by Zoltán Glück, Conor Tomás Reed, and Alyson Spurgas
What is the Graduate Center’s “Restructuring Plan” that you’ve been hearing so much about recently? Beginning in the fall of 2012, the GC’s administration began to publicize a plan to implement a new funding and admissions scheme for incoming students. According to the GC’s website, “starting in Fall 2013 the Graduate Center will make new five-year recruitment fellowships and awards to a high percentage of the students admitted to the doctoral programs in the Humanities, Social Sciences, and Sciences. The individual doctoral programs in these disciplines will award two hundred new Graduate Center Fellowships (GCFs) and approximately one hundred new five-year Tuition Fellowships. Students in Computer Science, Earth and Environmental Sciences, Psychology, and Speech-Language-Hearing Sciences are also eligible for five-year Science Fellowships.”
Sounds pretty good, right? In short, the GC administration will grant many (but, importantly, not all) incoming students $25,000 per year for five years along with a one course per semester teaching load during years two, three, and four. But here are some of the problems:
1.) Neither of these benefits will be applied to current students;
2.) The Graduate Center will be downsizing its current student population;
3.) This restructuring has serious implications for student and faculty diversity at the school; and
4.) These plans will further stratify labor and exacerbate existing inequalities among graduate student workers at the GC and at the CUNY schools where we teach.
Concerned members of the CUNY community—in the Adjunct Project, the Doctoral Students Council; the MALS program, student chartered organizations like the Asociación de Estudiantes Latinas/os y Latinoamericanas/os (AELLA), many specific doctoral programs such as Anthropology, Computer Science, EES, English, Hispanic and Luso-Brazilian Languages and Literature, Music, Sociology, Psychology, and Theatre, people organizing across CUNY, and even incoming GC students—oppose the intended unilateral implementation of this new funding and admissions structure. First and foremost among our concerns is that ALL Graduate Center students deserve funding and a reduced teaching load.
That current students won’t be included in this new funding/workload plan deserves interrogation. We demand to know how the administration plans to support current students finishing their degrees, particularly as there is no clear plan to increase the value or number of offered dissertation fellowships, Instructional Technology Fellowships (ITFs), CUNY Writing Fellowships that can be openly applied for, or other Graduate Assistant A, B, or C fellowships that provide students with the time and resources to write our dissertations once we have completed our coursework. Instead, it appears that current students will be expected to finish their degrees by adjuncting, working outside the university, or taking out loans (like many of us already do).
Moreover, not even all incoming students will be awarded fellowships—but who makes the decision and on what basis? Although the new fellowship plan is being presented as a program that will apply to all admitted students in the near future, there are plenty of students who will be starting at the GC in the fall and who will have no funding. The lack of transparency around this is troubling.
Also in accordance with the restructuring plan, a 15-20 percent reduction of the incoming student body is expected for the coming years. As admissions are slashed, student body diversity at the GC will be drastically reduced. We can be sure that the administration will produce statistics on increased racial diversity, but the actual number of students of diverse backgrounds who are admitted will likely be reduced, and a complex understanding of diversity that includes class, geographical background, sexuality, lifestyle, and age, among other things, has yet to be demonstrated by the administration. This admissions reduction and its consequences will foster a culture of elitism at our public university, and will further erode CUNY’s historic mission to provide accessible education to students from across the five boroughs of New York City.
In connection with the above trend, we will see a reduction of discipline and departmental diversity—both at the Graduate Center and the CUNY colleges where we teach. Homogenization will invariably occur to programs like Psychology, where there are very different orientations to the field (for instance, there are diverse subfields, including: neuropsychiatry, cognitive/experimental approaches, but also critical social psych, personality psych, and psychodynamic/therapeutic approaches). We have concerns about which of these will get axed when there are fewer students to fill classes at the GC and thus to support specializations, subprograms, and community-based training clinics where students learn while simultaneously serving the underserved citizens of New York. Our fear is that a neoliberal logic about “skills,” “industry,” “marketability,” and “excellence” will be deployed when making these decisions. Indeed, we already see this happening in the form of Pathways and the broader plans to restructure education at CUNY.
Ultimately, the decisions that led up to this massive restructuring occurred in small committees behind closed doors. President Kelly often refers to the student input that was collected during their planning process: however, from what we can gather, this simply refers to students who have advocated for “better funding packages for GC students.” The administration seems to have taken this as an open invitation to pursue their own “strategic plan” and push through a set of policies that current students are deeply concerned about, but were given very little opportunity to help shape.
As well, during his “office hours” last December, Provost Chase Robinson assured students that the administration was “looking into” ways of making funding at the GC more equitable, but offered no information on how the administration was actually going to make that happen. We want to know why there was no workload reduction or monetary supplementation for current students. It appears that EQUAL PAY FOR EQUAL WORK is not something this administration believes in.
Fundamentally, we need to create a robust culture of transparency and accountability at the Graduate Center, and take clear steps towards participatory budgeting and campus governance that welcomes involvement from all students, faculty, and staff. As this Restructuring Plan unfolds, we see the administration promise support for select well-publicized projects, but not for the general financial needs of students outlined above. While millions of dollars in capital funds have been raised for an exclusive rooftop lounge and library basement renovation, the administration claims it can’t find money to fund current students or maintain departments’ current sizes. Exciting developments in radical scholarship are being made with future Graduate Center/Schomburg Center fellowships, and with current programs such as the Advanced Research Collaborative, JustPublics@365, and Revolutionizing American Studies, but this shouldn’t end up increasing stratification (particularly as many of these programs speak out against stratification). The Graduate Center’s motto for academic support shouldn’t be “nice money, if you can get it.”
We wish to also underscore the effects that the Restructuring Plan will have on labor within departments where we teach. How will it affect solidarity, labor relations, morale, and our own undergraduate students when these new Graduate Center Fellows (GCFs) suddenly teach next to “regular old” Enhanced Chancellor’s Fellows (ECFs), who teach next to other less-funded Graduate Teaching Fellows (GTFs), who teach next to unfunded adjuncts trying to finish their dissertations, who teach next to long-time non-doctoral student adjuncts, who teach next to junior tenure-track faculty—all of whom teach next to full-time tenured professors? Dividing the workplace in this way will further increase a culture of competition and foster resentment among contingent workers–when we need more than ever to be united and stand in solidarity.
Furthermore, the thorny labor issue remains as to what kind of job protection doctoral students workers have under the Professional Staff Congress’s (PSC) current contract. Graduate Assistants, including GTFs (which are classified as Graduate Assistant Cs), are identified in the contract as graduate students, not laborers. The elusive language of Article 11.2(a) of the Collective Bargaining Agreement by which all union members are covered on “Classification of Titles” of Graduate Assistants complicates the process of filing grievances or taking sick leave, for instance. Such alarming labor situations have recently arisen as one teaching fellow being fired from his position with no clear recourse or due process available, and another teaching fellow being told she would have to relinquish her fellowship if she took maternity leave. If we are to utilize and truly benefit from our status as PSC union members, we must challenge the fact that our “employment, retention, evaluation, and assignment” as workers is problematically based upon our “status, progress, and evaluation” as graduate students. We are members of the PSC’s bargaining unit, whether we sign a union card or not; it is imperative that we take advantage of this status and pressure our union leadership to fight on behalf of us as workers, especially since the Graduate Center’s administration seems so hell-bent on making us invisible as such.
And what about the negative effects this will have on faculty at the Graduate Center–how will the department size reductions and encroaching campus elitism affect who gets hired to teach at the GC? What will happen to non-central line CUNY faculty when many Graduate Center hires in full-time lines are from outside CUNY, and hiring draws less and less on qualified faculty at the various CUNY campuses?
Reduction of Student-Controlled and Library Study Space
The Restructuring Plan will also erode the only student-directed space in the building. The Doctoral Students Council, student clubs, and 5th floor event spaces (5414, 5409, 5489, etc.) are slated to be displaced from their current fifth floor location and moved to the library basement where the C-level computer lab, classrooms, and GC archives currently exist. In this process we will also lose valuable student-utilized workspaces. The C-level computers will relocate to the second floor of the library, which will be more cramped than ever. As overworked students who often have a hard time finding adequate space for studying, reading, and writing, we need more quiet study areas, not less! We anticipate that these changes will make the Graduate Center less welcoming to students and less hospitable for community-building and organizing. The student government and clubs deserve the right to our own space!
Some of this building restructuring has been occurring for a few years now, as seen with the Psychology department’s not-too-graceful reconfiguration of programs last semester, and robust centers like CLAGS and CPCP being cooped up in small office spaces. We also remember the first floor “Foundation Lounge” space being halved and otherwise shrouded in dim lighting in 2010 and since then, and that the library staff and IT help desk staff have been shuffled around in the library. The most recent assault on community-controlled space has taken the form of the implementation of the new digital signage system (on the first floor and in the hallways) which has replaced what was once a thriving community bulletin board culture on every floor of the building.
Students Fight Back!
The spring 2013 semester started off with a bang when GC students began mobilizing around a variety of issues at the first Adjunct Project meeting of the semester in mid-February. Approximately fifty students from diverse departments attended, and we formed several working groups: one devoted to exposing and combating the administration’s Restructuring Plan; one dedicated to devising a counter-report to CUNY’s official Kroll Report on the events of November 21, 2011 at Baruch when students were attacked by police; one group which will plan an alternative education budget (alongside the Free University of NYC); and a group devoted to developing broad organizing strategies, platforms, and analyses to interrogate and fight the trends toward privatization and austerity that we see happening across CUNY.
At the center of GC student organizing right now is the fight against the administration’s plan to restructure, downsize, and further stratify the student body at our school. Room by room, floor by floor, GC Departments are taking action. Momentum has increased substantially over the last month: departments are beginning to organize themselves and openly question the adverse impacts that restructuring will have on their programs (for a great example, see the psychology department’s emergency response website: restructure.commons.gc.cuny.edu).
To complement this department-focused work, we are also building an inter-departmental, GC-wide response, with diverse student and faculty voices speaking out against these changes. To this end, multiple departments came together at 7pm on Tuesday, March 19th, in the GC 8th floor cafeteria to hold Department Town Hall meetings. Each group focused on how the Restructuring Plan will impact their specific department, and what their most urgent needs are. At the end of the evening, we converged to collectively discuss common issues and strategize ways to draw critical attention to these changes and to devise a plan of action to prevent them from being implemented. Our next GC-wide response will gather again at 7pm on Tuesday, April 9th, in the GC 8th floor cafeteria.
We have also been speaking back to the administration about their plans. On Monday, February 25, 2013, President Kelly held a Community Meeting (see cunyadjunctproject.org/2013/02/26/gc-community-mtg-audio-questions-next-steps) which was open to students, faculty, and staff at the Graduate Center. At this meeting, he formally announced plans to usher in the Restructuring Plan for admissions, funding, and class offerings. Many concerned students attended and the Adjunct Project helped to organize (through crowd-sourcing) a set of collective questions articulating some of the concerns outlined above.
Campus-based actions and organizing strategies are being planned for the coming weeks and months, with attention to an arc and pace of connecting Spring to Summer to Fall 2013 organizing. Here is a preview of some of the possibilities we’ve begun articulating to this end (please contribute to this list!):
- “Transparency Day”: set up tables in the GC lobby with t-shirts and markers so students can write our own funding/debt/workload/degree progress situations on t-shirts and engage each other, faculty, and staff in conversation around issues of contingency and precarity.
- Fifth Avenue fundraiser: draw attention outside on Fifth Avenue to the difficult economic situation for many people just inside our gilded doors by doing busking, readings, extemporaneous lectures, etc. for donations.
- GC lobby, library, and cafeteria speak-outs—inform and galvanize these heavily trafficked sites in our building on the issues laid out above. For a place like the Mina Rees Library’s C-level, it’s quite literally a critical moment of “use it or lose it!”
- MAKE ART! (infographics, banner drops, creative guerrilla outreach, occupy the digital signage boards with counter-restructuring messages, etc.)
- Pack President Kelly’s second Community Meeting on May 7 with diverse attendance, critical questions, and concrete alternatives, while connecting GC administrators’ culpability to CUNY Central, NY City and State, and the national public higher education crisis.
- Reach out to incoming students for solidarity and participation—they’re not our enemies, but rather crucial allies in this fight!
- Re-examine the PSC’s current collective bargaining agreement for information on the rights of doctoral student workers; build a campaign around pressuring our union to fight for doctoral student contingent workers to have more job security and benefits such as sick/parental leave and better pay. EQUAL PAY FOR EQUAL WORK!
- Revisit the “A Note on What it Means to Have an Adjunct as an Instructor” paragraph that many GTFs and adjuncts already include on their syllabi, and build a campaign around rewriting this and encourage all contingent workers to include it on their syllabi. We can also use it as a way to start conversations with our students and full-time faculty in our departments about contingent worker exploitation at CUNY (see cunyadjunctproject.org/get-involved/organizingeducation/bring-it-to-class).
- Participate in such upcoming Graduate Center events as “The University Beyond Crisis” on April 8 (see revolutionizingamericanstudies.commons.gc.cuny.edu/the-university-beyond-crisis-monday-8-april-2013), and such city-wide events as May Day, in which the Free University of NYC will host multiple Free U’s around NYC in order to “Turn the City into a University” (see freeuniversitynyc.org).
- Look to other models of university campaign escalations that have been effective recently (Cooper Union, Chile, Puerto Rico, Quebec).
All of us need to collectively rise to the occasion. We can actively inform each other in the general GC body of these issues through one-on-one conversations, classroom announcements, staff break-room discussions, department meetings, emails, tablings, flyering, digital signage, and other kinds of publicity. We can call attention to these problems on a range of media outlets. Let’s work together as concerned students, faculty, and staff on building an effective campaign! The CUNY Graduate Center’s future is worth it, and so are we.