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Job cuts at Rutgers writing program turns strike anniversary into protest



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Howard Swerdloff, a 14-year veteran of Rutgers University’s Writing Program on the New Brunswick campus, was preparing to celebrate the first-year anniversary of a historic faculty strike that ended with salary and job security wins for him and fellow lecturers — only to learn last week that he would not have a job this fall.

Unlike tenure track faculty, adjuncts are contractual educators without full-time status whose positions are typically renewed annually. At least 29 out of 31 writing lecturers will not be returning to the program in the fall, according to an email sent last Wednesday from Lynda Dexheimer, the writing program’s executive director.

The large and well-known Writing Program teaches one third of the 40,000 undergraduates on campus, according to faculty union, Rutgers AAUP-AFT. Class sizes will be increased beyond best practice limits, union leaders said, putting more workload on lecturers and disadvantaging students. The current class size cap of 22 is “already beyond the maximum set by national academic organizations,” the union said. The unexpected news brought some lecturers, who taught on the New Brunswick campus for decades, to tears at a zoom meeting organized last week. “I had no inkling” of the news, said Swerdloff, lecturer and secretary of the adjunct union of the Rutgers-AAUP, calling it a hard blow for educators whose livelihoods depend on courses they’ve taught for years.

Another colleague who taught for 44 years lost their job, Swerdloff said. Even more “degrading” is that long-serving adjuncts, unlike tenured faculty, cannot avail of services like permanent email addresses as a recognition of their connection to the university.

“What upsets me the most is the idea that when we leave Rutgers or any university that we teach at as adjuncts, it’s like we were never there,” Swerdloff said. “We just disappear. Our e-mail addresses are cancelled. And students who we’ve taught maybe for many years who want to reach us, no more can find us.”

“Its like the rug has been pulled from under our feet,” said Kathleen Wilford, who taught for more than 20 years in the writing program. The news is especially hard for younger adjuncts because they might use this job as a step to full time positions, she said.

Barring freshman sections which might open up after June, there is no hope for contracts being renewed in the fall, according to discussions instructors had with Dexheimer, Wilford said.

“The writing program is not hiring any lecturers for the fall apart from in two specialized courses,” said an email sent Wednesday last week to instructors from Dexheimer.

The email said the decision was linked to new enrollment numbers which the university will have only after incoming freshmen make their admissions decisions in June. “Because the university does not know with certainty the size of the incoming fall class, the dean’s office has asked that we schedule a limited number of first-year courses now until we know more definitively how many sections are needed in the fall,” Dexheimer wrote.

“I will be back in touch with you on or about June 3 after ‘decision day,’ when students must commit to their institutions, with a further update,” the email said.

Changes in student demand

Many advanced writing courses will also be eliminated. Students who are further along in their degrees would be encouraged to take writing-support classes offered in other departments, instead of at the writing program, the email said. “We have been asked to run a much-reduced slate” of courses, Dexheimer wrote.

Student demand, following changes to the writing program curriculum, drove the university’s decision, a university spokesperson in an email.

“In the current semester, sections are significantly under-enrolled, and each year numerous seats remain vacant in courses in other departments that meet the same core curriculum requirements,” the university said.

“Consequently, in consultation with writing program leadership, the School of Arts and Sciences moved to decrease the number of sections currently scheduled for the fall,” the statement said. “Additional writing program sections will be added if necessary to meet student demand.”

Celebration into protest

Celebrations Wednesday afternoon to commemorate gains from a first-ever faculty strike that shut down classes on all three of Rutgers campuses one year ago turned into a protest on the Voorhees Mall on College Avenue, much like last April’s megaphone-led rallies.

Tenure-track and adjunct faculty union members gathered with a group of students to call out university leaders whose cuts to the writing program made many gains from the strike moot for those losing jobs. Writing instructors walked out of the English department offices in Murray Hall at 1:15 p.m. and delivered a petition to the School of Arts and Sciences.

Raises and better job security for adjuncts was a key ask during last year’s strike. Tenured faculty, who typically have much better benefits, picketed alongside adjuncts and committed to “bargaining at one table” to make “a better Rutgers for all,” AAUP President Rebecca Givan said at the time.

The university eventually agreed to a contract that saw adjunct salaries go up by 44% over four years, with increases amounting to almost 30% in the first year for some of the lowest-paid lecturers, union leaders said.

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