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Part-time lecturers express concern over Rutgers hiring freeze

University spokesperson Dory Devlin said New Jersey officials are withholding funding for Rutgers due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, resulting in budget cuts.  – Photo by Eli Horowitz

Rutgers University announced a hiring freeze on April 2 in an email sent to staff, a measure which could result in less part-time lecturers (PTL) working at the University next semester. 

Rutgers state funding has been cut due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, impacting the University’s revenue, according to University spokesperson Dory Devlin. 

“The state two weeks ago announced that it is withholding $73 million in payments to Rutgers and more reductions for next year are anticipated. Calculating the costs and fiscal impacts of the COVID-19 outbreak is an ongoing and complicated process,” Devlin said. 

Devlin said the University will not know how many PTL faculty it will need until class registration is completed. She said Rutgers—New Brunswick currently employs approximately 1,567 PTLs.  

David Winters, acting vice president of the Part-Time Lecturer Faculty Chapter of the Rutgers American Association of University Professors and American Federation of Teachers (PTLFC-AAUP-AFT), said these budget cuts could harm thousands of Rutgers employees and condemned the University for its decision.

“The idea that the initial response to what the administration has termed a ‘budgetary shortfall’ is to immediately cut faculty positions and to cut positions of the faculty who are already the most vulnerable — and to do so at a time where we're all living through an exceptional crisis seems to me to be a wrongheaded set of decisions and an ineffective way to govern this University through a time of crisis,” Winters said.

Winters acknowledged COVID-19 is undoubtedly impacting the University’s budget, but said the real issue is only a small number of people are making important decisions that are affecting all of the Rutgers community. He said less PTL could mean less courses available for students and larger class sizes, as more classes will most likely be given to tenured professors. 

One of the problems with the hiring freeze, Winters said, is that it shows the inequality between those with the power to define what the global pandemic will look like for the University and those who will suffer from the decisions made by the powerful individuals.

“(Business) is an important perspective that should be included in a responsible governing structure. But the problem is that the perspective of a handful of people who see Rutgers primarily as a business is currently dominating the way that this crisis is defined,” Winters said. “We as a union are trying to argue that PTL faculty … and the rest of the people who make Rutgers work should have more of a voice in deciding what this crisis means for Rutgers and how it should be responded to.”

Winters said the union was not included in any discussions about budget cuts, and that these decisions should be made with leadership from other organizations outside of the administration, like student leadership and faculty unions. 

He called for Rutgers to “open up their finances” to make it clear whether cutting PTL faculty is the best choice for the university.

“(Whether) there's a crisis is clear. (Whether) there's a budget shortfall at Rutgers is less clear,” Winters said. 

David Letwin, a Mason Gross School of the Arts professor, is a member of the union and one of the many PTLs affected by the administration’s decision. He said PTLs have always been in a tenuous working situation with little job security. 

“You never really know what the future looks like for you,” Letwin said.

Winters said the email sent to staff last week caused panic and confusion among the PTLs. He said the language of the email was unclear and many had trouble knowing whether their job prospects for the Fall 2020 semester would be honored. 

“Speaking generally, people are scared. People are really, really scared. People who count on this money and counted on those appointments for good reason feel as though the rug has been pulled out from under them, and they legitimately have no idea what their employment is going to look like in the fall,” he said.

In addition to facing job insecurity, PTLs are not granted healthcare through their employment at the University. Winters said the COVID-19 crisis led the union to assess the needs of their members. 

After conducting research, he said only a small percentage of PTLs would need access to health facilities because many PTLs get access to healthcare from their spouses. The union tried to get free access to Rutgers health facilities for these individuals, but the University did not accept this proposal. 

Letwin said despite facing job insecurity, low wages and lack of access to healthcare, PTLs remain passionate and dedicated to their jobs. 

“I think there is an inherent tension there, between — on the one hand — you're aware of the things you're not getting and those things creating great anxiety and stress in your life. But at the same time, wanting to be the most committed teacher you can be,” he said.

Amy Higer, the president of the PTLFC-AAUP-AFT said the transition to online classes resulted in more work for PTLs that won’t be compensated for the move. 

“It's a lot more work to teach online … I'm not complaining about it but, you know, really any other place would compensate for the workers who are putting in more hours,” Higer said.

Winters said the hiring freeze reflects a pattern of behavior during crises.

“Just unfortunately, in the last several decades that in times of crisis, people who don't have the power to define the crisis and make the decisions about how to respond tend to be the people who are asked to pay for the crisis,” he said. ”We're witnessing an example of that, as Rutgers’ top administrators ask (PTLs) to bear the burden of a budget shortfall through the hiring freeze.”

The Daily Targum previously reported tension between administrators and PTLs in the past. Last year, Chancellor Christopher J. Molloy attributed the lack of benefits for PTLs to the economy and said those unhappy with their jobs can find other ones.

“I know people, I’ve had colleagues that have been PTLs in the past, and I understand that the amount that people are paid for courses is not something you can live on. If they don’t want to do this, they need to get another job. There are probably other people who can fill the role, so it’s sort of like supply and demand,” Molloy said, according to the Targum.  

Letwin said the University’s decision to potentially cut PTLs from the budget is just one of the many decisions being made across the country that disrupt the working class as a whole, which he said is exemplified by the increasing number of people who lost their jobs due to COVID-19. He said the only way for workers to combat this inequality is through organizing. 

“I would encourage all PTLs immediately to get in touch with the union to let them know that you're part of the union, you've joined the union and that you want to fight, you want to help the union fight to protect our jobs,” Letwin said. 

The PTLFC-AAUP-AFT started a petition calling on University President Robert L. Barchi and the Board of Governors to rescind the hiring freeze. The petition also asks the University to expand access to Rutgers health clinics to PTLs, provide compensation for extra hours worked due to remote instruction, cancel spring course evaluations and give promotions to qualified PTLs this semester without classroom observations.

The Targum previously reported that multiple Rutgers unions called on the University to include faculty members in the COVID-19 Task Force. The latest petition reiterates this demand and adds that students and community members be included as well.

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