Last week, professors within the Liberal Studies program confirmed that they’re looking to unionize due to dissatisfaction with their treatment by the university. The LS faculty has been subject to unequal pay, a lack of sufficient resources and low job security. All of these factors have caused professors to feel exploited, unfairly compensated and disillusioned with LS as a whole. However, the terms of their employment make it nearly impossible for LS professors to organize, as they are subject to frequent contract renewals. This leaves the faculty at an impasse: do professors unionize at the risk of losing their jobs, or do they continue to accept the subpar conditions of their employment? Furthermore, students are left wondering: how can we help our professors when the university has been known to aggressively retaliate against student protestors?
Since Liberal Studies’ inception in 1972, it’s grown from a two-year interdisciplinary program to NYU’s second-largest undergraduate school. Because of its emphasis on discussion-based learning, LS caps its class sizes at 25 students. It’s a global program — most LS students spend their first year at one of four study-away sites, and if they choose to major in GLS, they spend their junior year abroad as well. This necessitates hiring a large number of LS professors spread across the globe, a significant portion of whom are adjunct faculty. Unlike all other schools within the Faculty of Arts and Science, LS does not list adjunct faculty on its website, making it difficult to discern exactly how many professors it employs. However, all LS faculty, both full-time and adjunct, are subject to unfair treatment by NYU.
Liberal Studies professors are unable to receive tenure, sabbatical and faculty housing due to the nature of their employment status. All LS full-time faculty are employed as either clinical professors, clinical associate professors or clinical assistant professors. According to FAS rules, “clinical appointments are without tenure” and “clinical faculty are ineligible for sabbaticals and generally ineligible for NYU faculty housing.” University spokesperson John Beckman told WSN that LS professors are not prohibited from applying for tenure-track positions, but, by definition, clinical positions cannot be tenure-track positions, and LS positions are only clinical. Encouraging LS professors to apply to positions outside of the program is not sustainable for its maintenance.
Clinical faculty are recruited on one-to-three-year contracts and then retained on five-year rolling contracts — they’re only eligible for five-year reappointment contracts if they’ve already been working at NYU for six years. Adjunct faculty, on the other hand, are employed semester-by-semester. For LS faculty, job security simply does not exist.
LS professors are also severely underpaid. An LS-conducted report obtained by WSN, which anonymously interviewed full faculty members, indicated that LS professors receive significantly lower salaries than those who are tenure-eligible. The report says that the “average salary of a male, full tenure-eligible professor is $202,221, while the average salary for a male, full LS professor is $83,212.” This discrepancy is not only wildly unfair, but has severe consequences. 43% of the report’s responders said that the lower salaries had forced them to take up a second job, which in turn led to a decline in the quality of their teaching. “Teaching 3-3 every year [three courses in both the fall and spring semesters] — I’ve never had a semester release — is a burnout risk as it is, and additional work doesn’t help,” one professor said in the report. “I’m living extremely conservatively.”
NYU’s reluctance to legitimize Liberal Studies doesn’t only manifest in the unfair treatment of its faculty. Until last semester, LS only had two seats in the University Senate: one for a School Senator and one for a faculty senator. In March, the Senate finally approved a motion to give LS Dean Julie Mostov a seat on the Dean’s Council, expanding LS representation in the University Senate to three seats. “There is something fundamentally wrong when the Dean of a unit so large is denied a seat at the table,” said LS faculty senator Heidi White, who had not only proposed the resolution but had networked internally within the Senate for over a year in hopes of passing it. It is worth noting that as a Clinical Professor, White — who is a Faculty Fellow in Residence at Rubin Hall, served as a department chair within GLS for six years and was a recipient of the NYU Distinguished Teaching Award in 2017 — is ineligible for tenure.
In response to their treatment by the university, some LS professors think it might be necessary to unionize, but NYU’s history with unionization is mixed at best. Despite having several collective bargaining agreements with various unions in the city — including one for adjunct faculty — the university is notorious for its issues with unionization efforts by graduate students. While LS faculty face similar problems as adjuncts generally in higher education, many issues are unique to NYU’s failure to meet the needs of the professors in light of the growth of the program.
NYU has forced Liberal Studies professors to unionize, but has also made it incredibly difficult for them to do so. The future of both their employment and their working conditions hangs in the balance, and it’s unclear how to move forward when any movement can trigger university retaliation. As our professors begin to navigate the murky waters of collective organization, we can’t do anything but stand with them — we know that NYU won’t.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Nov. 4, 2019 print edition. Email the Editorial Board at [email protected]