New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

University denies foul play after adjuncts’ courses changed

NYU is attributing shifts in adjunct course assignments to pandemic-related enrollment and budget changes, but the union representing adjuncts says the university is undermining their job security.
Samson Tu
File photo: The ACT-UAW Local 7902 union at a rally in April 2022. (Samson Tu for WSN)

For many adjunct professors — part-time faculty that make up a large share of instructors at NYU — course assignments looked different this year. For some, assignments did not happen at all.

Last spring, many adjuncts were assigned to classes or class times different from what they had taught for many years — in some cases, for decades. The adjunct union, ACT-UAW Local 7902, said that many adjuncts across the university have been affected, and filed multiple grievances against the university over the summer. 

The union is worried NYU is intentionally reducing adjuncts’ course loads after they won wage increases in a contract agreement with the university last fall, but NYU argues the shift is linked to post-pandemic budget and enrollment changes. The union said many adjuncts had their class schedules changed for this academic year, although representatives did not provide a specific number, and said that 39 adjunct professors either had their number of courses reduced or were not assigned to teach at all. 

In a written statement to WSN, NYU spokesperson Joseph Tirella said the university received the union’s grievances and that by NYU’s account, 40 adjuncts that qualify for guaranteed compensation from the university if their course schedules are changed were not reappointed or had their course loads reduced. Tirella said Liberal Studies professors were the most impacted. 

“Adjuncts at NYU were heartened finally to be paid more reasonable wages for our work; now we face full or partial layoffs and the threat of gradually being shut out of our jobs,” the union said in a statement over the summer. “The NYU administration likes to claim that all of its employees are valued members of the university community. Yet time and again it makes it unmistakably clear that it regards adjunct faculty as so much disposable labor, for whose work, lives, and wellbeing it has no regard.” 

NYU spokesperson John Beckman insisted the reduction in adjunct-taught courses was unrelated to Local 7902’s new contract in a written statement to WSN. Beckman said there was a decreased demand for adjuncts this academic year due to renewed hiring of full-time faculty after a pandemic-era hiring freeze, as well as changes to enrollment and budget.

“Last year, full-time faculty taught fewer courses than usual for various reasons (including that we had several full-time faculty on leave), thus also requiring the hiring of more adjunct faculty,” Beckman wrote. “That is not true this year, meaning full-time are more available to teach, meaning fewer opportunities to hire adjunct faculty.”

According to the contract between the union and NYU, there are no provisions that prevent the university from changing adjuncts’ schedules. However, union officials are saying there was a lack of communication with adjuncts about these changes, which left professors with either courses canceled, no teaching assignments, teaching different courses or teaching at new time slots. 

The union admitted that some professors were not assigned to teach classes because they didn’t submit request-to-teach letters, the paperwork that adjunct professors submit each winter in order to receive their teaching assignments. 

Every spring, professors receive course assignment letters, which include the classes that they are assigned to teach for the coming academic year. In order to receive a course assignment letter in the spring, adjuncts first submit request-to-teach letters in December. These letters guarantee professors who have taught at NYU for a certain amount of time designated under the union’s contract compensation equivalent to lost income if their courses are reduced or canceled. 

According to Union Unit Chair for NYU and Liberal Studies adjunct David Palmer, almost all adjuncts that experienced a reduction to their course loads or were not assigned to teach classes have received or are slated to receive compensation from the university. 

In this year’s assignment letters, the union noticed a trend of adjuncts being given course times with typically low enrollment, such as in the early morning and late evening. Low enrollment — when a class has less than half of projected enrollment or under five students — is the only reason the university can cut a course without compensating an adjunct, provided they have taught at NYU long enough and submitted their request-to-teach letter. 

Palmer told WSN that the biggest shift the union observed in scheduling changes was in adjunct course enrollment caps — the maximum number of students the university decides can take each course in any given year. 

Data the union says it received from NYU and shared with WSN shows that hundreds of courses taught in schools across the university had their enrollment caps changed for this year. However, not all of the courses received higher enrollment caps this year — a change that would have made it easier for a course to be canceled due to low enrollment. In fact, many courses had their maximum capacities lowered. 

Tirella told WSN that the university had shared this data with the union as part of an information request, and said the union had worked with the Liberal Studies Dean’s office to secure new course assignments for adjuncts in the school who had been assigned to teach courses at times that receive low enrollment. 

“In Liberal Studies, in the limited instances where an adjunct was appointed to an early morning course that was canceled due to low enrollment, the dean’s office reassigned those adjuncts to another course,” Tirella said.

Last fall, adjuncts won historic wage increases after monthslong negotiations for a new contract with the university. The contract is an agreement between NYU and the union that determines adjunct pay and work protections, such as health care benefits.

Union representatives are suspicious of the timing of the course changes and reductions for adjuncts, and believe it might be a cost-saving effort on the part of the university. Due to the new contract, this year marks the last time adjuncts will be required to submit request-to-teach letters in order to be compensated when their courses are reduced. 

“If a course is canceled due to insufficient enrollment, it’s a great situation for the university because the course doesn’t run and they don’t have to pay the adjunct,” Palmer said. “They did not operate in good faith when they were trying to find means to deplete the very people that they’re going to enter into a six-year contract with.”

After working with the university administration over the summer, union representatives told WSN that some professors who were assigned to teach classes at times with low enrollment had received new class assignments from NYU that would allow them to teach this year. 

Palmer said that he was relieved when professors were able to get new courses at usual enrollment time slots. He was concerned, however, about the precedent that the scheduling changes set for the future, saying that he hoped for more collaboration between the union and the university in the future. 

“What I fear as a unit chair is the death by a thousand cuts approach — they are not getting rid of all the adjuncts at once,” Palmer said. “Where previously people were teaching a pretty set schedule, now they’ve been upended and the university never consulted the adjunct.” 

Mary Helen Kolisnyk, a Liberal Studies adjunct and member of the union’s joint council — a representative body of elected union members — was one of the professors who received a new assignment over the summer. Kolisnyk told WSN that prior to the university giving her a new course, she was assigned to teach an 8 a.m. course for the first time in over a decade at NYU.

“I’ve been in Liberal Studies for a long time. There are benefits — institutional benefits — that come from having experienced people in those classrooms,” Kolisnyk told WSN. “That’s the loss for Liberal Studies. If I can’t teach there, they lose an experienced instructor, an experienced and motivated instructor.” 

In a letter to NYU president Linda Mills first published in WSN, the union demanded that NYU restore any lost adjunct teaching positions and meet with the union to discuss professors’ needs.

“We are looking at this as kind of a watershed moment for making sure that [the university is] meeting the terms of the contract,” Palmer told WSN. “We want a seat at the table, a real seat.”

Tori Morales contributed reporting. 

Contact Ania Keenan at [email protected].

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About the Contributors
Ania Keenan
Ania Keenan, Features Editor
Ania Keenan is a sophmore double majoring in Journalism and Data Science. She is from California and loves black coffee, long walks, writing poetry and reading non-fiction. When she is not working on the next features investigation, you can find her running along West Side Highway, listening to audiobooks or complaining about the cold.
Samson Tu
Samson Tu, Magazine Managing Editor
Samson Tu is finishing his B.A. degree in politics with a thesis on the state of civil society development in the People's Republic of China. Synthesizing his experience in journalism and training in politics, Samson is going to attend the NYU School of Law after his undergraduate to study intellectual property law. Samson attempts to make sense of Heidegger and Sartre or edits photographs on his 15-hour flight between New York and Taipei. He always prefers the flights to New York. Send an email to [email protected] for ideas about WSN's monthly magazine issues!

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  • W

    Wendy LawrenceSep 20, 2023 at 10:11 am

    This is concerning. This is my third year at NYU and I think I’ve had one full time faculty teacher the whole time, the rest were all adjuncts. They are the life blood of this university and deserve to be treated as such.