Dear President Sexton: About the Strike

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Mr. Lemisch is Professor of History Emeritus, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York.

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"NEW YORK UNIVERSITY'S PRESIDENT warned striking teaching assistants on Monday that those who fail to return to the classroom by December 5 will lose their teaching assignments -- and stipends -- for the spring semester."--Chronicle of Higher Education 11-29-95

To: John Sexton, President, New York University [mailto:john.sexton@nyu.edu]
From: Jesse Lemisch, Professor Emeritus of History, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY [utopia1@attglobal.net]

A word about the GSOC [Graduate Student Organizing Committee] strike, historians, and how NYU looks to the larger world:

It's simply grotesque that a university that seeks to show an advanced and somewhat liberal face to the world should use the retrograde action of Bush's NLRB [National Labor Relations Board] as a basis for an attack on the existence of GSOC. I said to one member of your faculty that your recent email to striking graduate student employees (below) suggested to me that NYU was following a repressive strategy earlier developed by Columbia and its provost, Alan Brinkley (see my History News Network article, "Alan Brinkley: Liberalism in Collapse?"). Your colleague responded that NYU has less in common with the Ivy League than with Wal-Mart. The spreading perception of this shameful behavior is bound to have implications for NYU's faculty and graduate student recruitment and for its general standing in and beyond academe.

I have enjoyed immensely my contacts with GESO at Yale, GSEU at Columbia, and GSOC. I don't have the figures at hand, but it's certainly my impression that history graduate students play a disproportionate role in these unions. I know these people and their work. Let me tell you, President Sexton, these are our very best young people. They are among the most serious and dedicated scholars and teachers I have known in a career that has included Yale, the University of Chicago, Northwestern, SUNY/Buffalo, and CUNY. They have seamlessly welded together a moving and admirable quest for social justice with deep, serious and original scholarship.

It's also germane to mention that the University of Chicago Alumni Association has, in frustration and regret, labeled the classes of 1964-74 the "Lost Classes." These alums are embittered and alienated from their alma mater now -- thirty to forty years later -- because of unprincipled repressive acts committed by the U of C in those days, including political firings and mass expulsions, closely related to what you are now threatening.

Together with others, I will do everything I can within and beyond my discipline to bring attention to your unacceptable behavior -- in the American Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians, the CUNY faculty, and every outlet for publication that I have. A large audience will be watching you closely.

Jesse Lemisch

Message from John Sexton to Graduate Assistants

From: NYU President John Sexton [mailto:office.president@nyu.edu]
Sent: Monday, November 28, 2005 12:21 PM
Subject: A Letter to NYU Graduate Assistants

Dear Graduate Assistants,

Your admission to NYU's graduate programs represents recognition of your potential to be part of the next generation of intellectual leaders, as men and women who will fill the ranks of university faculty throughout the world, as individuals who will lead lives devoted to advanced inquiry. In providing you with financial aid and the opportunities and responsibilities of assistantships, we hope to help prepare you for that life.

We recognize that for some of you there is an unfortunate disparity between the ideal and the reality. In some instances, assistantships have not been structured to accomplish what we want: to enhance professional development. There is always a delicate balance between matching undergraduate curricular needs with the academic and scholarly interests of those who teach; in the case of GAs, we have not always achieved that balance. While this is not true in every department, it is true in some.

Our exchanges with one another have been shaped by this reality and the mistrust engendered by it. We know we must work to bridge the gulf that has developed, and to align our realities with our ideals.

The recent announcement within Arts and Science limiting assistantship responsibilities in languages and literature departments to one stand alone course per semester is a first step. We know we must take others, but these academic decisions are best determined by schools and departments. The University will commit resources in support of these efforts. Moving closer to this ideal, however, will be difficult without restoring an atmosphere of mutual respect and good faith within the University community.

We appreciate that for some GAs a collectively bargained contract, driven by a union, provides a greater sense of security; for them the University's August decision to move ahead without the union was wrong. For them and others, the changes to the student health plan and the errors surrounding Blackboard created doubts about the University's good will, when both of these issues could be understood quite differently in an environment of mutual good faith.

For my part, I will not repeat the challenging history that contributed to the University's decision to work directly with our graduate students rather than through the intermediary of a union. Suffice it to say that we accept that, as we move forward, the burden is on the University to create an environment of trust as we aim to achieve the ideal.

To this end, we propose the following pathway: for all current and incoming graduate assistants, the University will offer written contracts based upon their appointment letters. From our perspective, these commitments already are binding; nonetheless, we will proceed to document them in a manner that makes clear to all that these contracts obligate the University and are legally enforceable. These contracts will detail the terms described last summer, including:
$1000/year minimum increases in stipends for the 2005-06 academic year (already enacted), as well as 2006-07 and 2007-08, plus the publication each April of the next three year's stipends; continued payment by the University of 100 percent of health care premiums for the comprehensive student health insurance plan; and full tuition remission.

But there is more work to be done, and much of it must be driven by graduate students themselves. Since the beginning of the fall semester, two groups of graduate students have set to work on matters of importance to graduate students generally, and graduate assistants in particular.

The Graduate Student Working Group is crafting a rights-and- responsibilities compact that will provide a basis for defining the relationship between graduate students and the University. The Working Group is also formulating a permanent grievance procedure for graduate students to replace the interim procedures presently in place. Some members of the NYU community have expressed concern about the fairness of a grievance procedure that ends with the Provost, a University official.

While we must await the Working Group's proposals, we are open to any suggestions they may have regarding how members from the academy outside the University might play a role in this process.

The Graduate Affairs Committee of the Student Senators Council has also started to address economic and benefit issues affecting graduate students in general and GAs in particular. Again, we must see what this group proposes; were it, however, to offer a new mechanism that would enable graduate assistantselected at the department level to act as representatives of all GAs in annual discussions of stipend levels, health care benefits, and other matters of importance, we would embrace that as part of our university governance procedures.

Lastly, I wish to talk about the strike.

Many GAs have continued teaching, others have taught at off-campus locations, and still others have not been teaching. I believe that those striking have been acting out of conscience. Though I fervently disagree with their decision not to teach, I do not think they made this choice lightly. But however strongly felt a graduate assistant's act of conscience may be, it should not be pursued any longer at the expense of undergraduates.

So far, those who have been on strike have been able to act out of conscience without experiencing consequences for their actions; instead, the burdens have fallen on departments, faculty, and, in particular, our undergraduates. Because graduate assistants are also our students, those on strike have continued to receive their stipends, they have continued to receive free tuition, and they have continued to receive free health insurance.

Their points have been made and heard. The time has come for the University to insist that the academic needs of its undergraduates be met. All of us should share a deep commitment to meeting these needs. Those undergraduates in classes affected by the strike are understandably anxious about the disruption to their studies. Such disruption must not continue. I thank those who have been teaching, and I ask those who have not to return to the classroom.

For those graduate assistants who resume teaching and other assistantship assignments by Monday, December 5th (or the first class meeting thereafter) at the assigned times and places, and who fulfill all assigned responsibilities for the remainder of the semester, including grading, there will be no consequences. These GAs will be eligible for teaching and other assignments by the department for the spring semester. This amnesty represents a balance between our respect for the principled positions of those choosing to strike and our obligation to undergraduates, who have a right to complete their semester?s work and experience no disruption in their courses next semester.

Because we take both responsibilities seriously, graduate assistants who do not resume their duties by December 5 or the first scheduled teaching assignment thereafter ­ while experiencing no consequences for this semester ­ will for the spring semester lose their stipend and their eligibility to teach.

For those graduate assistants who return by December 5th and accept a teaching assignment for the spring, this acceptance comes with the commitment to meet their responsibilities without interruption throughout the spring semester. Absences not approved by the dean will result in suspension from assistantship assignments and loss of stipend for the following two consecutive semesters. Graduating students will be assessed comparably.

None of the striking graduate students will have their ability to continue their own studies affected. In all cases, their tuition and health benefits will remain in place, and where the suspension of stipend would create economic hardship, loans will be provided to students upon their request.

For those who will be satisfied with nothing less than a union, I know it will be a disappointment that the University will not recognize GSOC/UAW as the collective bargaining representatives of NYU?s graduate assistants. I nonetheless hope that we share a goal to make graduate education at NYU better, even if we differ about the vehicle for achieving this, and that we can come together around this goal.

This has been a difficult and rancorous semester. While I do not condone what has been done by those who have been striking, their actions have caused us to take a hard and unflinching look at ourselves and our practices, and these self-examinations will lead to significant, enduring improvements. I hope that in this spirit we can work together to complete the semester and rebuild the trust we need.

John Sexton

Related Links:

Op Ed in NY Daily News by Maggie Clinton, graduate teacher in the history department of New York University

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More Comments:

Tom Sweetnam - 12/12/2005

So internecine bitching and whining within New York University's faculty is President Bush's fault? I had some uneasy suspicions that might the case. I wasn't completely convinced of President Bush's culpability in all of life's miseries at first, but after New York University's faculty blamed Hurricane Katrina on President Bush, and after New York University's faculty blamed the Indian Ocean Tsunami on President Bush, and especially after New York University's faculty blamed the extinction of the dinosaurs on President Bush, well I have to tell you, that pretty much clinched the bastard’s guilt in my mind’s eye. After all Professor Lemisch, who but a fool could argue with what passes for empirical scholarship in this day and age?

Tom L Cox - 12/5/2005

Form a union go out on strike and be replaced. Welcome to the real world.