posted 2011-11-30 14:50:27

Letter to the Editor

The growing trend at CUNY and in universities and colleges across the country is to fill their growing need for faculty members with adjunct instructors instead of full-time, tenure track faculty members. What does the plight of adjunct faculty members mean for CUNY? Why should CUNY students care about this? Simply put, students should care because adjuncts make up over 50% of the university’s teaching force and teach over 50% of all CUNY courses.

This is to say that it is likely that as students the majority of your interactions with faculty members are not with the traditional tenured professor. In addition to teaching classes, tenured faculty design courses, advise students, conduct scholarly research, and administer academic departments. They earn middle class salaries and are assured the academic freedom, which allows them to research and report on the phenomena and ideas they, as recognized experts, determine worthy of study. Adjuncts, on the other hand, are contingent workers. They often work for poverty wages—teaching four courses a semester at CUNY may earn as little as $12,000. They are hired on semester-by-semester basis and as a result have no job security and curtailed academic freedom. Furthermore, their typically heavy teaching load precludes the pursuit of research projects and the opportunity to advise students.

This stark discrepancy in working conditions splits the faculty, and both sides suffer form the divide. One class of teachers—the adjuncts—must take on heavier and heavier course loads to make ends meet but live with the fear that a sign of dissent or a personality clash could lead to termination. The other—the shrinking cadre of full-time, tenured faculty—are afforded better work environment but shoulder the entire burden of academic administrative duties for their departments, a commitment that grows on pace with the increase in student enrollment

One could make the argument that CUNY students should care about this issue because they are not getting what they pay for when their increasingly expensive education is being provided by cheap, part-time contract workers. But looking at the issue from only a consumer-rights perspective is a grave misdirection. Using the language of the market undercuts the fact that education is a human right, one that should be freely and equally available to all. Instead it frames education as a consumer good to be bought and sold with price and quality differentials.

Within the consumer rights paradigm, student grievances get deflected—by either an attitude of ‘what do you expect when you pay a tenth of what Columbia charges’ or one of ‘take your money and go somewhere else.’ But you do not go to Hunter to pick up a money-back guaranteed diploma. And Hunter does not exist to produce ready-made career credentials. Education is not a commodity that can be purchased; it is a social process that requires sustained effort by both students and professors. While consumers only get to speak with their dollar, students with rights are empowered to demand that the institution change to meet their needs. Students with rights are integral to the institution as much as the faculty and more than the administration. It is to provide for the rights of students that Hunter, that CUNY, that public education exists.

Yet, to claim education as a universal right is not to claim that the university exists outside of the economic realm. The university is a workplace, a highly diverse workplace whose proper functioning requires that all positions—teaching and non-teaching—be filled by competent, respected, and properly compensated workers. If the university truly is to be a place of openness, honesty, and equality all of those whose labor produces it, its workers must be treated according to those same ideals.

After a century of free education for a predominately white student body, the 1969 occupation of City College by students of color forced the university to recognize and respect the rights of all New Yorkers to higher education regardless of race or ethnicity. CUNY has since cowered away from this broadening of its founding ideal as an institution of free, public higher education. In 1975, just six years after students of color successfully fought bigotry in university admissions, tuition was assessed for the first time in the history of the university. So while its students moved CUNY towards the cherished, democratic ideals of equal access to high quality higher education, its Board of Trustees undercut these very ideals by installing previously unknown user fees—in the form of tuition—that effected a class barrier to replace the previous race-based one. This first step towards privatization has been followed by periodic tuition increases of increasing frequency.

This barrier to equality of opportunity is made deeper and more divisive with every increase in tuition, every decrease in state and city contribution, every haggled-down employee contract. Furthermore, the problems engendered by this move towards privatization—tuition and fees accounting for an increasingly larger percentage of the university’s budget—lie not only with rising costs that force students to devote more of their time to paying for college instead of studying for college. It also manifests in austerity budgets that hollow out the resources available to students, including that of the faculty themselves.

Presently over 50% of CUNY faculty members are adjuncts. They receive scant institutional support to conduct research. Their academic freedom is under constant threat. Their low wages necessitate teaching at multiple campuses and universities. Their course loads are double to triple that of regular faculty members, but yet they only to receive half or less the wage of a newly appointed, full-time professor. CUNY’s ever growing reliance upon contingent, over-burdened workers exemplifies the shrinking concern on the part of the Chancellor and the Board of Trustees for the quality of education that CUNY students receive.

However, to say that the university’s dependence upon adjunct laborers symbolizes the undermining of a CUNY education is not to disparage the adjuncts themselves. Adjuncts at CUNY are a highly diverse body of professional educators who are committed to teaching and committed to their students. What it does say, however, is that the deteriorating conditions under which CUNY employees labor negatively affect their ability to realize their own potential and to provide their students with the highest quality instruction and advisement possible.

The Occupy Wall Street movement, including Occupy CUNY and Occupy Hunter, is helping draw attention to economic inequality and injustice. All members of CUNY deserve fair and equal treatment by the university. It is all too easy for students to be split off from faculty as ‘education consumers,’ faculty from staff, and adjuncts from tenured faculty. It is my hope that the OWS movement will make it clear that, while students and adjuncts may face different immediate problems, the issues that underlie those problems are irrevocably tied together. A just university that fulfills its obligation to provide high quality education available to all members of the public cannot succeed using exploitative labor practices. When the rights of adjunct teachers and all contingent workers are met we are able to better devote ourselves to our job and our passion – the creation and the propagation of knowledge for the public at large and most immediately for our students.