Media Statement: December 17, 2020
Union and Student Leaders Speak Out on Rutgers Priorities. Will They Be Heard?
NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—Leaders of the Coalition of Rutgers Unions and the Rutgers University Student Assembly are urging the Board of Governors (which meets virtually today at 12 noon) to listen to the voices of faculty, staff, students, and the community—not shut those voices out when they’re needed most.
A resolution added to the agenda at the last minute (see point 15c(1) and page five) would change the bylaws of the Board of Governors (BoG) to restrict the number of public speakers at their meetings. There is currently no such bylaw restriction. “It seems like the intention is to shut out any discussion from these public meetings, which makes a mockery of the Open Public Meetings Act,” said Todd Wolfson, president of Rutgers AAUP-AFT, the union representing full-time faculty, graduate workers, postdoctoral associates, and others.
Students, staff, and faculty have a lot to say, according to Wolfson. Since the first surge of the pandemic, well over 1,000 of the Coalition’s 20,000 union members have been laid off, and the financial squeeze has been felt throughout the university. But instead of working collaboratively, the administration is punishing the vulnerable and shutting the Rutgers community out of decision-making, Wolfson said.
“They tell us they don’t have a choice because this is a ‘fiscal emergency,’” he said. “But they do have choices. They are choosing not to use more of the half a billion dollars-plus in their rainy-day reserves. They chose to reject the work-sharing proposal our unions developed in the spring that would have saved Rutgers more than $100 million while preventing layoffs and protecting our members’ incomes. They are choosing to hire more high-level managers while they lay off some of the lowest-paid employees.”
“The real question is the priorities behind these choices,” Wolfson said. “We’ve asked the administration again and again to work with us to solve the problems we all face during this pandemic, and we’re making the same appeal to the Board of Governors. With this awful year finally ending, that’s not just the only moral choice—it’s the only choice that will preserve Rutgers as a world-class public university.”
There was a new twist at the BoG’s last meeting in early October: Rutgers community members could only speak on specified subjects during the public comment section. Speakers who were cut off were told they would have an opportunity to talk to Board members at some future date, but very few of those meetings ever took place.
Troy Shinbrot, a professor of Biomedical Engineering and the University Senate representative to the BoG, was himself cut off twice during the meeting after asking if President Jonathan Holloway would comment on the testimony from students, staff, and faculty on the effects of deep budget cuts.
Now the BoG could put even harsher limits on what can and can’t be said at their meetings. “There seems to be more administrators at Board of Governors meetings than actual governors,” said Rutgers AAUP-AFT Vice President Rebecca Givan. “Already, the governors barely hear from anyone but management. If they limit that even further, any vestige of democratic governance is eliminated.”
Over 5 percent of unionized employees at Rutgers University have been laid off in the past eight months, amid a global pandemic and economic crisis.
For the administrative staff workers represented by the Union of Rutgers Administrators (URA), the layoffs “have come in small numbers, across the different schools and campuses—not all at once, so you could see their scope, but steadily since spring. All together, they make a big hole in the operations of Rutgers because of the work that we do,” said URA President Christine O’Connell.
And behind each layoff notice is a story like that of URA member Rachel Weissenburger, an alumnus with both a bachelor’s and master’s degree from Rutgers and the assistant director of Business Development and Administration for the Thomas A. Edison Papers, a prestigious project documenting the inventor’s life and work.
“As a single mother, I’m raising two little boys alone, and now I have no job during a pandemic,” Weissenburger said. “I am deeply concerned about continuing to provide for my family. I’m very disturbed by the choices that have been endorsed by a dean [Executive Dean Peter March of the College of Arts and Sciences-New Brunswick] who has shown very little respect to Rutgers and has noted his dislike of New Jersey every time I heard him speak. As a community, Rutgers must do better.”
Adjunct Faculty Cuts
Hundreds of Rutgers teaching faculty have lost their livelihoods since the spring, and others fear they could suffer the same fate. This fall, more than a fifth of the university’s adjunct faculty, known as Part-Time Lecturers (PTL), lost regular courses they had taught previously, some for years.
The consequences of losing classes is devastating for adjuncts, who often piece together a schedule from teaching at two, three, or more schools. But the effects of these cuts are also felt throughout the university and do particular harm to students. PTLs teach one-third of all undergraduate classes. Losing a fifth of them has led to increased classes sizes in some departments and fewer course offerings. When further cuts in Writing Program PTLs were threatened this fall, students initiated a web page with moving testimonials to the importance of adjuncts.
Everyone at Rutgers—from faculty to graduate workers to administrative staff to students—now bears a heavier burden, said Amy Higer, president of the Part-Time Lecturers Faculty Council-AAUP-AFT.
“When Jonathan Holloway arrived here, he spoke of his wish to see Rutgers as a beloved community,” Higer said. “But if you mistreat people, if you lay off dedicated teachers and many other dedicated employees—and if you do that in the middle of a global pandemic, when you have alternatives to layoffs and cuts—one has to ask: what kind of beloved community does Jonathan Holloway have in mind?”
A Voice for Students on the Board of Governors
“Students are the lifeblood of Rutgers,” said Nicholas LaBelle, president of the Rutgers University Student Assembly (RUSA). “You would think, then, that Scarlet Knights would have authority, or at the very least oversight, into how our tuition dollars and fees are spent. You would think students would have a voting voice on the Board of Governors. Sadly you would be mistaken. The chronic lack of inclusion of students, faculty, and other stakeholders in financial matters and other university-wide issues is an unacceptable reality.”
Students have been organizing to get their voices represented among the governors, LaBelle said. In a referendum organized by RUSA, 90 percent of students who cast a ballot supported voting seats for students from the Newark, Camden, New Brunswick, and Biomedical and Health Sciences campuses.
“Nearly all the peer institutions which we aspire to surpass recognize the vitality of student voices by having representation on their highest governing bodies,” LaBelle said. “And overall they benefit from having the voices of students, who know the campus best, helping to navigate the future. Rutgers prides itself on empowering students and valuing the community, but as long as there are no student votes on the Board of Governors, that claim cannot be taken at full value.”
Postdoctoral Associates without a Contract
Postdoctoral associates at Rutgers—many of them researchers on projects funded by large grants from public and private sources—have been working without a contract for nearly a year and a half. Their already too-low salaries are frozen at mid-2018 levels.
Rutgers AAUP-AFT has put forward numerous proposals to come to an agreement, said Althea Pestine-Stevens, a postdoc in the School of Social Work and Executive Committee member of the union’s New Brunswick chapter. “But negotiations have been purposefully slowed down by management, which cancels sessions and arrives unprepared to negotiate at the sessions they do attend,” Pestine-Stevens said. “We presented a new proposal to settle our contract 10 weeks ago, but the administration hasn’t responded, and it called off the last negotiations just before Thanksgiving and made no effort to reschedule.”
Andrés Morera, a postdoc in Molecular Biology and Biochemistry and also a New Brunswick chapter Executive Committee member, said that postdocs “bring in many millions of dollars through grants. We produce the research and innovations that put Rutgers on the map. And we mentor and teach undergraduate and graduate students who go on to do the same.”
“Making us work without a contract and go without any raises will continue to dissuade future potential postdocs and others from coming here to work, which will do nothing to help Rutgers’ success in the long run,” he said.
Protecting Programs That Serve the Community
“In the best of times, HPAE [Health Professionals and Allied Employees] members at Rutgers work to mitigate interlocking societal crises—economic, housing, drug abuse, health care as well as mental health, to name just a few,” said Ryan Novosielski, co-president of HPAE Local 5094, which represents professional staff at several Rutgers campuses and university-wide facilities.
“In this time of rampaging coronavirus pandemic, Rutgers’ HPAE members are making enormous sacrifices to serve clients in some of our most distressed communities,” Novosielski continued. “The university, meanwhile, has laid off numerous workers in various programs, including mental health services. The layoffs are devastating not only the programs but also the morale of staff picking up the additional caseloads.
“While we understand constraints on funding brought on by the pandemic, we want the Rutgers Board of Governors to know that programs undergoing these deep cuts will not be sustainable for long if we don’t restore funding for these vital services.
“As a union, HPAE will use its considerable advocacy with the Murphy administration as well as mobilize our allies in the state legislature to try to restore funding to these programs. We need commitment from members of the Board of Governors that you will also join us in this advocacy to restore these services to the communities that we serve.”
Cuts in Rutgers Libraries
The Board of Governors meeting comes in the wake of an open letter to Rutgers signed by more than 640 faculty, graduate workers, staff, students, alumni, and community members calling for an end to “the regime of disrespect and austerity” in the Rutgers Libraries system across all three campuses. The open letter was released earlier this month with online ads in two campus newspapers: the Daily Targum (New Brunswick) and The Observer (Newark).
“Rutgers libraries are being starved of funds, services are being slashed to students and departments, and library faculty and staff are being disrespected under the current administration,” reads the open letter. “We cannot maintain our status as a Research 1 university, advance in rankings, and attract and retain the finest scholars and researchers if we allow our libraries to decline.”
“We, the undersigned, demand the restoration of funds and services to our libraries and an end to the regime of disrespect and austerity that the current library management has instituted throughout our library system,” it concludes.
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