Queens College Professors Stage Protest in Response to Layoffs

Protestors gather outside Kiely Hall. Credit: Celia Bernhardt

By Celia Bernhardt and Charlie Finnerty  | [email protected]

The first day of the spring semester at Queens College saw a crowd of at least 100 picketing outside of Kiely Hall in response to last minute layoffs of over 20 faculty. 

The Jan. 25 rally was organized by the Professional Staff Congress (PSC) union after administrative leadership at the college informed department chairs and deans that they would not reappoint over 20 full-time substitute faculty for the spring semester. Interim Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Patricia Price announced the layoffs in an email Jan. 10, leaving department chairs to rewrite course schedules and laid-off faculty to search for new employment just two weeks before the beginning of the semester.

“It’s really outrageous the way the college handled this by not giving people any notice in advance of firing them,” Eric Goldfischer, a lecturer in the urban studies department, said.

Substitute faculty teach a full course load and help to maintain each department’s course offerings when tenured faculty leave the college or are otherwise unavailable.

10 of the substitute faculty affected by the layoffs had pre-existing 3-year contracts as adjuncts and will return to their adjunct roles, according to Kevin Birth, a professor of anthropology and member of PSC executive committee and Maria Matteo, associate director of news services at the college. Birth told the Queens Ledger that in his own department, substitute professors are paid approximately double the amount of adjunct professors who teach the same course load, but clarified that pay varies between departments, courses and individual professors. 

While previous reports indicated that 26 faculty would be affected by layoffs, a written statement from Queens College President Frank Wu last week listed that number as 24. At least one of the 26 substitute faculty members initially laid off was reinstated after negotiations by the economics department and dean of social science, according to Birth.

“They all should have been saved because they were all necessary,” Birth said. 

David Gerwin, professor of social studies education and chair of secondary education and youth services program, said PSC members are hoping to see all laid-off staff reinstated and, more broadly, a change to the austerity that has dominated decision making at Queens College for years in response to budget cuts on the state, city and CUNY Central levels.

“We would like a reversal of the decision,” Gerwin said. “We really want a change — both in Albany and the reversal of [Mayor] Adam’s cuts. But on this campus, to our administration, we want the collaboration with the chairs and academic affairs and other components on campus.”

Protestors gather outside Kiely Hall. Credit: Celia Bernhardt

In the Jan. 10 email, Price tasked department chairs with informing faculty members that their contracts had been terminated. Gerwin said he would have liked for the college to involve department chairs in the decision-making process earlier rather than the decision being passed down by administrative leadership.

“Is it too much to ask for coherent planning?” Gerwin said. “Talk to me December 4th and I can make a plan with you. If you talk to me January 10th then I’m just in crisis. We would like a complete change in transparency and shared governance.”

Alexandra Cohen, a program coordinator in the music department, explained that both recent faculty cuts and an overall practice of canceling classes under a certain level of enrollment makes it difficult for students to get the credits they need.

“Students are having a hard time getting into classes. They see their classes are getting dropped, especially in classes they need to graduate,” Cohen said.

Goldfischer said he’s witnessed his own students going through similar issues. 

“I think we’re undergoing a lot of austerity, which is causing students to be enrolled in really large classes, not getting enough advising support, not getting enough support for student services and the register,” Goldfischer said. “I see the impact of that on my students — that’s why I’m here.”

In an emailed statement, Queens College President Frank Wu said that the college is working to prepare for future budgetary concerns and ensure staff contracts are not subject to unexpected terminations.

“QC is working with CUNY and the state to assure that the next faculty and staff contract will be fully funded,” Wu said. “Advocacy on behalf of the college and the university is vital; we made it a priority, together with college representatives, to meet with legislators and their staff throughout this past year. We will continue to do so throughout the entire budgetary process—there is strength in numbers. ”

David Gerwin speaks at the rally. Credit: Charlie Finnerty

Gerwin questioned the efficacy of layoffs as an austerity measure when the college’s ability to maintain financial stability is dependent on enrollment and tuition.

“It’s so wrong. There’s no accounting for what classes we lost in the savings,” Gerwin said. “They tell us that in total, we saved maybe $850,000. Yeah, maybe we did, but I don’t know if that accounts for canceling classes where people are paying tuition. […] It’s not a real accounting for what you save if you don’t take into account the losses of enrollment.”

Queens College was included on a list of campuses ordered by CUNY’s central administration to produce “enhanced deficit reduction plans” to accommodate those cuts in December, according to the Daily News. Gerwin said he was disappointed that Queens College seemed to be hit especially hard by austerity measures, even in comparison to other CUNY campuses included on that list. 

“There’s supposed to be nine campuses on the ‘bad list.’ We know that York is having cuts and we’re having cuts, but somehow the College of Staten Island seems to not have had the cuts or City Tech has not had cuts. So what happened there? What did they know that we don’t? What did their president do that ours didn’t?” Gerwin said. “There are a lot of possible ways to address things and we didn’t get to do any of them. We’re totally reactive.”

Protestors gather outside Kiely Hall. Credit: Charlie Finnerty