Every new semester brings new challenges for Adjuncts at CUNY. Failure to meet enrollment minimums can mean your class falls out from under you at the last minute, depriving you of income or worse, making you lose your insurance for the semester. Administrative changes to course accreditation (as happened recently at City College for those who teach English Composition classes) means suddenly taking a pay cut and having to work more hours to make ends meet. Combined with the nationally-low wages that CUNY Adjuncts get paid, the levels of instability and precarity the folks who do the majority of the teaching work in the CUNY consortium have to deal with to do their jobs of educating 300,000+ students every year is astounding.
And it’s about to get worse- budget cuts are coming down from this year’s State legislative session, and CUNY is going to be one of the biggest losers under Kathy Hochul’s new austerity regime. In a community meeting earlier this semester, President Garrell announced that the Graduate Center is going to lose approximately 5.5% of its budget over the next two years; for undergraduate campuses, cuts may be as high as 8%. While some benefits will accrue to CUNY students, staff, and faculty (such as the big win for CUNY For Abortion Rights’ campaign to have access on-campus to medical abortion pills, and the just-announced increase in fellowship stipends to the tune of $2,000), Adjunct Faculty have once again been left out in the cold by the state; many will no doubt see their positions eliminated as part of the cuts, putting current instructors out of work and reducing the number of teaching opportunities for future students. What’s worse, contingent faculty have recently been fired without due process at Hunter college for political expression against right wing encroachment on campus, and GC students who work as adjuncts have faced repercussions from consortium campus administrators, including having their access badges revoked for lawfully participating in political and labor organizing on campus. While CUNY administrators have received a 19% increase in their incomes since 2020, Adjuncts have not had a raise in years and are currently 3 months and counting without a new contract from the PSC; as of this writing, bargaining was only just about to begin in late June, not only overdue but seemingly timed around summer vacation when fewer PSC members would be around in person.
Adjunct Faculty have once again been left out in the cold by the state; many will no doubt see their positions eliminated as part of the cuts, putting current instructors out of work and reducing the number of teaching opportunities for future students.
The dire situation here at home is not unique, but a manifestation of a national labor crisis in higher education. Full faculty members are on the average older than the rest of the labor force and a large percentage are poised to retire in the next 10 years. If the dominant trend of the last 40 years continues (which it almost certainly will without radical organizing action), many if not most of these full-time positions will be broken up into low paying, expendable adjuncting gigs, for no reason other than it is cheaper for universities. (Anyone looking to argue that in the face of tight budgets colleges must cut costs where they can will be hard pressed to explain why the number of adjunct positions actually goes up relative to full-time positions during times of economic growth; such trends reveal the profit-motive mechanism that governs contemporary higher education).
At the same time, adjuncts are under public fire from all ends. The case of Erika López Prater, the adjunct instructor at Hamline University in St. Paul, who sued the school administrators for wrongful termination and defamation, serves to show how eager administrators are to shove adjuncts under the bus to avoid bad PR or performatively tout commitments to DEI standards without undergoing real structural change. Reactionary right-wing media is ever-ready to pounce on the poorest and most marginal of university workers; meanwhile Tucker Carlson is able to parachute out of FoxNews to his alma mater Trinity College without incident.
Simply put, things are looking bleak for the adjuncts who make up the majority of the CUNY consortium workforce. Even from within, adjuncts (along with Graduate Assistants and TA’s) face the organizing challenges of forming solidarity coalitions with full-time faculty, many of whom sympathize with adjuncts but are often unaware of the growing gulf between the security previous generations of academics found attainable and the hollowed-out realities of the neoliberal university.
Professors of previous generations have in the past organized admirably to protect themselves as a class from the growing market encroachment on higher-ed; for them, the university was one of the last bastions of value that has not been subsumed by market logic. In political-economic terms, they operated in a community of (nearer to) direct-exchange with their students; their intellectual work is what gave the university its value, and without them, the university would not have any students. For us, those barricades against exploitation have already begun to fall; students by and large do not attend universities to study with particular professors and access intellectual value. They attend to get a four-year degree that will (so they are told) allow them to attain a higher wage on the job market; by the increasingly profit-driven logic of higher ed, who is teaching them becomes a series of interchangeable parts.
Professors of previous generations have in the past organized admirably to protect themselves as a class from the growing market encroachment on higher-ed; […] they operated in a community of (nearer to) direct-exchange with their students; their intellectual work is what gave the university its value, and without them, the university would not have any students.
To many, this is not surprising; we know the most marginal workers are the ones targeted for the worst exploitation. What *is* surprising is how little one of the most important constituencies impacted by the plight of adjuncts has been aware of the dire situation: undergraduate students. On a recent call that included undergraduate organizers from around CUNY campuses, the question was posed by graduate organizers if the undergrads were familiar with the distinction between adjunct and professor roles. The answer was silence.
Think about it from your own experience. How many times have you or a colleague joked to students that you’re “not a real professor”? Did they get the joke?
For many if not most undergrads, adjunct faculty must be “professors” by the simple dint of being in a college classroom, lecturing. The divergent material realities of contingent, precarious employment vs. secure full-time appointment (not to mention the intangible gulf in social esteem and professional pedigree) are lost in the mystifying honorific most undergrads use to describe the person teaching them: “Professor”.
And how should they know the difference? After all, the thing undergraduates often receive the least education about is who is being paid to educate them.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
There is nothing stopping those of us teaching undergraduate students from educating them about our roles, and adjusting their own pedagogy to better understand their relationship to their own work. Students may not know that many adjuncts are not paid as much as full time instructors, nor are they aware of the restrictions to benefits such as health insurance (which requires two full semesters of teaching to be eligible for under the current contract, and which is terminated should the instructor get laid off or have their class under-enroll). The restrictions on work for international graduate student instructors (many of whom cannot accept work outside of the CUNY system as a condition of their student visas) are even more precarious; the option to apply for work elsewhere in New York City is severely limited. They are likely unaware that the return of a class with an instructor they enjoyed is in no small part contingent in filling out course surveys; they may also be ignorant of the complex institutional social relations expressed in the administrator/faculty dynamic and may be unaware how even well-intentioned criticism or complaints can amount to “complaining to the manager” on a precarious worker. Indeed, the parallel of the plight of adjuncts to those of service workers is apt and in many ways more relatable to an undergraduate student’s experience, and more and more mainstream media outlets are raising public consciousness around the shared struggles of such precarious laborers.
There is nothing stopping those of us teaching undergraduate students from educating them about our roles, and adjusting their own pedagogy to better understand their relationship to their own work.
Without minimizing the potential for genuine complaints against possible inappropriate conduct in the classroom, it is important for undergraduates who want to practice left politics to be conscious of where the real power lies: in the administration bosses. It is important for us to counter right-wing (and some liberal) narratives of university instructors as elite intellectual authoritarians that some students have absorbed. While it may not fully protect against a set of ideological beliefs that is hostile to worker rights and which seeks to weaponize institutional power against the most marginal, it can at the very least open up an opportunity for critical self-reflection for students who would not otherwise wish to be caught dead “Karen-ing” to the management.
So how do we go about this? How do we educate our students about their education? At the expense of making a potentially cringe internet meme manifest, the opportunity exists for us to assimilate our theory into our pedagogical praxis.
Some adjuncts have taken to including a paragraph in their class syllabus, explaining what their role is and what it means to be a contingent worker; others make it a Day 1 classroom disclaimer alongside the rules and expectations of assignments, attendance, and grading. Generational changes in faculty instruction have led to many classes beginning with pedagogical practices that would have once been remarkable- faculty going by first names in class, sharing of personal pronouns, land acknowledgements, etc. It is therefore even more remarkable that, in such pedagogical environments that (at least attempt to) allow for gender plurality, the legacy of settler colonialism, and more democratic classroom relations, the silence around matters of work and labor relations has remained. In that silence, the presumption of occupational privilege attached to the mere honorific of “professor” has attained an after-life, enduring long after the death of real material security once attached to university teaching appointments. Putting that particular specter to rest is alone a worthy project of political education.
It is therefore even more remarkable that, in such pedagogical environments that (at least attempt to) allow for gender plurality, the legacy of settler colonialism, and more democratic classroom relations, the silence around matters of work and labor relations has remained. In that silence, the presumption of occupational privilege attached to the mere honorific of “professor” has attained an after-life, enduring long after the death of real material security once attached to university teaching appointments.
Others have taken to being transparent about their work-load as heavily exploited labor; letting students know you work more than one job (and for current graduate students, have a full or part time course schedule to manage on top of your thesis or dissertation research) means you might not respond as quickly, or might be unavailable on particular days and times of the week. Being open about coming from a working class or marginal background means that you don’t have the luxury of teaching merely being your passion- absent an independent source of wealth, it is quite literally your job, and one you’d like to keep at that. It might mean being explicit about how your limited time for office hours and appointments truly is limited by how little you are paid and the number of hours you are overworked; in my experience with teaching, students respond much differently to requests for timeliness and accountability when they understand that real money is lost when time is not respected. This is not to reify or valorize capitalist work-discipline so much as it is to point out how crystallized it already is in student’s conditioning; drawing critical attention to it in your teaching-labor may help raise their ability to critically reflect on its dangerous influence. On top of all of that, you’ll hopefully be less overworked and burned out, meaning they get a better education from a (slightly) less exploited teacher. What’s more, they might even come to see that the value of their own education (which they pay for and are probably putting themselves into debt over) and the value you bring as its provider are inextricably linked. Your struggle is in a very real sense theirs, too, for the right to a quality education.
The above examples are non-exhaustive, but while the particular approach may vary, the important theme is dispelling the silence around university labor relations in your workplace, which is the classroom. This simple transparency not only acts to organize in our workplace against the encroachment of neoliberal management- it is also a step towards having a more democratic university. When students and faculty are consciously aware of the exchange of intellectual value that mediates their relationship to each other, the phantasmal fear some students and adjuncts have of each other is revealed to be an illusion, one that divides them against a common interest. In a more transparent set of relations that situates students and adjuncts in the entire institutional structure, neither is pitted against the other, and both can organize in solidarity for each other’s shared interests. Those who attended the New School faculty strike this past semester will recall the power of undergraduate students joining the picket line, shouting “Students and Faculty, Stand in Solidarity!” A watershed moment in that strike was when students occupied the commons space of the New School building, fighting for their instructors against exploitation (and by extension, for their own right to a quality education). Such organizational solidarity showed that when fighting together, students, staff and faculty can win.
And the need for that shared fight is pressing. While President Garrell’s announcement that the Chancellor plans to add 500 new full-time lecturer positions across CUNY campuses over the next several years appears to be good news, it means little to current adjuncts absent a pipeline structure to promote those already within the CUNY faculty system to more secure positions. If the general trend in University management has been to parachute in administrators from the Ivy League to run a working-class, multi-ethnic institution, what guarantee do current and future adjuncts have that CUNY lectureships will not become a means of upwards-redistribution from this institution of public good to the scions of elite private institutions? Simply put, there is none, other than what we can fight for. Through organizing in solidarity with the students and staff who help create the value of our university, we can win.
Together, we could build a CUNY that is of the people, by the people, for the people. And it starts with talking candidly and informatively with our students about our shared struggle.