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CUNY Could Lay Off Thousands of Adjuncts

CUNY schools, including Brooklyn College, Queens College and Hunter College, are planning large-scale layoffs or have begun sending non-reappointment letters as CUNY prepares to face massive budget cuts. John Jay College is expected to lay off over 400 adjuncts, reducing its teaching force by about 40%.

CUNY could lose $95 million in funding because of state cuts according to the faculty union Professional Staff Congress, or PSC. Mayor Bill de Blasio announced $20 million in cuts last month from delaying the CUNY ASAP program, which offers resources to students earning associate’s degrees.

Hunter College adjunct professor Filipa Calado has not received an offer for the fall semester yet, even though she taught courses in the English department for a few years. It did not raise concern; she was once offered to teach a course two weeks before the semester began. She received no written communication before she was sent a non-reappointment letter. The email was two sentences long.

“It was kind of shocking,” she said. “I don’t understand why there’s no explanation.”

A full-time lecturer who taught at the school for 20 years received a similar non-reappointment letter according to Rank and File Action, the activist group formerly known as 7K or Strike. “It’s starting, and it’s not just impacting adjuncts,” the group posted on Twitter.

Adjuncts teach about 60% of CUNY classes but many are appointed on a semester-by-semester basis or have contracts over one to three years. Department chairs may rehire faculty depending on their budget. 

After negotiations between CUNY officials and PSC, schools must notify adjuncts whether they will be hired by May 29, two weeks after the original deadline. The group is demanding an extension on health insurance programs until 2021 so adjuncts do not lose their coverage during the pandemic. They are also calling on state legislators to enact new taxes for the wealthy to fund higher education. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez supports the union and its demands.

“In a time of economic crisis, we need to be investing in New York City’s working-class institutions, not destroying hundreds of good union jobs. Austerity is not the answer, solidarity is,” she wrote.

Colleges across the country are facing similar cutbacks due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some schools have lost millions after issuing housing refunds and covering costs for remote instruction. A new survey by SimpsonScarborough reports fewer students will attend college this year, meaning schools could lose tuition revenue as well. 

The CUNY Board of Trustees approved a $200 tuition hike and a $120 health and wellness fee last year. The decision is receiving additional pushback as many students are experiencing financial hardship during the pandemic.

The CARES Act allocated $237 million for CUNY from the federal government, half of which must go to students as emergency grants. Hunter College will receive a portion of the funds, but schools are waiting for more information from the U.S. Department of Education on how schools can spend the money. PSC says the funds should be used to save jobs, but CUNY has not stated their plans.

About 275,000 students across 18 campuses attend CUNY schools. With reduced faculty, the classroom size will likely increase, which could lead to overcrowding and less time for individual instruction. If departments offer a smaller course catalog, students could lose some of the courses they need to graduate. 

PSC says that before the layoffs, one-third of CUNY students could not register for at least one course, and of those almost half could not register for a course they needed to fulfill their major requirements. 

Departments at Brooklyn College submitted course offerings with a 25% reduction, although the decision is not finalized. Some departments at Hunter College are waiting for more information regarding budget cuts, including the school’s Film and Media Studies program. 

Department chair Kelly Anderson says course offerings have not been limited, and will proceed as enrollment is strong and seats are filling up. The uncertainty surrounding the budget cuts causes stress and anxiety among faculty and herself, but she plans to reappoint the faculty needed. 

Adjuncts “are a large number of contributors to the department teaching load and they’re really a part of our community,” she said. “I think we’ll do everything that we can to keep people on board.”

Cars drove past CUNY headquarters to protest budget cuts and layoffs.
Photo by Nina Westervelt/PSC CUNY

A new pledge from Rank and File Action urges CUNY faculty to withhold grades to protest the layoffs. The group participated in a virtual caravan last week, where supporters shared posters with the group’s demands on social media. During a CUNY Board of Trustees meeting, some joined a physical caravan as cars drove past CUNY headquarters with signs. On Monday, PSC released a TV advertisement to push back against CUNY layoffs. 

Calado says members of the English department are doing the best they can, and sees the layoffs and budget cuts as a state-wide disinvestment in public education. 

“Adjuncts are the majority, yet they’re the first on the chopping block,” she said. “It would be a shame if people didn’t take this opportunity to recognize that.”

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