After twenty-six years of adjuncting in the English Department at Hunter College, the last thing Paul Grossman expected to receive was an unceremonious firing. He also never expected to be at the center of a lawsuit that establishes precedent for CUNY adjunct labor rights. Grossman, a novelist and by all accounts a highly-regarded teacher and colleague at the school, was given his walking papers in March 2011 by department chair Cristina Alfar. “I was devastated,” Grossman told the Advocate during a recent interview in his West Village apartment. “Hunter was like my second home.”
Grossman wasn’t alone. Several other adjuncts were also sent packing by Alfar that semester in what looked like a departmental house cleaning by the chair and her course coordinator, Professor Trudith Smoke. In the case of Grossman, the long-time adjunct was replaced by two young women—one of whom is a professional photographer with no professional writing experience. “The fact that Alfar had that power to do this to me, just like that, well, it left me feeling utterly powerless,” said Grossman. “So I went to the union, but it became very apparent, very quickly, that the union was going to be of little help. As far as adjuncts are concerned, they have zero power. I was told, ‘[Alfar and Smoke] can do whatever they want.’”
Except, as it turns out, they can’t. The group of adjuncts let go by the English Department in the spring of 2011 were not a heterogeneous bunch. In all, two-thirds of those fired were gay men, and all of them were over the age of fifty. After further consultations with union representatives—who pointed out that U.S. law prohibits firing workers for their age, gender, or sexual orientation—Grossman was advised to file a complaint with the New York State Department of Human Rights (NYSDHR) accusing Alfar and Smoke of discrimination. Says Grossman, “This complaint, and their response to it, is what did them in. They lied through their teeth. It was a nuisance for them: I didn’t have a lawyer, and so they were going to make up any bullshit [to make the complaint go away], and that’s what they did.”
As justification for Grossman’s termination, Alfar and Smoke recited a laundry list of grievances and accusations in their reply to the state. Among other things, the pair charged Grossman with leaving graded student work outside his office for undergrads to pick up (a practice which violates the school’s confidentiality policy on student grades), failing to issue research writing assignments in his classes, and ignoring Hunter’s requirement that students attend a library orientation session at some point in the academic semester. In addition, Alfar claimed in her formal evaluation of Grossman during the early spring of 2011 that “elements of the course were missing from [his] syllabus, including MLA format, annotated bibliography, 120 goals, plagiarism statement, accessibility statement and . . . detailed info on ISBN and book prices . . .While Mr. Grossman has taught here many years and while his student evaluations are good, his professional attention to the requirements of the courses he teaches and to requirements of the department and the federal government are seriously lacking.”
The trouble with these accusations is that for the most part, they weren’t true. “I have emails,” said Grossman, “dating back years showing my appointments with the library for library orientations! I have research papers from students from years ago! So, once that was clear, I sought legal advice because this whole thing was just nuts. Fortunately, I was able to find an incredible lawyer. She was the one who was able to explain to me that the firing was based on pretext, and provably so. The accusations that [Alfar and Smoke] sent to the state boxed them in legally, because they had to stick to them going forward. Once we sued them, they couldn’t prove a thing, and I could. It was so dumb!”
On advice from his lawyer, Kellen Ressmeyer, Grossman withdrew the complaint he filed with the NYSDHR, as well as one he had filed with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and instead sued the City University of New York for discrimination. Ressmeyer, told the Advocate that her initial investigations brought to light disconcerting statistical red flags. “There appeared to be a pattern—and not just in this particular tranche of terminations in spring 2011—of a disproportionate number of particular demographics of people departing the English Department.”
The lawsuit presented a certain measure of risk. CUNY is considered an agent of the State of New York, a sovereign entity and therefore immune to legal challenge except in very particular circumstances. Normally, New York can only be sued in the Court of Claims, where the state has expressly waived its sovereign immunity, but this route does not allow trial by jury—something considered very important in civil and human rights cases. Ultimately, after a series of legal twists and turns, the lawsuit was with the Supreme Court of the State of New York.
Grossman’s complaint is unsparing. In court documents obtained by the Advocate, Grossman’s lawyers charge Alfar and Smoke with discriminatory intent “manifest by their commonly-recognized hostility towards men, particularly gay men.” Investigations by Grossman’s lawyers quickly revealed that this was not the first recorded run-in between Alfar and her professional colleagues. Court records reveal that Alfar’s workplace behavior has resulted in “multiple complaints of harassment and discrimination” and “insanely abusive” conduct filed with Hunter College and the English Department’s union grievance counselor. Background interviews with Alfar’s colleagues recorded in the complain, past and present, are equally unflattering and describe the department chair as a “vindictive,” “power hungry” “sociopath” possessed of a “narcissistic personality disorder.” “In some weird way,” noted one tenured professor speaking to Grossman’s lawyers, “gay men [don’t] fit with her feminist program.’ This faculty member believed that Professor Alfar’s behavior could manifest ‘homophobia in operation.’”
The Hunter English department is compared in the complaint by one tenured faculty member to a “Chicago-style machine” in which Alfar’s “slavish followers [are] rewarded for fealty’ and ‘anyone who dared challenge her was punished.’” Another member of the department confirmed this view, and pointed to Smoke as an example of a faculty who has been rewarded by Alfar for her loyalty, referring to Smoke and Alfar’s relationship as “very sick.” According to Grossman’s verified complaint, filed in January 2012, “Alfar also has a history of publicly asserting her authority over her male colleagues. For example, as one staff-member reports, at an intra-Departmental meeting, Professor Alfar singled out a male assistant professor and publicly berated him, concluding by threatening him loudly, ‘Remember who hired you.’” Neither Alfar nor Smoke responded to the Advocate‘s request for comment.
On the issue of Grossman particular, court documents show that neither Alfar nor Smoke was able to prove their allegations that Grossman had left graded work in the hallway. Grossman, on the other hand, was able to produce evidence in his defense. Grossman has copies of the research writing assignments he had issued to his students, and copies of his correspondence with Hunter’s library confirming the mandated orientations for his classes. He also produced copies of a written exchange with Smoke concerning the missing “elements” on his syllabus. The correspondence clearly shows that Grossman immediately complied with the department’s request that he add the items in question, and that the changes were confirmed and accepted. Grossman’s lawyers argued–and CUNY ultimately decided not to fight but instead pled no contest to Grossman’s claims–that the adjunct’s termination had nothing to do with professional misconduct and everything to do with Alfar’s bias against older instructors, particularly those who are gay men.
The court agreed, ultimately ruling in Grossman’s favor. CUNY was forced to pay the former Hunter adjunct damages to the tune of $100,000.01, and as the Advocate went to press, Grossman’s lawyers were seeking attorney’s fees of $159,000. In all likelihood taxpayers can expect to pony-up roughly a quarter of a million dollars, and possibly more. It remains unclear if other adjuncts terminated under Alfar’s watch will follow suit and take the City University to court for civil and human rights violations. Should they decide to do so, however, they can expect the support of some of their former colleagues in the department. “A lot of success in the case,” Ressmeyer told the Advocate, “is due to the very brave employees at CUNY who came forward and were willing to talk about their own experiences knowing the risks involved.”
More immediately, the Grossman case may have significantly altered the landscape of adjunct rights at the City University of New York. Previously, adjuncts were assumed to be largely without recourse in the event of non-reappointment. The Grossman verdict suggests that if CUNY wants to protect itself from future lawsuits by part-time and adjunct faculty members, it should adopt more rigorous standards of documentation and oversight of the non-reappointment process across all its campuses. A new, and very important, precedent has been set—no longer can adjuncts be thrown away on the whims of an administrator.
Professor Alfar and Professor Smoke were each contacted for this piece. Neither replied to accept the opportunity to comment. The Hunter College Communications Department contacted the Advocate and has been helpful, promising answers to the paper’s queries. At the time of publication, the Advocate was still waiting for official comment from the communications director. This article will be updated to reflect the school’s reaction when it is received.
Update: Hunter College President Jennifer Raab has responded on behalf of her college to the article. The Advocate appreciates her reply. It follows below.
The Advocate’s misleading and inaccurate report on the case of Paul Grossman, a former adjunct faculty member, completely ignores that a settlement was reached by both sides with no admission of wrongdoing by either Mr. Grossman or Hunter College. The College unequivocally denies any allegations of discrimination, and maintains that its actions and those of its faculty with respect to Mr. Grossman were at all times in keeping with its long and robust history of upholding the highest standards of inclusion and non-discrimination. We are dismayed that the Advocate chose to publish such a one-sided report without checking the facts and contacting the college or CUNY for comment.
Jennifer J. Raab
President, Hunter College