Miles Hamberg Union Wave Worker's Rights

New School Staff Strike Shows the Institution Is Not So Progressive When It Comes to Faculty Pay

Over 1,300 part-time faculty have voted to strike unless a new union contract deal can be reached before Wednesday, Nov. 16.
University Center, The New School, 14th Street and 5th Avenue, Chelsea, Manhattan. Tdorante10, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

By Miles Hamberg / The Real News Network

The union representing part-time faculty at The New School, a prestigious private university in New York, has been telling its members “You are The New School.” And for good reason—part-time faculty make up a whopping 87% of The New School’s teaching staff. These instructors love to teach, but they say that theirs is an unrequited love, and that their nominally progressive university has left them with no other option but to strike. At midnight on Nov. 13, after a 14-hour bargaining session that ended without closing the gulf between the university administration and the union bargaining committee, the union’s contract expired. In preparation for the possibility that their existing contract would expire before a new agreement was reached, 1,307 of the roughly 1,678 part-time faculty teaching this semester voted to authorize a strike, receiving a swell of support from studentsstaff, and other faculty members at the university. Unless a deal is reached beforehand, part-time faculty will hit the picket line on Wednesday, Nov. 16.

Despite accounting for the vast bulk of instructional work that students’ tuition dollars pay for, part-time faculty say The New School has been unwilling to recognize their contributions. The union, ACT-UAW Local 7902, which represents part-time faculty from the university’s six divisions, has been negotiating for five months for a fair contract. They haven’t had a new contract in eight years, and the negotiating team came to the bargaining table seeking improved faculty pay, common-sense healthcare eligibility, real job security, and enhanced policies for protecting academic freedom and providing recourse for members experiencing harassment. 

Many part-time faculty members, like Nora Heilmann, who teaches a sustainability course at Parsons School of Design, were drawn to The New School because of its stated commitment to social justice. Heilmann doesn’t necessarily want to strike, but she feels the university has pushed her into a corner, and she and her colleagues stress that the issues they are striking over don’t just negatively impact them, but the students they’re dedicated to serving as well. As Heilmann told TRNN, she views striking as an “expression of care for the students, because if this economic precarity keeps going on, their education quality will decrease.”

Heilmann’s take-home pay for a month of teaching is $750. Under the current contract, part-time faculty are only paid for “contact hours” (i.e., only the hours when they are in the classroom). For lecture courses, they make $127.85 an hour. For studio courses, $95.54 an hour. Part-time faculty members are not paid for course preparation work, posting or grading assignments, or for holding regular office hours. While they don’t get paid by the course, the union estimates average pay amounts to about $4,500 per 3-credit course. As a result, many union members report taking other jobs to help support themselves. Adjunct faculty are notoriously underpaid, but even among adjuncts The New School pay rate is quite low in comparison to other area universities. At nearby NYU, for instance, adjuncts may earn up to $10,500 for a 3-credit course under the terms of a recently reached tentative agreement.

In their opening compensation proposal, the union sought a pay-per-course arrangement based on the Modern Language Association (MLA) guidelines for part-time faculty compensation: $14,000 for a standard 45-hour course. Citing limited financial resources, the university offered a modest raise in hourly pay—first the administration offered a 2% increase in the first year of the contract, then it bumped that up to 4.5% in the first year if union members ceded their 10% pension contributions for 5% contributions. In an attempt to reach an agreement, the union abandoned the MLA’s recommendations and asked for a “10% increase or $140.64 per contact hour, whichever is greater.”

While part-time faculty are fighting for compensation that will enable them to live and work in the most expensive city in the country (in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis), many told TRNN that they didn’t feel like the school and the union were working together to find a solution. Katia Lief, a creative writing teacher at The New School for 30 years, felt “objectified” when the university’s legal representatives called the school a business and students its customers. “It’s like they’re Amazon, and they want to crush us,” Lief remarked. “If they could have it their way, we would never have a new contract,” said Annie Larson, a part-time faculty member at the Parsons School of Design who also serves as the union’s unit chair and lead negotiator.

Since the signing of the 2014 contract, part-time faculty say the university has deliberately made healthcare eligibility challenging and job security scarce as part of a scheme to save money on wages and benefits.

To qualify for health insurance, part-time faculty must (1) have worked at the school for at least one academic year, (2) have taught a minimum of 90 hours across at least two courses, (3) have earned at least $6,661 dollars in the prior academic year, and (4) be scheduled to teach a minimum of 90 hours the following year, over at least two courses, and (5) earn at least $6,661. If a third-year part-time faculty member is not scheduled for two courses in the upcoming academic year, they are kicked off the health insurance plan. Part-time faculty members like Heilmann, who has not yet received an appointment for the spring semester, are currently ineligible for healthcare. This prohibitively complicated Rube-Goldberg setup for healthcare eligibility was particularly harmful throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, when many non-annualized part-time faculty members were kicked off their healthcare plans after not being re-appointed by the university.

Moreover, the university engages in a practice that is colloquially known as “course-dieting.” Early on in their time teaching at The New School, part-time faculty members may be given three to four courses a year. But by their fifth semester of teaching, when the university is obligated to appoint them on an annual basis, their course loads are lowered. At The New School, part-time faculty often see their incomes decrease in their fifth semester. They can also see their incomes disappear completely in their ninth semester. 

The university regularly sends Letters of Permanent Non-Reappointment (administrative speak for firing) to part-time faculty in their ninth semester of teaching. What is known as annualization—when part-time faculty are guaranteed a minimum “baseload” of courses to teach—doesn’t happen until the 11th semester. Baseloads are determined by a “lookback” process that reviews a faculty member’s last two years of teaching. Through course-dieting, part-time faculty often get annualized with baseloads of one course, making them ineligible for the healthcare plan. Under their current contract, there is no recourse for part-time faculty who are expecting annualization soon but receive a Letter of Permanent Non-Reappointment instead. 

To address the untenable healthcare requirements in their current contract, the union first proposed expanding healthcare eligibility to anyone teaching at least one class, which the university did not accept. They also proposed lowering the period for annualization to five semesters, which the university also rejected. Included in this proposal was a clause stipulating that the university cannot lower baseloads, and that part-time faculty must be annualized with a minimum of two courses.

New School students are aware that their instructors’ teaching conditions affect their learning conditions. Emily Li, a sophomore at The New School and founder of the Student Faculty Solidarity group, told TRNN that during course registration, students often have to sign up for courses taught by “Faculty TBA.” Because “there are so many different variations of fashion design and communication design,” she said it’s important for students to know who’s teaching them. “Not knowing who your professor is going to be is kind of unbelievable,” Li said.

For their part, The New School administration has been appealing to the fact that it is a small tuition-dependent university that lacks the finances of other big universities in the area. In a Nov. 10 emailed statement to TRNN, the university noted that its “guiding principle throughout this process has been to put forth proposals that reflect our deeply held respect for part-time faculty members, while balancing our requirement to make responsible economic decisions.” 

In the same statement, the university administration said the union’s proposed package for instructional compensation “would cost an additional $200 million + over the course of a five-year contract,” which was “unprecedented and unsustainable” balanced against its budget of $460 million for FY23. This university’s estimate in their email to TRNN would only account for around 8.7% of the total annual budget. If the university cannot afford to spend less than 10% of its budget on the majority of their educators, what is the rest of their money going to?

Sanjay Reddy, an associate professor at the university and chair of its economics department, analyzed the university’s spending. Notably, in 2019, Reddy estimates that 54% of the university’s total compensation expenditures ($259 million) went to “non-instructional staff, including administrators.” Moreover, between fall 2014 and fall 2019, this trend continued in favorable economic conditions: 18% growth in tuition revenues, 17% growth in total expenses and revenues, and a 19% increase in executive pay. During the same period, the average part-time faculty salary actually decreased by 2.1% annually. 

The union also uncovered a 2017 report by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) that illustrates the hypocrisy of the university appealing to fiscal responsibility when faced with the union’s demands. As the report details, The New School spends 2.3 times the national average on administration relative to instruction among comparable universities. As Reddy notes, this “administrative bloat” carries a particularly rancid irony considering that, in The New School’s founding document, the founders called for the elimination of “presidents and deans and the usual administrative retinue” and for cutting “overhead expenses to the minimum.”

On Tuesday, the union’s bargaining committee is going back to the table to give the university one more chance to make offers that would satisfy the rank-and-file’s concerns regarding healthcare, job security, and compensation. Meanwhile, students are standing by, waiting to see if they’ll be seeing their professors in the classroom or on the picket line. The university’s administration has “contingency” plans in place that include asking students and other faculty members to continue their courses (i.e., to cross physical and digital picket lines). Despite this, many students, parents, alumni, and other workers on campus have emailed statements of solidarity to the university’s administration and plan to help defend the part-time faculty’s picket line. As the strike deadline approaches, some part-time faculty are hopeful that the university administration will have a eureka moment and recognize their value in the classroom and contributions to the broader campus community. As of right now, though, that outcome appears unlikely, and many faculty believe that only a strike can keep The New School’s progressive legacy alive.

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Miles Hamberg

Miles Hamberg is a freelance writer and researcher interested in the labor movement, climate change, and telling stories that are typically overlooked in the media. Follow him on Twitter @mileshamberg.