In the middle of the school year, at least two CUNY colleges in Queens have slashed dozens of staff following the City University’s central administration mandates last month for eight campuses to make “enhanced deficit reduction plans.”
Queens College on Jan. 10 laid off 26 full-time faculty members slated to teach in the spring semester, while York College has since mid-December let go of an estimated 75 part-time adjuncts and a number of non-teaching staffers with more cuts to come, according to the schools’ faculty and union leaders.
“Nobody would dream of laying people off 10 days before the semester starts,” David Gerwin, chair of the secondary education department at Queens College who’s been ordered to fire a lecturer, told THE CITY. “In my 20 years, there haven’t been these last-minute notices.”
The eleventh-hour orders have forced department chairs like Gerwin into a state of disarray as they hurry to rearrange and reschedule class sections to make accommodations. Some classes have been canceled altogether while others have to take on more students to fill the gaps.
At York, 275 class sections — or about 18% of all of its original total of 1,513 classes — have been cut from the registrar, said Donna Chirico, a professor of psychology at York and a faculty caucus leader of the York College Senate.
That means less flexibility in scheduling for students who have to juggle obligations outside of school, and less availability for pre-requisite or mandatory classes that students may need to progress in their degrees.
“My point is, all these decisions impact students and make it harder for students to graduate,” said Chirico. “The big message here is how do all these budget cuts … affect our future leaders?”
Jake Apkarian, associate professor of behavioral sciences at York and a chapter officer at the Professional Staff Congress (PSC) union at CUNY, said at least one of his students won’t be able to graduate this spring unless she can find an equivalent course at another campus as a substitute to a now-canceled class.
“Not only are these cuts impacting faculty, but they are impacting students as well,” said Apkarian.
Noah Gardy, a spokesperson for CUNY’s central administration, said the cuts had come as a result of budget-reduction plans “designed to give colleges flexibility and discretion to alleviate budget shortfalls in a manner consistent with their distinct needs and circumstances.
“In addition to those requests, the University has implemented cost-saving measures, strategies to boost enrollment and strengthen retention, increased fundraising and pursued public-private partnerships,” Gardy told THE CITY. “We look forward to working with our partners in government in the coming months to advocate for resources to help CUNY realize our mission to lift New York.”
Queens College spokesperson Maria Matteo said “these most recent actions came about in December as part of an externally imposed savings target plan,” though Gardy emphasized that the content of the cost-cutting plans were independently developed by individual colleges upon CUNY Central’s request.
“The decisions were made in close consultation with college deans with an aim toward minimal operational disruption,” Matteo said. “We anticipate that there will be expanded opportunities for faculty leaders’ consultation and involvement to meet the continuing budgetary challenges.”
York spokesperson Vivian Todini said the college “has no response at this time.”
‘The Students Suffer’
Faculty members axed at Queens College said they were blindsided by the layoffs as many of them have only just signed onto offer letters in December to continue teaching in the spring.
“I had a total failure of imagination that this would be possible,” said Mia Hood, who was let go from the college’s secondary education department, where she said her classes — some of which are required for teaching accreditation — had been close to fully enrolled for the spring.
She had turned down freelance gigs to start full-time teaching at CUNY in the fall under a one-year lecture appointment in hopes of more stability in her income and career, she said.
“I had an eight-page document with all of the ways I wanted to change and improve the course for the spring… and you know, suddenly, I’ve got a lot of time on my hands,” added Hood, who said she is now busy searching for opportunities in curriculum design, K-12 support and professional development to make up for loss income. “When I’m kind of thinking about other work that I’m looking for in the spring, I’m not even really going down the academic path.”
Karen Weingarten, an English professor and PSC chapter chair at Queens College, said the school’s leadership was unresponsive in early December and January as department chairs pushed for answers on how budget cuts were going to be carried out. Clarity only came, she added, when the chairs were handed a list on Wednesday of faculty members to whom they had to break the bad news.
“It wasn’t a conversation. It wasn’t like, ‘This is what we’re thinking of doing.’ It was ‘We’re firing, we’re laying off 26 people,’ and people were really shocked,” Weingarten said, reflecting the order that was handed to chairs to lay off teaching staff.
Ash Marinaccio said she was also let go from her position as assistant professor of media studies at Queens College without severance or benefits.
“Essentially they issued us contracts with funding that did not exist,” said Marinaccio, who is also a PhD candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center. “But it’s like, who suffers? The students suffer.
“The students deserve better,” she added. “The faculty deserve better.”
Haidee Chu covers Queens and the City University of New York for THE CITY, in partnership with Open Campus.