New School Adjuncts’ Push for Better Pay Drives Acrimonious Strike

Ariel Goldberg, an adjunct professor who teaches at the Parsons School of Design, a part of the New School, has, by all appearances, a glittering résumé: Mx. Goldberg has taught at Columbia, Rutgers, and the Pratt Institute, curated exhibits at museums and recently, gave a talk at the Museum of Modern Art.

Besides the New School, Mx. Goldberg, who uses they/them pronouns, has multiple other jobs, including at a synagogue and a museum. Yet, this year, they had to apply for food stamps and have amassed $15,000 in credit card debt just to get by. They are also on Medicaid.

“It’s just, like, bizarre,” Mx. Goldberg, 39, said, speaking about the jarring sensation of giving a talk at the MoMA a few weeks ago, only to go home to scroll through the internet looking at ads for zero-interest credit cards.

As a part-time professor in one of the most expensive cities in the nation, Mx. Goldberg’s predicament is not unusual. Now, their experience, shared among many others, has fueled a strike at the New School as adjuncts demand better pay and working conditions.

They are part of an army of part-time faculty in New York and across the country who provide both plentiful and cheap labor to colleges and universities, a sector that has been struggling lately amid a financial and demographic crisis.

Higher education institutions have become more reliant on adjuncts because they are cheaper than full-time, tenure and tenure-track faculty, and there is a glut of them, especially in the humanities — a byproduct of universities churning out graduate students who later return to academia for jobs because options in the private sector are limited.

When colleges shave costs, part-time faculty often bear the brunt.

Those forces have been colliding recently at the New School, a historically left-leaning, nonprofit university, when nearly 1,800 part-time faculty, backed by their union, went on strike to protest pay and working conditions. Negotiations quickly turned acrimonious and as of Monday, were locked in a stalemate as the strike entered its third week.

The school said it will begin withholding wages for strikers starting Wednesday, saying it could no longer afford to compensate faculty when classes were suspended

The walkout has followed a similar strike among 48,000 staff in the University of California system and as thousands of graduate students at Yale are planning to vote on whether to unionize. Adjuncts at the City University of New York are also closely watching how negotiations pan out ahead of their own contract negotiations with CUNY in February.

The New School has told students they should continue their work, but irate parents are threatening a class-action lawsuit for “services not rendered,” according to a group representing more than 1,500 parents. The parents are also considering delaying the last fall tuition installment payment, withholding spring tuition or making their children transfer to other schools. Some are calling on the president to resign.

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In a Zoom call on Saturday to parents, the New School’s president, Dwight A. McBride, said he was committed to resolving the standoff but that the union had rejected the school’s latest offer to raise pay rates by 18 percent over five years and expand access to subsidized health care, which he said would place the operating budget in a deficit.

“We are a relatively small to midsize, very tuition- and enrollment-dependent, low-endowment institution operating in one of the most expensive real estate markets in the country. That’s our reality,” he said, adding that a quarter of the college’s spending goes toward real estate and large amounts of money are spent on servicing debt.

But part-time instructors, who make up about 90 percent of the faculty — significantly more than the national average of about 50 percent — blame the administration for poor financial management and say they have prioritized administrators over instructors, a claim that university officials reject.

At one point, the president, David Van Zandt, who stepped down in 2020, was being paid $1,473,155, more than his counterpart at Harvard, and was living in the university’s expensive townhouse in the heart of Greenwich Village, which some faculty have argued the institution should sell. The New School argues that he was compensated at the market rate.

The total cost to attend the New School, including tuition, fees and on-campus living expenses, was $78,744 in 2021-22, an increase of 7 percent over the previous year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, though students typically pay significantly less when financial aid is included. There are about 10,800 undergraduate and graduate students, which includes those enrolled at Parsons.

At the New School, adjunct professors are paid $5,753 for a three-credit course, or about 135 hours of work, according to unions that represent part-time faculty. They also receive longevity increases to their rate of pay, ranging from $6 an hour for 10 years of service, to $10 an hour for 30 years of service. The university does not compensate for out-of-classroom hours, which includes time spent grading papers or counseling students.

Many part-time faculty said the university saves on costs by offering more classes that have fewer credits, and therefore have lower pay rates, but cumulatively, the instructors work the same hours.

At C.U.N.Y., an adjunct professor typically earns $6,750 for a three-credit course, according to school data. Barnard College offers $10,000 for the same course load. Fordham University pays $6,874 and New York University offers $10,500. These schools also include pay for out-of-classroom work.

“It’s pretty wild. I’m just like, wow, this is untenable,” said Azure D. Osborne-Lee, 38, who started teaching global drama and literature at the New School in the spring. He said administrators had offered him more classes to teach and asked him to be a consultant for the school’s New Visions Directors Festival.

“I asked them, does it make more sense for you to just put me on salary if you need all of this support?” he said. “Then there was all this hedging.”

Part-time professor Azure D. Osborne-Lee, 38, who teaches global drama and literature at the New School. Students and part time faculty members have demonstrated outside the New School to demand better pay, benefits, and job security for their part-time faculty.Credit…Juan Arredondo for The New York Times

Tokumbo Shobowale, the school’s chief operating officer and a former McKinsey consultant, said in the Zoom call with parents that the union’s proposal for compensation benefits alone would cost the school an average of $136 million a year, $72 million more than what it already spends on part-time faculty.

“If we were to concede to the union’s current demands, we would be forced to contemplate tuition increases. That is something we’d like to avoid at all costs,” he said, adding that expenditure on central administration was “actually already quite lean” and was 30 percent lower than comparable institutions. For example, central administrators, he said, no longer have offices and work remotely. In 2020, the school said it slashed 122 members, or 13 percent, of its administrative staff.

The New School was founded in 1919 as the New School for Social Research, an avant-garde institution aimed at countering the traditionalism of Ivy League schools. The school was influenced by American pragmatism, embodied by one of its founders, John Dewey, a progressive educator. The influx of refugees to New York City during the Second World War added a substantial dose of continental European thought.

Its faculty has included some prominent academics and intellectuals, including the philosophers Hannah Arendt and Jacques Derrida, as well as Erich Fromm, the social psychologist.

Alex Robins is a part-time professor of art design history at The New School. He is organizing caroling outside of the homes of trustee members during the adjunct strike.Credit…Juan Arredondo for The New York Times

Kelly Powers, a parent who has two daughters enrolled at the New School, said she was not convinced that paying instructors more should lead to higher tuition.

“I just don’t know how that business model would be sustainable for them,” she said.

Questions over the school’s handling of its budget have also riled tenured faculty. Over the past week, angry faculty who have studied the university’s financial statements and publicly available data on the school have criticized what they describe as a lack of transparency.

Data filed by the New School with the government suggests that average compensation for part-time faculty fell by 11 percent even as revenues per student grew during that period, and that salary expenses rose by 45 percent for management employees and by 19 percent for executive leaders.

Amy Malsin, the school spokeswoman, has said that a third of the university’s administrative costs include “student advisers, financial aid counselors, student health professionals and all manner of other student-facing functions.” Another 36 percent of the budget goes to “instruction and departmental research expenses,” the largest portion of the university budget in 2020. Another third was spent on support and student services.

Sanjay Reddy, the chair of economics at the New School, who has analyzed the school’s financial data, questioned the decision to purchase a $125 million building near Union Square this year that the university had been renting. “It is an instance of how the top administration does some things that are really expensive and discretionary, and it claims that other things cannot be done because they are unaffordable,” he said.

He said the university had asked full-time professors to take salary cuts and part-time faculty to take on less work, which is “the background of the current discontent.” The school leaders’ response to the chaos surrounding the institution’s finances “is quite something,” he added, “like watching a building collapse in slow motion.”

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