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More Cuts at CUNY: Interview with a Grad Student Worker

Students, faculty, and staff at the City University of New York (CUNY) are grappling with another series of cuts by the administration. Left Voice interviewed a graduate student worker who holds multiple part time positions at CUNY to learn more about the austerity being imposed on the university.

Left Voice

February 8, 2021
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Someone with short dark hair stands with their back to the viewer. On their back, they are wearing a piece of red cloth that says "Professional Staff Congress. The People's University. #FundCUNYNow!" In the background, there are other people marching and carrying similar signs.

In mid-June, the City University of New York laid off thousands of part time faculty and staff. Others had their hours cut until they were no longer eligible for health insurance. The union’s lawsuit to reinstate these workers failed, and then CUNY refused to give contractually-guaranteed raises to those who had been fortunate enough to retain their jobs. 

Now that another semester is beginning, the administration has struck another series of blows to students, faculty, and staff. Left Voice interviewed one of our own writers, Olivia Wood, to learn more about the austerity facing the City University of New York. Olivia is a PhD student who holds multiple part time positions at CUNY in order to make ends meet, and she is a shop steward for the Professional Staff Congress. 

You’ve written several articles for us on what’s going on at CUNY in general, but can you start by describing how the pandemic has affected the schools you work at?

Yeah, so first, I have three roles at CUNY: I’m a PhD student at the Graduate Center, I teach at John Jay, and I have a staff job at another campus as well. When the pandemic first hit, the main struggles were 1) students and faculty transitioning to online learning and 2) staff fighting for the right to work from home, since originally, the administrators wanted them to keep working in person. My staff job at CUNY is helping people use an online learning platform we have, so on the one hand, the transition to teaching online wasn’t too bad for me, but on the other hand, my workload at that job increased a lot because lots of teachers were freaking out about having to design an all-online course in basically one weekend. And some of these are teachers who aren’t comfortable with technology in general; maybe they really only use their email. I kept having clients at work telling me that they were terrified that if they didn’t make their site good enough, they’d be fired. In some departments, this became a more explicit risk in the fall– adjuncts were forced by their chairs to build their course sites before they even had their classes approved, forcing them to wonder if the chairs were making hiring decisions based on the quality of this unpaid work. But back to last spring, I don’t remember exactly when the union got it so almost everyone could work from home, but I think it was only a week or two after classes went online.

Later on during the spring, a grassroots activist group called PhD SOS sprung up to demand emergency funding for students. As part of that group, I conducted an informal survey of other students to find out what people were experiencing and what their primary concerns and demands were. Most people were super worried about money and job security, or about being able to finish their degree before their funding ran out. The science students who need access to their labs and stuff couldn’t work at all, other people needed access to the library, and of course everyone was suddenly trapped at home with their families or roommates all day and everything was terrifying and there was always more bad news. Even if you technically could still do your work, I think just about everyone was struggling to function emotionally while getting the bare minimum of their responsibilities done. I’m about a semester behind in my PhD progress, and I’m one of the more fortunate ones– I don’t have any kids I need to take care of and can do my research from home, for example. 

May and June are when CUNY started really fucking us over. At the end of every semester, adjunct faculty and staff get their reappointment (or non-reappointment) letters. Everyone was terrified, since we knew there would be a ton of cuts. Initially, they were going to cut like 40 percent of the faculty at my school, and I’m not sure how many across all campuses. Then they changed it to about 25 percent of all faculty overall. 3,700 faculty, all adjuncts, were laid off over the summer. Some of them got re-hired later depending on student enrollment, but lots didn’t. And then a bunch of adjunct staff members were laid off too. Literally thousands of people were laid off, and then a few hundred more still had jobs but got their hours cut enough that they were no longer eligible for health insurance. During a pandemic.

I’m not going to talk too much about the union stuff, since I’ve basically covered that in my Left Voice articles.

During the fall semester, the schools are operating on a month to month budget, so some of the part time staff literally had no idea if they’d still have a job month to month. A bunch of people got laid off mid-semester. Then in November, when we were supposed to get our raises, they just….decided not to. And this was extra aggravating because during the last contract negotiation, the union was trying to tell us to be happy with the contract even though we didn’t get anywhere near the raise we were asking for for adjuncts, and was telling us how it was such a big win. On top of that, salary steps for adjuncts based on longevity are essentially being eliminated. By the end of the contract, everyone on the higher salary steps will be making the same amount as those on the lower salary steps — essentially, they get less of a raise than people on the lower steps. The full timers got annual raises and are keeping their salary steps. So, the contract was already bad, and then we didn’t even get the 2 percent raise for 2020 that we DID win in the contract. The administration SAYS they’re going to give it to us at some point, but I’m not holding my breath. And the adjunct faculty are actually getting paid LESS this semester than they did in 2020. They got reverted back to the Spring 2019 pay rate. So, that’s what’s been happening, and the union is doing basically nothing. They sent maybe two emails about it, and the last one kind of sounded like they were saying we ought to be happy that the administration says that they’ll pay us eventually. I don’t even know how many people actually know about it.

Okay, and now what’re they doing this semester?

So, Cuomo is still withholding some of our CARES Act money, and then some of the money allocated to CUNY that we DID get is just….missing? Some other CUNY workers are doing research to try to figure out where it went, but I don’t know myself. 

Then, even more adjuncts got cut. Some of them had their classes cancelled THIS WEEK, even though classes start next week. So it’s like, “Surprise! No job!” The classes are getting cancelled due to low enrollment, but part of why enrollment is so low is that thousands of students across CUNY haven’t been allowed to register for classes because they owe fees to the university. They would like to stay in school, but they’re not being allowed to. I think about a third of students at John Jay who have “dropped out” actually just aren’t allowed to register. It’s terrible. These students, lots of them have lost family members to the virus, tons of them or their family members have lost jobs, or they’re just trying not to get evicted or die. Like, CUNY students are mostly Black and Brown, and mostly working class, and we KNOW those groups are being hit the worst by the pandemic. So, that’s the deal with the teaching and staff parts of my life.

But at my school where I’m a student, the Graduate Center, we just got even more terrible news this week through the union chapter. We knew even more budget cuts were on their way, and we knew that the administration and Cuomo weren’t going to do anything about it because they just kept saying “Oh, well let’s wait until Biden gets inaugurated, maybe he’ll send us more money.” But this week we found out that they’re cutting funding for new students by half or more. Normally, my department admits around 20 students per year, and everyone gets a fellowship where they teach or do other work at CUNY. Next year, we’re only going to have about 8.

How does that impact your department?

Well, the Graduate Center as a whole already operates on a three-tier funding system. Some people get these 5 year fellowships, some people only get tuition paid for, and some people get no money at all. My department only admits as many people as we can give fellowships to, but other departments don’t. So it’s possible other departments will admit their normal amount of students, but without funding, and they will just need to either take out a whole bunch of loans or work another job while they’re trying to study. Which people certainly can do, but it’s much harder, and it’s unfair. Everybody should be funded. 

The GC is already disproportionately white and upper middle class compared to the CUNY population as a whole. Cutting funding opportunities just makes it harder for less economically privileged people to attend school. Then, with fewer students taking classes, enrollment minimums will force departments to cut their course offerings, so that’s fewer opportunities for the students who ARE here. The other way it might hurt is that, because most classes at the Graduate Center are taught by faculty who are based at other CUNY schools, fewer graduate classes means those teachers will be instead teaching at their home campuses. If the schools have those people to cover an additional class, that’s fewer classes they have to pay adjuncts for, so fewer jobs for adjuncts. 

Aside from those material impacts, it’s also just really sad. I like being in a big department, and I’m close with a lot of my classmates from the same year as me. Cutting admissions means our program has just become twice as hard to get into, so I feel really bad for everyone who applied this year. It’s already so stressful to apply to grad school. 

Do you know what they’re doing with the money from the funding cuts?

Apparently yesterday the Provost said some of the money saved is going toward providing 6th year funding for current 5th years, but it’s going to be significantly less — maybe as little as 25 percent of what they’re getting now, depending on their fellowship package. It certainly won’t be enough to live off of — the only good part is it will allow those students to stay on student health insurance. I don’t know if all of the current 5th years will get it, or only some, and I’m also unclear if this will only apply to the current 5th years, or if everybody in years 1-4 will get the same thing when we hit our 6th year.

Other schools have given their PhD students an extra semester or an extra year of funding to account for how the pandemic has disrupted everyone. So far, we’ve gotten nothing. Already, most people in my department don’t finish their degree before their funding runs out. It’s basically impossible to finish in less than 6 years, and most people take longer. I think the average is 8 or 9, although it’s going down now that everyone in our program gets five years of funding. I don’t know how many people manage to actually finish in five. I’m certainly trying, but I don’t know if I’ll be able to. 

What’s the union doing?

Our chapter at the Graduate Center organized a town hall last week to get everyone all the information and discuss what to do. I don’t know if the union as a whole is going to do anything. The structure of CUNY is weird in that most grad student workers are concentrated at the GC in terms of our union membership and where our pay comes from, even though we’re “farmed out” to work at other campuses, so sometimes the other chapters aren’t that interested in our issues. 

LV: What do you think needs to happen?

For myself and other grad students, I want my raise and an extra year of full funding. For the undergrads, I want them to cancel all the fees and fines that are preventing them from registering for classes in the short term, and make CUNY free in the slightly longer term. We used to be tuition-free until like the 70s. Hire back all the adjuncts whose classes got cut — just make class sizes smaller, then everyone will have something to teach. That’s good for students anyway. Cuomo literally said in an interview that the reason he doesn’t do a wealth tax to pay for things is that it would make the rich people he talks to every day unhappy. It’s not like there aren’t ways to get this money. And I want the PSC to mobilize for a strike, like, now. To protect people’s jobs, to get more funding for CUNY, to not reopen until it’s safe for both workers and the students. We passed a resolution with all this nice “strike readiness” language, but the union leadership is mostly just doing outreach phonebanks. It’s ridiculous. We’ve had thousands of people lose their jobs, the university is blatantly violating the contract — what needs to happen for the union leaders to think this situation is serious enough for a strike? There are a bunch of rank and file groups who are organizing toward a strike authorization vote. There’s strike authorization vote committees on most campuses, and they’re coordinating with each other, but right now it’s a movement from the membership, and the union leaders still seem super unwilling. 

I really think that most of the union members who don’t want to strike trust the leadership, and if the leadership says it’s time to strike, they’ll get on board. I think a lot of the hesitancy is because the leadership keeps saying we can’t, or we’re not ready, or it’s too dangerous because of the Taylor Law. It’s super frustrating. 

What do you think will happen?

I don’t know. I hope that something will make the union leadership come around and we’ll organize as a whole union — if not a strike, then at least something more militant than all of these petitions. I’m certainly doing my own part to try to make that happen, talking to my coworkers and trying to get more rank-and-file members involved with the union, and writing for LV and stuff. Also, the university also wants us to be in-person in the fall, and are talking about trying to make some staff come back this spring. But all the estimates I’m seeing from the epidemiologists and data people are saying that the BEST case scenario is that enough people are vaccinated for it to be safe by late summer. But the vaccination rollout has already been a disaster. Some weeks, there aren’t enough doses and they’re cancelling appointments, and other weeks, there’s too many doses and they’re having to throw them away. And then who knows what will happen with these other strains. I’m scared we’ll have a repeat of last spring again. 

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Left Voice

Militant journalism, revolutionary politics.

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