Illustration by Ana Rodriguez

Dara Levendosky, a graduate from The New School of Drama with a master’s degree in fine arts in playwriting in 2011, felt that her community “as a student in Drama was tight-knit” because the Bank Street campus was isolated from the main New School community. It wasn’t until she returned and took on multiple duties at The New School for Social Research in 2013 that she felt “more involved in the day-to-day life of TNS.”

When the coronavirus pandemic hit, Levendosky was laid off from one of her roles at NSSR as a Managing Editor for Public Seminar. “Losing the extra money was a huge blow to our household,” Levendosky told the New School Free Press via email.  

Her position as a Senior Secretary of Sociology since then had become her main source of income until October 2 when she was notified by the university that she, along with other 121 university staff members, were being let go as the university struggled with a cash crunch brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Having been laid off twice by The New School within a year, Levendosky wrote “They [The New School] don’t care. Instead of trimming the bloated salaries of senior admins, they cut the people who are barely getting by financially.”

Levendosky and other recently laid-off workers shared their stories at “Solidarity Not Austerity: A Teach-in on Labor and Restructuring at The New School”, an event organized by the New School Labor Coalition that took place on October 6. The event, organized in just three days, consisted of four sessions including the history of spending reductions at The New School, testimonials from laid-off staff, Jazz part-time faculty’s experiences of facing budget cuts, and building a sense of unity. 

Joined by about 300 participants from across campus and all disciplines, the discussions demanded more transparency and data from The New School administration and explored possible countermeasures to the university’s layoff decision and more. By putting 13 percent of its staff members in a vulnerable position during an ongoing pandemic, some participants said that The New School was betraying its values of “equity, inclusion and social justice”. 

“I feel that these layoffs have happened in a way that goes against our social justice values and mission,” Rachel Sherman, chair of the sociology department and one of the event’s organizers and moderators, told the Free Press via email. “We could have pioneered a more egalitarian and community-centered way of thinking about how to face the short-term economic crisis we are in, but the administration chose not to do that.”

As a full-time and tenured faculty, Sherman said she felt the need to speak up about this issue especially because she is protected from layoffs without due process. Sherman, along with others who have shown support for the laid-off staff members, have participated in the teach-in, written and signed letters, voiced their concerns and used social media to raise awareness for this issue.

Julia Foulkes, professor of history at the School of Public Engagement, said in a panel that The New School previously “pioneered the idea of the neoliberal university” that had “very tiny staff, absolutely no full-time faculty” besides a very small portion in the graduate faculty. In the past twenty years however, it has grown to be a more conventional university with the expansion of full-time faculty, staff and students. “Part-time faculty have unionized and tenure has been extended across the university. Those are dramatic changes,” said Foulkes. 

Written circa 1918, the proposal for The New School detailed an institution which “Eliminate[d] presidents and deans and the usual administration revenue and cut the overhead expenses to the minimum.” 

Now, in 2020, the university’s reality paints a different picture. “The determinations about position eliminations were made by the President’s Leadership Team and the College Deans, with a view across the entire university and based on extensive analysis,” according to an FAQ document sent across the university by Interim Provost Stephanie Browner on October 7.

“I think that it’s also very clear that we’ve lost our distinctiveness. Our claims to social justice, interdisciplinarity are just like everyone else,” Foulkes said. 

According to Foulkes, the expansion of full-time faculty, staff and degree-seeking students in the university also means a greater financial obligation and more debt which can be seen from the situation of which the university is in today.

In a university-wide email sent on October 1, President Dwight McBride stated that the operation of the university had not been “fiscally sustainable” and was worsened by the pandemic, bringing about the need for layoffs and a reimagination of the university’s future. Many faculty and staff have called for more transparency and communication regarding The New School’s finances.

Paulo Dos Santos, associate professor of economics at NSSR, spoke about the administration’s decision to refer to an outside consulting group, Huron Consulting, for strategies rather than seeking help from its own economics professors who he said have come to understand the institution through years of teaching. 

Santos said Huron provided a “cookie cutter approach,” overlooking the strengths of a particular institution and asking all universities to adopt the same austerity measures during financial crises. 

“By austerity measures we mean cuts in different areas of spending, typically motivated by the need to deal with debts and deficits. So you use the fact that an organization or a government has ‘too much debt’ or is running a deficit to drive through cuts that would otherwise be difficult or impossible to achieve,” Santos wrote in an email. 

In the panel discussion, Santos also drew attention to the $130 million revenue shortfall that was mentioned repeatedly in FAQs and emails provided by the university. 

Although the school aims to address long-term challenges, Santos questioned “Why are we not given figures about the long-term challenges and difficulties the institution has? Why is it that they always go to 130 million dollars?” 

While this number represents the real deficit, Santos said that sharing it repeatedly also spurs a “divisive discourse to create a sense of emergency.” 

“I’m sure that every single one of you, like me, has been stressed out, nervous, insecure and angry. That is not an accident. That’s a design. That’s what austerity does,” said Santos. “Austerity creates these climates that better get people to comply and agree things that they will otherwise not agree to.”

Sidra Kamran, a sociology student,PhD candidate at NSSR and a student assistant, wrote in an email “If a university’s own Econ department and specialists in higher education who work at the university are criticizing admin [for] making these decisions, proposing alternatives, and demanding data from TNS (that it’s not sharing), what are students supposed to think about what’s going on?” 

Centering on the theme of solidarity, representatives of different organizing efforts weighed in on the main challenge for being the lack of recognition by the university administration.

Laura Liu, associate professor of Global Studies and Geography and one of the AAUP-TNS representatives of NSLC, said the “agile” and “solidarity-minded” NSCL is not being recognized by the administration and urged participants to sign the coalition’s petition which demands a “seat at the table” for discussions with the university.

Zoe Carey, a representative from the student employee union SENS-UAW, spoke about the history of the union struggling to gain recognition from former President David Van Zandt from 2014-2017. Carey credited the winning of a strong contract of wage increases to being in  solidarity with other unions and supporters such as faculty, department secretaries and advisors.  

“Our solidarity is what helped us win our contract and our recognition vote in the first place,” said Carey. 

The event came to an end as panelists encouraged participants to continue supporting the cause by signing a testimonial form and participating in social media efforts. “Share the form or contact any of the union members in any way,” said Liu. 

New School spokesperson Amy Maslin responded to several of the charges, telling the Free Press via email that the university has been open about its financial struggles. 

“The New School has been transparent about the need to take significant steps to put the institution on firmer financial footing,”  Malsin wrote, adding that university leaders have been “open and honest about the financial impact of COVID-19 on The New School and the measures taken to address that impact.”

The university will share a summary of “clear and concise information” which will be available to The New School community on the school website this week,  Malsin wrote, although she did not include whether the university had been in communication with faculty and staff members. 

Malsin also wrote about Huron Consulting’s “dedicated practice focused on higher education” as well as its experiences with “more than 500 colleges and universities.” “Huron brings a breadth and depth of experience, data, and analysis that we simply don’t have internally,” she wrote.

Malsin did not specifically address the lack of recognition for NSLC, but wrote that “President McBride continues to meet with groups across the university and will fully respect and honor the process of collective bargaining and the resulting contracts and procedures that define how we work together, how we make decisions, and how we address concerns.” 

A demonstration organized by the Economic Students Union demands The New School to rescind the decision of layoffs and is scheduled to take place outside of University Center at two p.m tomorrow.

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