Yelling at the Ivory Tower: How the CUNY Professional Staff Congress Came to Fail Its People – Guest Post

By Barbara K Emanuele. Barbara K Emanuele has served as an educator and an administrator in CUNY for twenty years. Her focus is on composition instruction to students in an urban settings


After months of negotiations, long past the end of our previous contract, the faculty and staff of CUNY were sent an email announcing a “historic” new agreement.  The content of this email was stunning, not for what it achieved for its members, but in how its very construction ignored the audience it was meant for, a group of people trained to unpack and analyze texts.   And if there is anything historic to this agreement, it is only to be found in reflecting on the origins of this PSC administration and how they have strayed from its early promise. 

On a very bright, warm, afternoon in the late 1990’s, the blue of the sky framing the literally ivory tower of Kiely Hall, Barbara Bowen and several dozen of concerned students, (as I then was), faculty and staff marched from the bell tower of Queens College’s Library to Kiely Tower.  We did so unimpeded because the security staff had been deployed to protect the president in his offices on the twelfth floor.

The protest was in direct response to the college president’s plan to declare financial exigence and in doing so bifurcate the English Department: a department of college composition and a department of literature.  Doing so would have cost the department dozens of tenured and non-tenured faculty, increased enrollment in classes in both potential departments, and greatly lessened the learning experiences of all Queens College students.  

Standing in the plaza between Kiely Hall and Klapper Hall (where the English Department was located) Bowen shouted up to the Tower, “Can you hear us President Sessoms?  We aren’t going anywhere!”

    I believed her.

I believed her because shortly thereafter the plans were called off, and it was the beginning of the end for that president.  I believed her because she was at the start of her meteoric rise through the archaic union, rising swiftly from Chapter Chair to President.  I believed her because she was doing all the things she said she would do.

However, that was then. This is now. What I have only come to know recently is that the union is still archaic and we have only switched demi-god heads. And it seems Bowen has forgotten that the membership of the union she leads is trained to unpack and analyze texts. We can also do math, albeit slower than others sometimes.

Let me blunt: the contract currently before the PSC membership is a greater mess than the mess Queens College found itself in that Spring in the late nineties.  On October 23rd, the faculty and staff of CUNY were gleefully told: 

The PSC aimed high in this contract, and we achieved a tentative agreement that can genuinely be called historic. It breaks the longstanding system of poverty-level pay for teaching adjuncts while at the same time providing raises for all faculty and professional staff, along with other important gains. The agreement also represents significant new investment in CUNY by both the City and the State. Every PSC member should be proud. The proposed contract is a victory for everyone who works at CUNY and a turning-point in CUNY’s treatment of contingent labor.

The only thing historic about this contract is how bad it is, and how little the union thinks of its members. 

We are still very much at poverty level pay all around. The raises for the full timers will not cover the cost of living of New York City, and there are no additional benefits to offset that costs.  The Adjuncts (of which I am now proudly one) will LOSE steps in pay raises, in exchange for a flat rate of teaching classes that will keep us struggling to make ends meet.

The other touted “important gains” are non-existent.  What exists is a ten-month pay freeze, untenured faculty losing reassigned time, the adjunct flat rate adding up to a give back, and CLTs, HEOs and Non-Teaching Adjuncts continuing to be the forgotten children of this union.

Twenty years ago, I was very proud of this union.  I celebrated Barbara Bowen’s victories at Queens College and at the citywide level.  Now I think back to that afternoon, to that woman with a megaphone, and the woman watching her.  The early promises of support for all levels of faculty, particularly the adjuncts, have come to naught.  Once more we are shouting at the Ivory Tower, but sadly, it feels like not even the woman with the megaphone is listening.

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About Karen Kelsky

I am a former tenured professor at two institutions--University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I've created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don't.

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