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interviews

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© Frank

interviews

#CutCovidNotCUNY

by Kelsey Chatlosh
May 4, 2020

This interview with Kelsey Chatlosh, a cultural anthropology Ph.D. candidate and Digital Fellow (alumna) at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York, was conducted and condensed by frank news.

Kelsey Chatlosh: My name is Kelsey Chatlosh and I am a 6th year PhD student at the City University of New York Graduate Center. I am also an adjunct instructor. This semester I am teaching three different courses, 104 students total, at Brooklyn College within CUNY.

frank: Pre-COVID, there's a history of organizing on the CUNY campus.

Yes. Last year there was a movement called $7K or Strike. It was an effort for adjunct professors to make 7k per course they taught. With the concessions made, it ended up resulting in much less per course, with a slow increase over the years. And then there is organizing that happens within PSC, our union. Though I was not really involved in previous efforts when I was teaching less while working another job or fellowship, it does seem like a lot of the structure that exists now is as a result of these past efforts.

What is happening now? How did the most recent proposed cuts change your participation?

Brooklyn College has proposed cutting classes by 25%. Other campuses have not yet made similar proposals, but we know cuts are happening there too. From what I know, Brooklyn College is suggesting the most drastic measure out of all the campuses. President Michelle J. Anderson and other top administrators at Brooklyn College have a particularly fiscally conservative perspective.

So I guess it became personal. I am concerned about losing my primary source of income. A lot of us within the anthropology department also depend on these jobs as our primary source of affordable health insurance. A lot of us are concerned about qualifying for unemployment because it becomes really complicated to apply as a graduate student and an adjunct professor. And, even if we do qualify, New York is obviously already overrun with unemployment claims right now.

We are in the midst of a global pandemic in one of the places that has been hit the hardest, and we are at university where our students are being disproportionately affected. A lot of our students are people of color, a lot of our students are first generation students, a lot of our students have immigration status. The cuts directly affect adjuncts and our income and our health insurance and so forth, but it's also about the effects that the cuts would have on students. Cuts will negatively affect their education and their support networks.

It was kind of a combination of things that really pushed me to get involved. Also, the tenured faculty and the tenure track faculty within the anthropology department let us know that cuts were coming as soon as word got out. They started meeting with us on a weekly basis to organize and strategize what we were going to do, and how we are going to fight for these things, which I am really grateful for. They also encouraged us to begin meetings just among the adjuncts. We organized our first adjuncts-only departmental meeting last week and now plan to meet weekly among just us too. It’s a lot of time and work, which leads to more work as we take on more projects together, but I have a lot of faith in this space we are making. I think it would be really fruitful if adjuncts created their own organizing space in every department.

What does organizing look like on campus now? And what are you seeking?

There are a lot of different pieces at play when it comes to this sort of organizing at CUNY. There are a few different organizations. In addition to our union, the two active ones that I am most familiar with are FREE CUNY and Rank and File. The two groups work together, but they are separate groups. 

Free CUNY has their own set of demands on a change.org petition and that has been very widely shared recently. They are a group that has been mostly organized by a set of really incredible undergraduate and graduate students. These are the demands from their current petition:

  1. Emergency city/state/federal funding and billionaire tax to heal CUNY. 
  2. Allow all of CUNY to learn and work remotely, and provide free online learning resources to all CUNY students, faculty, and staff. 
  3. Free food, healthcare, and housing to all CUNY students, faculty, and staff. 
  4. Free childcare to all CUNY students, faculty, staff in need. 
  5. Full refund of Spring 2020 tuition and fees with no penalties.

There is also Rank and File action, which is a group that splintered off at some point from the mainline of PSC, our union. They operate as a group within the union that is more militant. They also have five demands that have been posted on twitter:

  1. No unsafe work. Let all workers stay home with full pay until it’s safe to return. 
  2. No layoffs or non-reappointments. No challenges to unemployment claims. 
  3. Lower enrollment minimums and course caps to protect jobs and serve students. 
  4. Time worked = time paid. Compensation for hours spent transitioning to remote labor. We own all materials we produce for online work. 
  5. Restore in-person teaching as soon as it’s safe. Ensure accessibility for all.

And then of course there is also the Brooklyn College PSC. Each campus has its own division of the union. They started a petition, the title of which is "Keep Everyone at Brooklyn College Working at Fight for Full Public Funding at CUNY." Their main targets are Chancellor Félix V. Matos Rodríguez, the CUNY Chancellor, and President Michelle J Anderson, the president of Brooklyn College.

Additional key groups include CUNY Struggle (featured in Teen Vogue), and the Adjunct Project based out of the Graduate Center. And the CUNY Rising Alliance and University Student Senate (USS) CUNY--which invited me to present at their press conference together this Wednesday. 

cutcovid

What has your involvement looked like personally?

So far, I have sat in on meetings for both of those groups and the PSC chapter meeting, but mostly I am organizing with other folks in my department. Actually an adjunct in our department came up with the hashtag #CutCovidNotCUNY and the text of the Brooklyn College PSC petition was drafted by another set of professors, so we work in and between the different groups and the union.

The main demand from us as adjuncts within the anthropology department right now is to resist the 25 percent cuts to classes at Brooklyn College for the fall semester. It is both to keep our jobs and to address the effects that those cuts would have on students and the resources that they have access to. We are also fighting the proposed increase in class sizes set to begin along with those cuts.

This said, we look forward to doing more outreach, involving more Brooklyn College adjunct instructors as well as tenure track and tenured instructors, engaging more students, and bridging efforts across CUNY campuses. We also plan to reach out to the DC-37 union that includes more CUNY workers, other organizations of public workers in NYC, and adjunct and graduate student unions and activist groups across the country -- #HigherEdWorksBecauseWeDo

Funding from the state is 21% less per student than it was 10 years ago – displaying a continuous underfunding of education and educators. 

I think it is a testimony to the neoliberalization of the state. It is a testimony to the idea that the economy is the most important thing. We continue to see these policies that put profit over people at a national level and a state level, and this is no different.

Beyond all of our immediate demands, there is a larger issue at stake that we are all aware of. We know that this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to cuts to CUNY, and when it comes to austerity in New York City.

We are rejecting the logic of austerity that Governor Cuomo is pushing.

The idea that there is no money, so what are we going to do. There is a lot of money here in New York City. We have some of the most millionaires in the country. When the question of where the money is going to come from comes up, the answer is that we need to tax the rich. We are a public university. CUNY used to be free.

Do you feel solidarity between students and teachers at the moment?

Certainly within these organizing spaces I see a lot of solidarity between students and teachers. Again, Free CUNY is made up of undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty. I think you see student teacher solidarity in the classroom as well, it just really depends on the professor and their teaching style and politics.

This moment has shown a lot about student teacher solidarity or lack thereof on the part of the teachers in terms of the grading. Once the severity of the crisis became apparent, and the intensity of it hitting New York became apparent, a lot of professors decided to change their syllabus and make assignments shorter or optional. Many of us also decided that all of our students are going to get A's for our class. That has been a really big moment of solidarity between students with teachers in terms of understanding the stakes. Of course some professors have assumed that because everything is cancelled, students should have more time on their hands, and as such have increased the work-load, but I think that is really awful.

In my experience, I feel like I've gotten closer to students. All of my students now have my cell phone number. I have so many students that it has honestly been hard to keep track how they're doing. But they know that if they really need to reach me they can via text and I'll respond.

I have students who are home and are able to focus a lot of time on school. But I also have students who have lost very close friends or family members. I have students who were or are sick with the covid-19 virus. I have students who have kids at home who are using all the tablets and computers. I have students who are essential workers themselves. The main thing, I think, is to remember that at CUNY, these are mostly working class students, and students of color, and we have seen that the impacts of this virus, due to structural and historical reasons, have had the greatest impact on the working class and people of color.

You mentioned you're worried the ethnic studies courses would be the first to go. Why?

I'm trying to think of what I can say on record. These are things I have heard through the grapevine, so they are not necessarily facts. I have heard from other people that not all department chairs were told that they needed to make 25% cuts. I heard, for example, that computer science wasn't asked to make cuts at Brooklyn College. I think the reason that there is concern around classes within the Africana and Puerto Rican and Latino Studies departments being cut is because historically they are the ones who have been first on the chopping block. The courses that are electives and electives taught by adjunct faculty, and the classes that the conservative president may see as less valuable and less directly translatable into getting students jobs, tend to be classes that focus on social issues of race and gender. This includes humanities and humanistic social sciences courses that focus on these topics as well.

Are optimistic about what comes out of all of this? 

I kind of wrestle with optimism. As someone who is anti-capitalist, I wrestle a lot with optimism especially during times like these. It is an incredibly awful crisis that, again, has really intensified inequality, historical inequalities in the United States and of course on a global level as well. Sometimes it's just unbearably devastating, but other times you can see a new consciousness starting to emerge. More folks are arguing for policies that often got negatively labelled as socialist, especially within a US context. That the idea of a universal basic income and the idea of universal healthcare are spreading more and more.

I am new to these organizing spaces, so I don't think I have the longer term perspective to really speak to larger trends. I do know that there were over a hundred people at the Rank and File town hall meeting last week and over two hundred fifty at the last PSC Brooklyn chapter meeting. The people who were organizing those meetings seemed very excited about increased involvement. And I am a testament to that. I am someone who was not organizing in this specific space, and now here I am, and I am really dedicated to that. I know a lot of people within the anthropology department who are newly activated and engaged as well.

As a person, I tend to oscillate between devastation and hope. But as Mariame Kaba said, “hope is a discipline.” I try to remind myself of that. We need hope in order to continue organizing, to continue to try and make things better, to continue to try to see the possibility for an alternate world for the working class and for what Sylvia Wynter has called a “praxis of being human,” in which we are all truly free. A world that is against capitalism, against white supremacy, against coloniality, against the patriarchy. So I try to hold on to that, but sometimes it's hard, especially when the circumstances are this extreme.