City U.’s Migrant Workers See a Harvest of Sham

Marcia Newfield refers to herself, with only a little irony, as a “cultural migrant worker.” She includes in that category all of the more than 7,000 well-educated people who do the grunt work of teaching at the City University of New York.

They are the university’s adjuncts, and they now outnumber the university’s 5,500 full-time professors. Once upon a time, back in the days when offering college education to the poor was considered to be good and progressive rather than wasteful and inefficient, City University employed about 11,000 full-time professors.

Times being what they are-City University students rank with welfare recipients, cab drivers and jaywalkers in the municipal hall of shame-the university hasn’t had a whole lot of money to spend on personnel in recent years. And so the university has let full-time jobs disappear, replacing professors with adjuncts in the same way that the city is replacing Parks Department workers with workfare clients and the way the cab industry has replaced the professionals of yore with freelance transportation consultants (i.e., Third World immigrants who will drive 12-hour shifts for peanuts). And for the same reasons: They’ll do the same work for less money. “We’re a cheap labor pool,” Ms. Newfield conceded. Ah, what a fine, new world we are reinventing here in New York!

A few years ago, when the adjuncts started getting ideas about improving their plight, the university gave them health benefits, for which they qualify after teaching three consecutive semesters with a load of at least six credits. More recently, the adjuncts won the right to be paid for keeping office hours-again, considering how much the university relies on its part-timers, this seemed only fair.

Now a vocal and well-organized group of adjuncts is demanding that the part-timers receive the respect, and the pay, to which they believe they are entitled. A group called CUNY Adjuncts Unite! is mounting a petition drive, which, they hope, will encourage more adjuncts to join the union that represents City University’s professors, the Professional Staff Congress. Only about 10 percent of adjuncts actually belong to the union, so even though they outnumber the full-timers, they are hardly a presence in the union.

The P.S.C. acts as a bargaining agent for the adjuncts, but the part-timers do not get “agency fees”-in essence, union dues-automatically deducted from their paychecks. The adjuncts leading the petition drive want to change that. They figure if the adjuncts are paying dues, they’ll pay more attention to the union, and the union might pay more attention to them, and perhaps they won’t be making $20,000 a year after more than 10 years of teaching, as Ms. Newfield is.

“There are a lot of people earning their living this way,” said Ms. Newfield, a 62-year-old poet and writer who tries to earn her living by teaching nine credits at Borough of Manhattan Community College and six credits at Long Island University, a private institution. She makes about $2,000 per course. Full-time professors average about $60,000 a year.

Not all the adjuncts are like Ms. Newfield. Some are graduate students, some are high school teachers with advanced degrees who teach college on the side, and others are passing through on their way to another career or further education. The more casual adjuncts understandably are not overly concerned about union politics or even about benefits to which they might be entitled. One adjunct who requested anonymity was surprised to hear that he would be eligible for health benefits once he completes his third semester. Then again, he doesn’t plan to be an adjunct much longer. “I find that most of the adjuncts are like me,” he said. “You come and you go. It’s not that we don’t want to rock the boat. We don’t even know where the boat is.”

A delicate question, of course, concerns the quality of the adjuncts. They are, after all, the mainstay of this embattled university, but few of the university’s many critics have pointed out that City University students are in the hands of part-timers, many of whom don’t plan to be on campus very long. If they “come and go” and “don’t even know where the boat is,” what does that say about their commitment to educating students who, it seems fair to say, may require extra attention and dedication? (The publicity-shy adjunct conceded that “students get hurt” if the adjuncts are simply punching an academic clock.)

Bringing them into the union, the adjunct organizers have said, would give them more of a stake in the university’s business. And adding adjuncts to the union might help people like Ms. Newfield, with her decade of experience, win some sort of permanent status. “Why shouldn’t I be considered something like a permanent lecturer, a $30,000-a-year job,” she said. “I’ll tell you something: I don’t want my students to wind up this way.”