The New School AAUP Chapter

By Kelly Hand

Zoom meeting of the New School's AAUP chapter.Certified as a local chapter in August 2020, the New School AAUP chapter (AAUP-TNS) is one of many advocacy chapters formed since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Faculty members at the New School in New York City had attempted to form a chapter a few years earlier, partly to address issues of faculty governance, but the momentum for organizing accelerated during the spring semester in response to the administration’s introduction of extreme austerity measures, including across-the-board cuts to salaries and benefits and staff layoffs.

AAUP-TNS includes tenured, tenure-track, and non-tenure-track faculty members and works in solidarity with staff and students. As an advocacy chapter, AAUP-TNS works to expand the governance role of the faculty beyond the limited representation of the university’s faculty senate and the faculty councils for each of the university’s academic divisions. Since initiating the process of forming a chapter in June 2020, AAUP-TNS has drawn on members’ expertise to investigate a private consultant hired by the administration, conduct an independent financial analysis of the institution, and raise concerns about a voluntary separation program promoted by the administration. At a time when many colleges and universities are pursuing short-term solutions to financial crises that are likely to have long-term implications, the chapter offers an impressive example of rapid and agile mobilization to assert the importance of faculty, student, and staff voices, knowledge, and experience in institutional decision-making.

We learned more about AAUP-TNS from chapter president Jaskiran Dhillon and vice president Cinzia Arruzza.

How did you go about organizing faculty members at a time when the pandemic made it impossible to interact with colleagues in person?

Organizing faculty members amid a global pandemic and a fraught restructuring process at the New School was a challenge, but it also offered an opportunity to galvanize members of the university community in unprecedented ways. Most of our campus has been closed since the end of March, and almost all teaching has moved online and will remain online for spring 2021. Mobilizing in this context was tricky: colleagues who did not know each other before the pandemic had to connect using email and online platforms, such as Zoom, without any opportunity to meet in person. We hosted a virtual town hall early in the fall 2020 semester, which provided a space for people to learn about our chapter and share their concerns about the restructuring process. This allowed us to identify key areas in need of advocacy. In addition, we organized and cosponsored two events open to the whole New School community through mass Zoom calls and webinars, which proved to be exceptionally useful tools: hundreds of participants attended, in an unprecedented display of solidarity among constituencies of the university. One of our members, Alex Aleinikoff, is hosting a weekly podcast called Public Square where members of the New School community share their views about different aspects of the university, including the current crisis. Our work has required us to establish alliances with our faculty councils—as well as with our faculty, staff, and student senates—to spread the word about the chapter and recruit members. Our website, social media presence, and member email list have helped to bolster awareness of the chapter and to solicit interest from various parts of the university. Finding ways to connect with people and build relationships, even if only over a screen, was essential to the chapter’s creation.

What were the key issues that mobilized faculty members?

Over summer 2020, faculty members were confronted with a series of email announcements from the university administration that contained alarming messages about the future of the New School. Some of these announcements referred to broad financial issues within the university, while others targeted more direct changes in the structures and programs of the university that would adversely affect faculty, students, and staff. Specifically, faculty were concerned about staff and faculty layoffs, most of which took place in October 2020; the “reimagining and restructuring” of the university without meaningful faculty, student, and staff participation; a lack of transparency around financial decision-making; salary reductions; the freezing of research funds; the halting of retirement contributions; workload issues for staff; and the lack of support for students during this time of crisis. Many faculty members also raised serious concerns about the university’s apparent lack of commitment to social and racial justice.

What steps did you take to build solidarity with staff and students?

One of the most important steps was participation in the newly created New School Labor Coalition, which, for the first time, brought almost all campus unions together with the newly founded AAUP chapter. The focus of the coalition has been the defense of labor conditions and jobs in the face of layoffs and furloughs. The New School’s AAUP chapter deemed these lay-offs and furloughs unnecessary, a conclusion based on independent research into the university’s financial data by chapter member and economics professor Sanjay Reddy and his team of graduate students. We have recently formed an AAUP committee that will work toward creating a community-centered vision for the future of the New School in response to the administration’s proposals for consolidation and restructuring. We included in this process members of the university student senate, the student workers’ union, and staff members, because we strongly believe that all people contributing to the life of the university should be involved in a discussion about the university’s future.

Tell us about how your chapter has used research and media outreach to challenge the administration’s narratives about the need for austerity measures.

The New School has no shortage of expertise when it comes to research, media outreach, and journalism. We turned to our faculty, students, and staff to conduct research on specific issues—the hiring of the corporate consulting firm Huron is a case in point—that enabled us to go public about the university’s crisis. Since many of us are organizers as well as academics, we knew that the media would be tremendously powerful in shifting the narrative about the university’s issues and promoting awareness of them among the broader public. Several stories in the media about the crisis at the New School have given our chapter a national platform.

What do you envision as attainable outcomes for the chapter’s advocacy efforts?

What is attainable and what is not will depend on the faculty’s willingness to get organized and agitate, together with unions, nonunionized staff, and students. Our priorities for the spring 2021 semester include the activation of a bottom-up process of discussion and planning to envision the future of the university; recognition and analysis of the inequities in the working conditions of faculty across the university, with the goal of developing equity-based proposals to improve the working conditions of full- and part-time non-tenure-track faculty; and the creation of a racial justice committee to analyze instances and mechanisms of racial injustice within the university and to advocate for structural change. We hope that the recent appointment of Dwight McBride as president of the New School will mark the beginning of a much-needed transformation in the direction of racial justice for our institution. Finally, we expect to undertake a longer-term plan concerning the transformation and strengthening of faculty governance, including urgent discussions about alternative models of democratic government that stand in opposition to the increasing corporatization of our university.

How can you build on the current momentum to make AAUP-TNS sustainable in the long term?

The creation of AAUP-TNS was long overdue. Over the course of the past two decades faculty have seen their intellectual autonomy and freedom and their labor conditions erode. Quantitative criteria of evaluation, cost-efficiency, and profitability have increasingly replaced meaningful curricular planning, a commitment to social justice, and the New School’s mission and vision for the future. Like many other universities that have undergone neoliberal transformation, the New School now operates on a business model that is accountable, first and foremost, to the market. Under these conditions, faculty cannot rely on the university’s leadership to ensure that their labor rights and academic freedoms are protected. We need to get organized and stay organized. The creation of the AAUP-TNS advocacy chapter is an urgent and necessary first step in this direction, and we are working hard to build the internal infrastructure necessary to sustain this chapter well into the future. The survival of the New School as a just and responsive university depends on it.

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