Nearly 1,800 part-time faculty members at the New School, who have been on strike since November 16 for better pay and working conditions, remained out of work and on the picket lines on Wednesday even as the university said it would start withholding their pay. Meanwhile, the university, which faces a threatened lawsuit by angry parents, has demanded that all full-time faculty members, many of whom sympathize with the strikers, prove they’re working.
Part-time workers make up more than 80 percent of the teaching faculty at the private liberal-arts university in New York City’s Greenwich Village. The workers contend that their real wages have declined, given inflation, since their last raise. Adjunct professors earn $5,753 for a three-credit course. The university says that covers 45 hours of scheduled teaching, including “course-related work.” But officials of the United Auto Workers Local 7902, a union representing the instructors, say that encompasses about 135 hours of work, including such out-of-class duties as preparing for lessons, grading assignments, and advising students.
The university has said the union demands would push the university into financial crisis and could lead to tuition increases. Both sides were scheduled for another round of bargaining late Wednesday.
The striking workers are among the rapidly growing ranks of contingent or adjunct faculty members nationwide, who are often forced to cobble together six or more courses a semester or live on food stamps in order to cover their basic living costs. Classes are often assigned just weeks before the semester, making planning difficult.
The New School strike comes at a time when academic workers on the opposite coast — nearly 48,000 graduate students, postdocs, and researchers across the University of California system — were withholding work in what has been billed as the largest higher-education strike in American history. Postdocs and academic researchers there reached a settlement with the university last week that includes significant pay raises, but the money would come mostly from grants that principal investigators bring in.
The New School, a progressive university started in 1919, houses five schools and colleges, including the Parsons School of Design and the New School for Social Research.
A ‘Last, Best, and Final Offer’
In a phone call late Wednesday, the New School’s president, Dwight A. McBride, said he understands that people are upset about not being paid. “What gets lost in the discussion is that for three weeks, we have paid our striking employees, and we’ve done that in the hopes that we might come to a deal quickly,” he said. “But we have to divert those funds to grading … and the possibility of hiring new faculty in the spring if this drags on.”
McBride assured about 1,000 parents during a Zoom call on Saturday that the university was doing all it could to resolve the standoff. He told them the union had rejected the school’s “last, best, and final offer” of an 18-percent pay raise over five years and better access to subsidized health care. Union representatives countered that they’d been flexible in the negotiations, cutting their wage demands in half.
Meanwhile, a group representing more than 1,500 parents has threatened to file a class-action lawsuit against the university and to withhold tuition payments unless the dispute is resolved. The school, a lawyer for the parents wrote, “refuses to use tuition monies already received — in many cases close to $80,000 per year per student — to provide adequate compensation and benefits to the faculty charged with providing our clients’ children with their education.”
In a message posted on Tuesday, university leaders reiterated why they’d decided to stop paying faculty members who weren’t teaching, and assured students and their families that they’d be able to complete the semester. The statement was signed by President McBride; the university’s provost, Renée T. White; and its executive vice president for business and operations, Tokumbo Shobowale.
Students, they said, would receive grades “in an educationally responsible manner” so they could progress in their academic studies and not risk losing financial-aid eligibility, visa status, or their ability to graduate.
Starting this week, all full-time faculty members, many of whom have pledged to support the striking workers by not crossing picket lines, must fill out weekly “work certification” forms that attest they’re working. That move prompted a backlash on social media.
The New School is imposing a requirement that all full-time faculty report on their work, stating that it will cut pay and health benefits for those who don’t comply
Leaving aside the legality of this unilateral change in our contracts, this is straight up strikebreaking
— Paulo L. dos Santos (@plbds) December 7, 2022
Paulo L. dos Santos, an associate professor of economics, said in an interview on Wednesday that the new requirement amounts to “a serious escalation that poisons the atmosphere and ultimately boils down to an effort to coerce faculty back into the classroom.”
Faculty members at the New School, he said, “are particularly motivated by a sense of identity and mission, by notions of egalitarianism and social justice and bold, if not radical, change. To see the administration’s approach to this dispute is thoroughly demoralizing.”
In an email to the faculty on Wednesday that was shared with The Chronicle, the university’s vice president for human resources, Sonya Williams, wrote that the required certification forms will allow faculty members to demonstrate that they’re fulfilling their teaching, research, and service responsibilities. It will also, she wrote, assure the university’s accreditors that it’s continuing to deliver its curriculum “even if, in a moment of protest, that delivery looks different in mode, platform, or format than usual.”
We have faced a period of tumult and discord that feels to me like the fabric of our university has been torn apart.
In a message to the community last week, White, the provost, said the university was at a crossroads. “We have faced a period of tumult and discord that feels to me like the fabric of our university has been torn apart, but hopefully not irreparably,” she wrote. “This is an opportunity for us to be courageous in building a vision of the New School that works for everyone: all part-time and full-time faculty, students, and staff.”
The university’s leadership, she wrote, is committed to working with the community to develop “creative solutions that bring equity and repair trust.”
New School leaders said, in the negotiation updates posted on the university’s website, that they understood that withholding pay, including contributions to health-insurance and retirement benefits, would cause frustration and anger. “As we enter the fourth week of disruptions, we must use our resources carefully to ensure that our students’ academic needs are met,” they wrote.
The union’s proposed compensation package would cost the university more than $200 million over the course of the five-year contract, university officials wrote. For perspective, they wrote that the amount is nearly 50 percent of the university’s annual operating budget of around $460 million.
Tactics of ‘Corporate Behemoths’
The union’s president, Zoe Carey, a doctoral candidate in sociology and part-time instructor, said in a blog post on Tuesday that many workers would be boycotting university events to protest the administration’s latest moves.
“The threat to strip workers of wages and health insurance is an extraordinarily hostile move, throwing almost the entirety of the university’s faculty into significant financial insecurity,” she wrote. The school also threatened to withhold pay from faculty members and graduate-student workers who refuse to cross picket lines, she said.
“By threatening the livelihoods of those joining the strike in solidarity, the university is pitting its workers against each other, while stoking the fears of our students — these tactics are typical of corporate behemoths, not purportedly progressive institutions, as the New School claims to be,” Carey wrote. She urged faculty members to ignore the work-certification forms they’ve been told to fill out.
Jerzy Gwiazdowski, a part-time faculty member and member of the union’s bargaining team, said in an interview on Wednesday that the union had made significant compromises in its demands and that none of them would create a financial hardship for the university.
He said he understands why many parents and students are upset. “I’m angry, too,” he said. “This strike never should have happened. The university did everything in its power to drag this on as long as possible. They’re using students as pawns” to try to get the faculty to return to work, he said. Faculty members want to finish the semester with their students, “but we need to be paid fairly to do it — we need to pay our rent and be compensated for the many hours we spend working outside the classroom.”
Gwiazdowski, who teaches in the School of Drama, said he picks up gigs and takes other jobs in the arts to make ends meet. When his classes were moved to Zoom during the Covid outbreaks, “I would hop in a truck and deliver beer” around Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens, he said.
Asked about concerns that adjuncts couldn’t afford to live on their pay, McBride said no one doubts that living in New York is expensive. “But if you’re working part time in any job, you can’t expect that part-time wages are going to be sufficient alone to pay your living expenses,” he said. In addition to wages, part-timers at the New School receive health and retirement benefits that adjuncts at many other campuses lack, the president said.
Sanjay G. Reddy, an associate professor of economics, argued in a blog post on Tuesday that the university’s approach “threatens to bring about the very financial crisis that it claims to forestall, by causing a precipitous collapse in student enrollments.”
The university has taken issue with Reddy’s assertions that the university’s finances are opaque, its administration bloated, and many of its investment decisions ill planned, as “misleading or incorrect.”
Controversy erupted last week when the university sent hiring managers an email seeking “temporary progress reviewers” to grade students’ work. The reviewers would need a master’s degree and teaching experience, but wouldn’t have to be subject experts, the email said. Three days later, the university described the email as an unapproved message that had been sent out by mistake.