Thursday, October 31, 2013

An Open Letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo

Note:  This is the fifth in a series of posts I'm doing here at Citizen of Somewhere Else for Campus Equity Week Previously I've written on Margaret Mary Vojtko, equity in compensation, equity in ranks/titles/contracts, and Campus Equity Week and The Scarlet Letter.  Today, I invite the Governor of New York State, Andrew Cuomo, to live up to his own rhetoric, to follow through on his professed values, and to put the power of his office behind campus equity in the State University of New York.

Happy Halloween, Governor Cuomo!

Tomorrow, the Day of the Dead, is the two-month anniversary of the death of Margaret Mary Vojtko, a professor who taught French at Duquesne University for 25 years but died in abject poverty after being fired without any severance pay or retirement benefits.

How could this happen?  Margaret Mary was an adjunct, a part-timer, a contingent faculty member.  The names change, but the facts remain the same.  She was one of far too many across the country who make up what Gary Rhoades has called academia's working poor.  Just like she did, the overwhelming majority of them are working hard for their students' futures without job security, health benefits, a living wage, or union membership.

Here in western New York, just a few hours from Pittsburgh, we are gathering today to honor the memory of Margaret Mary, to celebrate her commitment and her sacrifice, and to reflect on the meaning of her life and death.  Here, today, we are asking you to recognize that her teaching conditions are her students' learning conditions, to accept that campus equity is more than a labor issue--that at its heart are academic quality and institutional integrity--and to act on those understandings.

We do this because it appears from your actions during the protracted and difficult negotiations between your representatives and the union that represents SUNY's faculty and professionals, United University Professions, that you believe your political future depends on casting yourself as the defender of New York's taxpayers against lazy, greedy state employees and their power-hungry unions.  Despite her cancer and her poverty, Margaret Mary never missed a day of class.  Despite her hard work and dedication, she never made more than $25,000 per year.  And she never lived to see Duquesne recognize the union she and other contingent academic workers voted for--and for which they're still waiting.

The circumstances of Margaret Mary's life and death demonstrate how much of a difference union protections can make.  Thanks to the hard work of faculty and professional activists since the founding of SUNY, along with the wisdom and good sense of your predecessors in the Governor's office, faculty members in contingent appointments on SUNY campuses can earn health and retirement benefits.  In SUNY, only about 45% of the faculty and professionals are working on contingent lines (compared to about 75% nation-wide), while only about one-third of professors are teaching part-time as adjuncts (compared to about half across the country).

But when UUP came to you in the latest round of contract negotiations and said, "it's not enough that we're not the worst in the country--we're New Yorkers, it's time we become the best," you ignored us.  When we proposed that a minimum wage for adjunct faculty of $3,000 per course would be reasonable, you refused to negotiate.  In fact, I've heard from several sources that near the end game of negotiations earlier this year, you threatened to take benefits off the table if UUP continued insisting on keeping a minimum wage for adjuncts on the table.

It's hard for me to square that action with your own words when you succeeded in pushing the New York State legislature to raise the state minimum wage:
A reasonable minimum wage increases the standard of living for workers, reduces poverty, incentivizes fair and more efficient business practices, and ensures that the most vulnerable members of the workforce can contribute to the economy.
Well, yes.  But apparently that doesn't hold true for this class of state employees--the only ones who are working without a floor under their wages.  Why don't adjunct faculty deserve the same deal as any other worker in New York state?  Why do you think it's ok for the most committed of them to their students' success to be vulnerable to being paid less than the state-wide minimum wage?

Given your intransigence on that first, minimal step toward campus equity, it probably should come as no surprise that you apparently believe it's ok for someone with the same qualifications, experience, and responsibilities as another person to be paid a fraction of their salary for arbritrary reasons (such as appointment type).  But wait.  In a June op-ed that you wrote in support of the Women's Equality Act, you rightly called pay inequity "inexcusable and absurd."  At Vassar a couple of days later you stated:
Today is about values, and principles, and stating the obvious, and having the courage to stand up and tell the truth about the obvious. That’s what today is about. It started in January when we did what’s called the State of the State address, and stood up and said to the people of the state of New York, ‘Here is the truth. The truth is we discriminate against women in society in this state and in this country, and it is pervasive, and we haven’t admitted it, and it goes on every day, and it’s a shame, and it’s wrong, and it’s immoral, and it’s unethical, and it has to stop, and it’s going to stop in the state of New York, and then it’s going to stop everywhere.’ That is the truth.
Is it really that difficult to understand that contingency and casualization are also women's issues and human rights issues?  Across the country, between 51% and 61% of contingent academic workers are women.  In some disciplines, female adjuncts outnumber male adjuncts by ratios of 2 or 3 or 4 to 1.  I know you care about your daughters just as much as I care about mine.  How can you turn right around and discriminate against other fathers' daughters who happen to be state employees on contingent appointments in SUNY?  I implore you, listen to your own words, Governor!

Think about it:  if anyone is best living out your own education agenda of putting students first, it's SUNY's contingent faculty.  But how can SUNY continue to attract the greatest teachers if we are relegating more and more of them to contingency and casualization?  Chancellor Zimpher is tirelessly telling and retelling the story of SUNY as the little (economic) engine that could to anyone and everyone who will listen.  But who is doing the real work of making that engine run?  Who is making sure students stay on task, push themselves, and discover what they are interested in and capable of?  Who's in the classroom every day, giving them a pat on the back or a kick in the butt (as needed)?  Contingent faculty are doing this work--the work of workforce development, of developing an educated citizenry--every bit as well as their tenure-stream colleagues. 

Let's turn to more recent initiatives in which you've chosen to invest your political capital.  Part of your support for resort-style casinos is that they'll provide jobs to New Yorkers, revitalize local economies across the state, and provide new revenue streams for education.  I just heard a story the other day on public radio about a stalled contract negotiation for casino workers in New York City that was settled by arbitration.  The terms of the agreement will see many workers' salaries triple from the start to the end of their contract.  Some will be making $60,000 per year in a few years.  It was described as providing entry into the middle class for thousands of workers.

Imagine if you were to do something like this for the 16,000 contingent employees working in the SUNY system today.  The American Association of University Professors has pointed toward successful examples across the country of converting contingent appointments to some form of tenure.  Just imagine the economic impact in towns and cities across the state if thousands of SUNY's hardworking contingent employees were offered less precarious appointments and more equitable rates of compensation.  But why just imagine it?  You could work with Chancellor Zimpher on a proposal to modify the Policies of the Board of Trustees of the State University of New York to make it possible to enact AAUP's recommendations.

I've heard you repeat the phrase, "self-policing doesn't work," when it comes to cleaning up Albany and making ethics matter in the capitol.  You didn't accept self-policing when you helped stop the legislature's slow strangling of SUNY by refusing to accept their decades-long practice of cutting back on state support of higher education whenever they authorized a tuition increase (and often when they didn't).  But when it comes to SUNY's treatment of its own contingent employees, apparently you think self-policing can work.  Well, we're trying to make it work here at SUNY Fredonia--and I include the Fredonia administration in that "we."  President Horvath, Provost Brown, Vice President Schillo and others are putting their careers on the line to set an example for the rest of SUNY and the rest of the country.  They are taking on the issues you didn't have the courage to deal with yourself.

Governor Cuomo, I'm sure you're like the rest of us who have pondered the circumstances of Margaret Mary's death and thought, "There but for the grace of God go I."  You may have even thanked God that Margaret Mary worked for a Catholic university in Pennsylvania rather than a public university in New York.  Well, God may work in mysterious ways, but it's up to us here to reflect on our own complicities and responsibilities and to do what we think is right.  You've shown over the course of your political career that you have it in you to be a courageous leader who takes on big issues and solves tough problems.  Your leadership in providing disaster relief in central New York, where I grew up and got my education, and in downstate New York, where my parents grew up, were educated, met, and fell in love, is yet another example of your promise.  Well, what contingent employees have been facing for decades in SUNY has been a slow-motion disaster.  What will you do to relieve their suffering?  What will you do to restore their dignity?

On November 1st, All Saints' Day, many faithful around the world believe that the spirits of the dead return to the living and that it's the responsibility of the living to greet them demonstrations of love and respect.  What kind of offering should we make to Margaret Mary's spirit?  That's for each of us to decide.  But what if you were to honor the work contingent faculty do to help provide paths to the middle class and ways to wealth for New York's SUNY students?
  • What if you were to pledge to compensate adjunct faculty for teaching on the two days they'd otherwise have to cancel classes under the terms of the Deficit Reduction Program you forced on them?
  • What if you were to urge SUNY to put more contingent faculty on longer-term contracts, so that they don't have to go off and on health insurance over the course of a year?
  • What if you were to find a way to ensure that all contingent employees in SUNY become eligible for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, so that they can at least get out from the burden of debt for the advanced degrees they have earned--and which your own actions are devaluing?
  • What if you were to offer them the same tax relief as you do to employees hired under the terms of your own START-UP NY program?  What if you were to exempt them from local and state income taxes?
Do it for Margaret Mary, Governor.  Do it for SUNY's 16,000 undervalued contingent employees.  Other Governors have helped do the heavy lifting that makes it unlikely any long-time SUNY adjunct will suffer and die like Margaret Mary did.  What will be your contribution?  What will be your legacy?  What record will you be able to point to when you seek reelection...and beyond?

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