A Report from President Garrell’s Town Hall: Implications for Our Union Chapter

On December 14, Graduate Center president Robin Garrell hosted a town hall event via Zoom. The webinar format did not conform to our usual expectations of town hall-type events, virtual or in-person: questions were pre-screened, chat was disabled, and we couldn’t see each other – only the president and her advisors. Technological constraints often necessitate this restrictive approach in large online meetings, although the recent launch of the “New Deal for CUNY” – attended by over 500 people – indicates that more interactive formats are possible.

In any event, President Garrell and her team provided staff, students, and faculty with some important updates on the future of the Graduate Center. Because their comments were not recorded, we are relaying the newsworthy points here.

Regarding health insurance, President Garrell shared concrete figures with us for the first time. According to the calculations of the Graduate Center’s healthcare working group, a shameful 30% of students – 727 – are not currently guaranteed the New York State Health Insurance Program (NYSHIP). The cost of making these students workers eligible – i.e., salary plus premium costs – would be $5.8 million per year. This sum, the president did not hesitate to remind us, exceeds the $700,000/year set aside for NYSHIP coverage in our collective bargaining agreement. Of course, we need access to these calculations in order to evaluate their accuracy. Meanwhile the funds set aside through the 2019 contract is unused recurring and lump sum money available now.

Significantly, President Garrell stated that she was putting together a plan, albeit insufficient, for expanded NYSHIP access and there was no longer the suggestion of putting this money towards a measly stipend out of which graduate students would be told to find health insurance on their own. This reflects the sustained joint work of our chapter together with the Full and Fair Funding group to guarantee equitable health insurance through NYSHIP coverage to all doctoral students at the Graduate Center.  We have repeatedly raised this during Labor-Management meetings, circulated an Open Letter for Universal Doctoral Student Health Insurance and worked with faculty organizations at the Graduate Center calling upon President Garrell to prioritize the issue.  Nevertheless, the president maintains that universal health coverage for doctoral students is too expensive under present fiscal conditions even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. The fight, therefore, must continue and escalate.

From the perspective of reopening and health and safety, we also received valuable data. We learned that the Graduate Center has tracked and traced cases since August 1 and recorded one case on December 7. That person, a contractor, is now quarantined. We also learned that, once the Graduate Center building more fully reopens (still not expected in the spring), the threshold for a 2-4 week closure would be 5 cases. The Graduate Center continues to issue daily COVID reports to the New York State Department of Health. Our representatives on the Graduate Center reactivation committee and our health and safety watchdogs have consistently pushed the administration for vital information throughout this semester, and their constant presence in discussions about reopening has been a formidable line of defense for everyone in our workplace. Our October statement on library reopening also emphasized our overall commitment to the principle of cross-title solidarity.

The issue of graduate assistant workloads received relatively brief mention. However, we did learn that Dean of Sciences Josh Brumberg – whose record on workload issues is relatively positive – has been advancing discussions with GC program executive officers and other CUNY campuses over reasonable workload standards. We have our own conception of what these standards should be, and we won’t wait for Dean Brumberg to solve the problem for us. Throughout the fall, we have documented and protested workload increases in labor-management meetings, and worked with our department stewards to examine the scope of the problem and organize our response. This campaign will continue in the spring: We cannot and will not allow graduate students to become pawns in CUNY’s increasingly brutal game of adjunct layoffs and oversized Zoom classrooms across the university.

Finally, two issues on which we learned absolutely nothing new or useful: first year international students and the budget. The GC administration is holding fast to the view that first-year international students must stay outside the United States without stipends or salaries because they cannot legally enter the country for online-only academic programs. These students, along with staunch faculty advocates and members of our chapter’s executive committee, have pushed for the solution of safe, minimalist, hybrid-in-name-only curricula that would permit entry and payment. Notwithstanding the positive fact that first year international students are still guaranteed their funding when they can, eventually, enter the country, the administration is remaining stubborn. A highly concerning survey of broader international student experiences at the Graduate Center has also been reviewed by the GC administration, but so far with little in the way of a concrete response.

Meanwhile, the budget is – as Talking Heads would say – the same as it ever was: a big mess. The state government is withholding 20% of CUNY’s overall allocations, and the Graduate Center is essentially having to budget month-to-month. Although this is obviously a difficult predicament for GC administration, we need much more concrete information on and participation in the budget process; real evidence of GC leadership fighting for us at CUNY Central and in Albany; and solid commitments to cuts – if they must come – coming from the top, not the bottom.

If you attended the town hall and you think this summary missed something important, let us know. To become involved in our ongoing and future campaigns as we move into the New Year,   complete this short form.

Happy holidays!
The PSC-GC Executive Committee.

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