Some CUNY colleges prepare to lay off adjuncts as budget cuts loom

CUNY's John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Midtown Manhattan.
CUNY's John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Midtown Manhattan.

Some CUNY colleges are finalizing plans to cut adjunct instructors as big budget cuts loom, union and university officials say.
The city university system’s 18 colleges have until May 29 to notify thousands of adjuncts whether they will be rehired next year. At least one CUNY college has already signaled it plans to lay off hundreds.
The provost of John Jay College in Manhattan wrote in a May 8 memo reviewed by the Daily News that the school plans to notify the 450 adjuncts who are hired on a semester-by-semester basis they won’t be reappointed next year.
Some adjuncts may be rehired in the fall, Provost Yi Li wrote, but those decisions will be made with "cost-savings in mind.”
Marie-Michelle Strah
Marie-Michelle Strah
Marie-Michelle Strah, an adjunct professor in John Jay’s International Crime and Justice Program who was among the casualties of the cut, was “flabbergasted” at the university’s decision.
“John Jay is cutting off its nose to spite its face, and it’s going to harm students,” she said. “It’s a very short-sighted way to absolutely shut down the university’s best programs.”
John Jay spokesman Richard Relkin said the college is “working to create a plan for the fall semester that is as fair, responsible, and realistic as possible.”
A CUNY spokesman couldn’t specify how many adjuncts across the university system got notice they won’t be rehired. But Barbara Bowen, the president of the Professional Staff Congress, the union representing professors and adjuncts, said the College of Staten Island and City College are also working on plans that would cut adjunct positions.
The city’s sprawling university system employs around 12,000 adjunct staffers, who teach many of the university’s courses and offer other guidance, advising and tutoring to students.
Even in normal times, adjuncts live in professional limbo, with lower salaries than full-time professors and little job security. Thousands depend on CUNY jobs as their sole source of income and get health insurance through the university.
Some adjuncts have contracts that last one or three years. But many are rehired each semester — and those semester-by-semester adjuncts are first on the chopping block.
Bianca Johnson, a semester-by-semester adjunct at Queens College who works in a program that supports vulnerable students.
Bianca Johnson, a semester-by-semester adjunct at Queens College who works in a program that supports vulnerable students.
“It’s a lot of emotions running throughout the campus,” said Bianca Johnson, a semester-by-semester adjunct at Queens College who works in a program that supports vulnerable students.
While Johnson hasn’t received an official notice that she won’t be rehired, her supervisor told her it was unlikely, given the college’s bleak financial outlook.
Colleges normally have until May 15 to notify adjuncts with one-semester contracts whether they’ll be rehired. This year, the deadline has been extended to May 29, by which point university officials hope to have more clarity on the state budget.
CUNY’s funds were largely untouched in the state budget enacted in April. But Gov. Cuomo has warned that $13 billion in state budget cuts could come soon, and CUNY officials fear the effects will be devastating.
Administrators at John Jay predict a deficit of between $21 million and $55 million, according to the provost’s email.
Union officials say CUNY has other options before layoffs, including tapping $118 million from the federal CARES Act that’s supposed to help keep employees on staff.
The state’s dire financial situation “does not justify [CUNY’s] making cuts now," Bowen said. “There’s no fight back, no public accounting, no alternative considered.”
CUNY spokesman Frank Sobrino said “to date, badly needed additional federal support has not materialized.”
Bowen and other advocates, who plan a news conference Friday, are urging university officials to back increased taxes on the wealthiest New York residents in order to plug revenue gaps.
For Johnson, the Queens College adjunct, the loss of the position she’s held since 2014 would be crushing. The job is her sole income and provides the health insurance she uses to cover the medical costs that come with her wheelchair.
“During these times — this is where you want to make sure you have some coverage,” she added.
Johnson also worries about the impact of adjunct layoffs on CUNY’s 275,000 students.
John Jay’s proposed adjunct cuts would eliminate 40% of the college’s teaching force, according to the union, and could severely limit course offerings. Many of the university’s classes offering professional training to aspiring first responders are taught by adjuncts with the necessary experience, said Strah. And those instructors can’t be easily replaced.
“You want paramedics to be learning from other paramedics, not from philosophy professors," she said.

Reactions from full-time John Jay faculty to the adjunct cuts “range from bewilderment to outright disgust,” Andrew Sidman, the chair of John Jay’s political science department, in a staff email Monday.

“I am sorry for those of you who are counting on that income in the fall, I am sorry for our students who, as of now, will be denied your knowledge and intellectual vibrance," Sidman wrote.

Some adjuncts have been busier than ever during the pandemic.

Johnson, the Queens College adjunct, routinely fields questions from students who lack technology, need help editing essays, or want to work through emotional turmoil. She often works extra hours for which she won’t be paid because she knows how much her students need the support.

If she loses her job, "they won’t have anyone to call with questions.”

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