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An Inconvenient Adjunct

Barnard English instructor of 17 years, who helped bring a union to campus, no longer has a job there, and she blames the contract for allowing it.

June 9, 2017
 
Georgette Fleischer

When Georgette Fleischer, a longtime adjunct instructor of English at Barnard College, was first denied an appeal over a lost course assignment, her lawyer advised her to unionize. With the help the United Auto Workers and other interested instructors, she did just that, and remembers the early days of the campaign as some of the proudest in her life.

Three years later, in a twist of fate, Fleischer is out of a job. She says the college is retaliating against her -- and others who also have not been reappointed -- for union activism. And while the union has filed a grievance on her behalf, she’s also on the outs with union leaders after disagreements over collective bargaining. Fleischer says that the union contract, signed this spring, averting a planned strike, is so light on job projections that she was better off without it.

“This is one of the worst betrayals of my life,” she said. “I wanted to unionize to create conditions that would strengthen and preserve jobs. Now Barnard’s administration has finally realized its long-held dream of getting rid of me.”

Barnard denies that retaliation was a factor in Fleischer’s non-reappointment. But Fleischer can’t help but connect the dots between her 17 years of teaching and not getting reappointed after organizing for the union. UAW says the contract was approved by members by wide margin, and that it offers non-tenure-track professors a significant pay increase and other benefits they’ve never before had. Other instructors agree. Yet Fleischer believes the contract, by laying out various reasons for which adjuncts can be terminated or not reappointed, legally “concretizes” Barnard’s right to get rid of gadflies and other inconvenient professors.

Fleischer’s trouble began in 2014, when she was not reassigned to the first-year seminar program in which she'd long taught over some negative comments in students' evaluations of her teaching. Given the ongoing debate over the validity of such evaluations and their place in personnel decisions, she asked the administration for a grievance hearing but was told she wasn’t a faculty member with such rights and sought legal advice. The lawyer she chose said he’d help her take the fight to court, which he did, winning Fleischer a right to appeal; the state judge in the case rejected Barnard's contention that a lecturer without a contractual appointment is not subject to its faculty Code of Academic Freedom and Tenure. Fleischer still lost the seminar course after a faculty vote but, for her, the legal judgment was crucial: in the absence of another set of rules, adjuncts are still employees with certain rights.

Fleischer's counsel still advised her to see about forming a union, to stave off problems in the future. There was an adjunct faculty union boom at the time, and Fleischer found help though the UAW, which represented New York University graduate students and, later, graduate student employees and part-time faculty members at other New York campuses, including Columbia University. Things started off right, but Fleischer said she soon butted heads with the local unit president over collective bargaining and other issues.

She eventually resigned from the bargaining committee. Negotiations proceeded, and the union voted to approve a contract that was widely viewed as among the best yet for adjuncts anywhere. Minimum per-course pay is now $7,000, increasing to $10,000 over the five-year contract, a notable pay increase for most instructors. Term faculty members' annual salary will increase from $60,000 to $70,000 over those five years. There’s a provision for health care access, and those teaching nine or more credits per year -- and six or more credits per year starting in 2019 -- are eligible for a college subsidy of half that provided to full-timers. Multi-year appointments of up to four years based on length of service now exist, as does separation pay for those who have taught for seven semesters or more. 

But in addition to other qualms with the fine print, Fleischer says the contract now specifically outlines how administrators can get rid of union members they don't like. 

Under the contract, union members may be denied appointments or course assignments due to elimination, downsizing or mergers of academic units or programs, or the creation of a full-time position that assumes the courses they teach. Other reasons are course cancelations in line with the rest of the contract, changes in course offerings due to curricular modifications and the availability of an instructor with “significantly more relevant credentials and experience.” Non-reappointment is based on unsatisfactory performance or conduct, failure to meet contractual requirements or extracurricular misconduct that could affect one’s teaching effectiveness. But a discharge for "just cause" clause only applies to mid-appointment terminations.

That’s how things took a nosedive, she says. The first-year writing program in which she’d worked for years, formerly staffed mainly by adjuncts, was transitioning to a full-time faculty model. She applied for a full-time position but wasn’t even interviewed, she said. (The college confirms this but says two of three full-time slots went to faculty members who had previously been part-time.)

In late May, Fleischer was summoned to the writing program director’s office for what she assumed was a semi-routine meeting. But college legal and human resources officers were there, she says, as she was told she wouldn’t be teaching this fall at all. The stated rationale was twofold: the transition to full-time faculty in the writing program, as now allowed by the contract, and student evaluations. The second reason didn't make sense, though, she says, as her student ratings have improved since 2014 and she's been called “a creative and dedicated teacher” by a department administrator as recently as 2015. She also noted she received a strong review from a visiting accreditor who sat in on her class in 2011.

Fleischer said she’s had previous disagreements with faculty members in her department, including by inadvertently drawing negative attention to it though neighborhood activism against bike racks and a noisy restaurant that landed her -- and Barnard’s name -- in the New York Post’s Page Six gossip section and Gawker (the latter deemed her the "Soho Noise Nazi)." That, combined with the union issue, created something of a perfect storm, she said.

UAW says it’s aware of six faculty members who have not been reappointed (all have been offered severance packages), and that it’s meeting with the college to discuss them. It’s seeking details on each case and wants to negotiate over proposed financial agreement language that would release Barnard from all liability.

“We raised adjunct wages very significantly,” said Maida Rosenstein, president of the local UAW. “We also established eligibility for partial health coverage for the first time ever, and it improves over the life of the contract.” On job protection, she said, the contract provides for multiyear appointments for adjuncts who previously were appointed from semester to semester. Barnard must act in good faith in making appointments, and adjuncts who are not reappointed are paid a severance package equivalent to prior earnings of between one semester and three years, depending upon length of service. The college must also give advance notice of appointments and assignments, and there are assurances of academic freedom.

Barnard said in a statement that there is “no basis for the claim that we make appointment decisions based on union activism. To be clear, union activism was not and will never be a consideration in staffing our courses.”

Academic departments chairs, in consultation with the provost, determine courses that are taught in any given semester, it said (a spokesperson later noted that reappointments to the writing  program were based on teaching evaluations). “Our contract with the Barnard contingent faculty union stipulates the process and terms by which appointments are determined, and the guiding principle has always been the integrity of our academic program. The majority of the bargaining unit, including its leaders, were reappointed this academic year.”

Despite her experience, Fleischer said the moral of the story is not to fear unionizing. Rather, she said, it’s for faculty members to make sure they’re still in charge of the process.

“The union needs to be directed by the membership.”

Sonam Singh, another instructor of English and member of the bargaining committee, said via email that some of the adjuncts terminated this year had significant seniority, which speaks “to how cavalierly the Barnard administration treats the careers and contributions of contingent faculty.”

At this point, though, he said, “it’s not clear (to me, at least) what role union activity played in the firings and how much was simply in line with the typical year-to-year churning in and out of adjuncts -- an activity that we, under the contract, finally for the first time have a transparent view of.”

Either way, he said, “we’re pursuing the situation and are preparing to take action in line with the wishes of individual faculty and the best interests of the contingent faculty as a whole.”

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