including cuts in hours and tutors leaving because of low compensation at the Writing Center.

Some faculty members also noted the poor working conditions they faced: several buildings were deteriorating, particularly at Brooklyn College, which had missing ceiling tiles, exposed wires, out-of-order bathroom stalls, and peeling paint. Though the state’s Fiscal Year 2019 budget boosted funding for CUNY and the State University of New York by $200 million, when adjusted for inflation, state funding per student had dropped 17 percent from 2008 to 2015, noted the Professional Staff Congress, CUNY’s largest union.

Not Adjusted for Inflation

That’s because the current Maintenance of Effort law protects the level of funding CUNY received from the previous year but does not cover inflationary costs such as rent and electricity and salary increases, as well as the difference between the maximum Tuition Assistance Program grant amount and tuition (known as the “TAP gap”) that CUNY must absorb. An enhanced version of the legislation would offer funding for these expenses, but Mr. Cuomo has vetoed the bill twice, in 2015 and last year.

“Despite claims to care deeply about the students, the Board and the Chancellery seem to care more about whether they will offend Governor Cuomo, who has never expressed a deep understanding or concern about CUNY,” said Lorraine Cohen, an Urban Studies Professor at LaGuardia Community College. “His record as a progressive is very thin when it comes to CUNY.”

PSC President Barbara Bowen called the union “the only public voice” opposing austerity.

“The budget request you submit this fall will reveal whether you take the position that CUNY trustees are primarily answerable to the Governor or Mayor who appointed you, or whether you see yourselves as accountable to the faculty and staff who make this university work and the hundreds of thousands of students who rely on it for a chance at a decent life,” Ms. Bowen said. “Which side are you on?” 

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