Why does CUNY – and CCNY – have so many part-time professors and why do we treat them so badly?

By: Michael Alles, Shale Briskin, Eric Coyotectl, Salma Mones, Annie Quito, Dalia Saavedra and Chynna Torres


Union rep Pamela Stemberg presenting PSC’s petition to President Boudreau last month. photo by Michael Alles

Their salary is far below minimum wage. They cannot afford rent and other living expenses. Debt keeps piling up. They work two or more jobs, often in conditions where ceilings collapse, lights shut off, and heat doesn’t work. They’re demanding their employer pay them a livable wage, demanding a commitment to bring them out of poverty.

This is not the story of laborers in a low-income, developing country, taken advantage of by a corrupt government or a multinational corporation. This is the story of adjuncts in the CUNY system, and at CCNY.

Adjuncts at CUNY make an average of $3,500 a course. This adds up to $28,000 a year for a full-course load, compared to the $74,000 a year a full-time tenured or tenure track lecturer receives. “That is not a livable wage in New York City, and it is far less than the adjunct faculty compensation at local colleges such as Fordham and at neighboring public university systems.” These words come from a petition the CCNY branch of the Professional Staff Congress, the CUNY faculty and staff union, handed President Vincent Boudreau last month. Boudreau began the brief meeting by admitting, “We have been paying adjuncts what has just been a shameful amount.”

Click here to watch PSC members speak about their living and working conditions.

Union advocates have been putting pressure on CUNY administrators and lawmakers in Albany. They are fighting to secure health insurance for adjuncts who have been “put at risk by CUNY’s failure to provide adequate funding,” as stated in a letter from Barbara Bowen, the president of PSC CUNY. The union remains the main voice in the fight for $7,000 a course for adjuncts, and has collected a heart-breaking series of stories of CUNY’s part-time instructors and their struggles with job insecurity.

81% of adjuncts would say yes to a full-time offer.

Recent union advocacy campaign on behalf of adjuncts

This is not just a CUNY problem; it’s happening all over the country. The numbers of poorly paid part-time adjuncts teaching at American colleges and universities is on the rise — though both CUNY and City College have higher than average rates. In fact, at City College, adjuncts teach the vast majority of classes: A look at the most recent version of  “City Facts” reveals CCNY has 460 full-time professors, 59 lecturers, and 1255 adjuncts. Though adjunct professors are extremely valuable to this university and are often highly trained and experienced. In general, full-time, tenured/tenure track professors are preferable since they tend to be more stable, involved in the fabric of the institution and can devote more time to students, fundraising, administration and service.

Why so many adjuncts? Money. Undergraduate enrollment at CUNY has increased by 40 percent since 1990, but funding per full-time student has stalled. Without a doubt, it costs less to hire low-wage adjuncts — and not cover their health insurance costs — than full-time professors.

53% of adjuncts work another job to make ends meet.

Sources: TIAA Institute, PSC Fact Sheet, City Facts Fall 2017

Karen Loew, an adjunct journalism professor, has taught at CCNY for two semesters. She currently works two jobs and freelances for citylab.com to support herself in New York. She believes the pay is unfair and that “there is no CCNY without adjuncts.”

Still, despite the low wages, she continues to teach her class because she thinks everyone deserves a chance to further their education, regardless of their origins and upbringing. “I landed at CCNY by luck,” says Loew, “but it’s a great place because I believe in public institutions.”

Not every one at CCNY has taken notice of the adjunct crisis; some don’t know the difference between adjuncts and full-time professors. Still, those who understand what’s going on believe the system is unfair. “If I were an adjunct, I would definitely be fighting for a raise!” says Yeshey Tshogyel, a

freshman at CCNY. “I feel like we should, as students, strike in solidarity, if it ever comes to that. Students need to get involved.”

Kasson Colon Mangin, a Black and legal studies major, agreed. “It must be hard for adjuncts to represent themselves, being only part-time,” Mangin says. “Students can and should advocate on their behalf.”

Favon Berhane, a psychology major, believes that adjuncts should fight for a raise “I have had a couple of adjunct professors. I honestly would not have known they were adjuncts, had they not told me,” he says.

“I would work for [$3,500 a class] only if I was in love with teaching or had financial security. The rent in NYC is way too high.”

Berhane calculated the weekly pay of adjuncts and was astonished: “If you break up the time they are getting paid for, and the extra time they put in, it does not even compare.”

68% of adjuncts hold a masters degree.

Adjunct professor Karen Loew has been a public-school advocate since her days working for the Northern Virginia Daily. Photo by Sarah Wemy

Will adjuncts ever receive the pay they deserve? Though CUNY would not be able to operate without adjuncts, with financial stress on the institution increasing, a wage increase does not seem probable. According to CUNY’s FY17 audit, the university system had close to $5.26 billion in debt by the end of 2017. President Boudreau admits that CCNY is close to $15 million in debt. “CUNY is essentially bankrupt, all of the senior colleges are basically underwater,” he said at a meeting with CCNY’s chapter of PSC.

Our college may be in the worst shape. “I think CCNY is under the greatest pressure of all the senior colleges,” says Pamela Stemberg, vice-chair of the CCNY chapter of PSC CUNY. “Albany is disinvesting in the college because ultimately educating poor people and people of color isn’t in their best interests when prime real estate is on the line.”

The fight goes on: At CUNY’s Board of Trustees meeting last month, PSC continued to pressure administrators. “As trustees you have a choice between normalizing the lie that there is not enough money to go around or fundamentally challenging that lie and demanding the investment CUNY needs,” said PSC CUNY’s Bowen. “Stop normalizing poverty.”

Stemberg added, “If you don’t want to fight with Albany to fund the university and you don’t want to preside over the greatest dismantling of a public institution, quit.”

Though President Boudreau vowed to support PSC CUNY’s petition to raise adjunct pay, he admits that he feels mired in the college — and university’s — budget crisis. “We would like the college to be staffed by full-time staff,” President Boudreau explains, “but we are moving in the opposite direction.”

Despite her anger, Stemberg empathizes with President Boudreau’s dilemma.  “He feels for this college,” she said, after she presented him with the petition. “He has City College in his heart.”

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