Part-time faculty at the New School University went on strike today, refusing to teach classes and running a picket line outside the school’s Tishman Auditorium on Fifth Avenue. This is a big deal for the New School because, even amidst the headlong casualization of the academic workforce, the New School stands out—nearly nine out of ten faculty members are part-time.
Part-time instructors, members of ACT-UAW Local 7902, had voted to authorize a strike last week, after failing to make meaningful progress in their negotiations on a new contract with the New School administration. Faculty have been working under successive extensions of a 2014 contract, even as inflation has made the value of their eight-year-old contract crater.
The teachers also argue that the university administration makes it especially difficult for faculty to qualify for health insurance, and that it habitually cuts back teaching assignments to prevent faculty from reaching the necessary threshold for a guaranteed annual course-load.
“It poisons the entire culture,” said Emily Raabe, one of the picketers, who has been a member of the New School’s part-time faculty for 12 years. "It creates a culture of disposability that is the opposite of what education is supposed to be about."
The university administration has pushed back on the faculty’s demands, arguing that unlike older and better-endowed schools, it simply isn’t in a position to significantly improve how it pays its teachers. (In 2020, the school’s endowment was just shy of $400 million.) “The New School has finite resources – far less than some other institutions in our area,” the administration writes. Not that you should worry about its finances! It’s quick to add: "The New School’s Board of Trustees and leadership are confident about the future of the institution."
Teachers counter that the New School administration hasn’t had any trouble finding money for itself. A 2020 analysis found 2.6 administrators to every one teacher, with management salary spending going up 45 percent between 2014 and 2019 even as part-time faculty salary spending went up only 7 percent, while the actual average salaries for part-time salary actually went down. The New School’s administrative funding puts it well outside the average administrative spending ratios of similarly sized universities. The New School administration did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The result is that the people who perform the overwhelming majority of the actual education at the New School can’t afford to focus on that work, said Molly Ragan, who teaches at Parsons School of Design, one of the divisions within the New School, and who is a member of the negotiating committee. "Lots of people doing the teaching have to have second and third jobs,” she said. “This is a really good group of educators, even though the university isn’t supporting us the way they should be."
"The university doesn’t really have an onboarding process," Ragan said. "A lot of faculty are just hired and handed a syllabus. There’s no community being built, no real guidance." The result, Ragan said, is that “the creative energy behind the school is getting squeezed. We’re not able to make that experimental curricula that the New School used to be known for."
On the picket line Wednesday morning, striking faculty and supporters, including current students, marched and chanted. "We are the New School! We are united!"
Clara Beccaro, a PhD student studying anthropology, said she was standing in solidarity with the part-time faculty because she sees how their precarity shapes her own education. "They have no protections, they have to have multiple jobs, so they can’t make teaching their students their priority," she said. "Our teachers shouldn’t be in debt for trying to teach us."
Dianca Potts, another member of the part-time faculty’s bargaining committee, told Hell Gate she has been dismayed to find herself fighting through the same conditions she saw her own professors contending with when she was a student at the New School. "Being exhausted, overdrafting your debit card, not having basic support like school supplies," Potts said. "By the time I get my paycheck, I’m in the red. I have no time to eat."
How long the strike will extend remains to be seen, but the university appears to be preparing for the possibility of an extended strike. In a Google Doc linked from the New School website, the administration has suggested that faculty might decide to teach their classes over Zoom since then they won’t technically be crossing a physical picket line. It also urges teachers to find ways to continue their students’ education during the strike.
For their part, part-time faculty say they’re prepared to maintain the strike for as long as it takes, and that they’re drawing strength from a historically massive sister strike across the country among academic workers at the University of California system also organized under the UAW.
"What we do now, what we’re able to achieve, that will have consequences for people at this school in the future, and for the next bargaining session, and for academia in general," Potts said, before stepping back into the picket line Wednesday morning. "Because higher ed needs to reckon with itself."