On Saturday, December 10, the administration at the New School and the part-time faculty union, ACT-UAW Local 7902, released a joint statement announcing that they had come to a tentative agreement, leading to the end of a 25-day strike by the adjunct workers, the longest such work stoppage in U.S. history. It was an undeniable victory for the part-time faculty, which had been supported by a student-led occupation of the university’s main building, 1,500 angry parents threatening a class-action lawsuit seeking a tuition refund, hundreds of academics pledging not to attend any events at the university until the strike was resolved, and media coverage generally favorable to the union.
The current political climate around labor in the U.S. was also a major factor in the workers’ victory, building on the recent wave of labor organizing at Amazon and Starbucks, the generally successful strike of 48,000 academic workers in the University of California system, and the uproar over Congress forcing railroad workers to accept a contract that many members rejected. While the strike at the New School has now concluded, students and some faculty are not done making demands, even if the school administration has proclaimed that the story is over and many in the media have moved on to other news.
As a student pursuing a master’s degree in politics at the university’s New School for Social Research, I experienced the disruption and chaos firsthand. All activity at the school was suspended on November 16, after 97% of part-time faculty voted to authorize a strike. When announcing the strike, the union said in a statement, “The New School’s reputation rests on its progressive history and professed values—a reputation with which its treatment of workers fails to align.” Debate over what this reputation means has always been at the center of the New School. Julia Foulkes, a history professor at the Schools of Public Engagement division, tells the Voice, “Our noble rhetoric has built up expectations that we have not met, may be impossible to meet, and that hypocrisy leads to a festering of complaint, anger, and disillusionment that makes these critical moments even more difficult.”
My professors, who are all tenured, promised not to cross the picket line and expressed frustration over the administration not embodying the values of the university. They told us that we were entering a time of absolute uncertainty, and that we might not see each other again for the rest of the semester. In order not to cross the digital picket line, there would be no communications, assignment uploads, feedback, or grading until the strike concluded.
I admit that, at first, I did not think much of the disruption; I thought that the strike would only last a couple of days, or at least only until Thanksgiving break the following week. Over the course of the next month, it started to dawn on me: I was living in a historic moment for the New School, the labor movement, and the future of academia. In an era defined by the gig economy and the rising precarity in academia caused by a glut of PhDs and too few tenure-track positions, the New School strike represented a major flashpoint in the fight to reform higher education.
The New School is particularly representative in this fight. As an institution that focuses on the humanities and the arts, the New School does not bring in nearly as much federal and corporate funding as do universities that put more of an emphasis on scientific research. Additionally, with its small endowment, the New School is highly tuition-dependent. Its neighbor, New York University, has an annual operating budget of more than $16 billion, compared to the New School’s fiscal year 2023 operating budget of only $454 million. In 2020, 77% of the New School’s total operating budget came from students’ tuition. Additionally, an astounding 87% of its faculty are part-timers, which is unusually high, even considering the trends toward more dependence on adjunct labor in academia since the 1970s. Only around half of NYU’s teaching staff are part-time, on par with the average for private universities.
Leveraging the New School’s legacy as a bastion of social justice and progressivism, the strikers were undeterred in their demands. Right before Thanksgiving, the university presented its “last, best, and final offer” to the part-time faculty. The administration claimed that this offer represented a significant “financial stretch” for the school, with a 7% pay increase in the first year of the contract, which decreased to a 2.5% pay increase in years two through five, and a one-time $2,100 pandemic bonus. The union countered with the fact that, over the life of the contract, the offer represented a pay cut when the rising cost of living is considered. Even more, the union said that the offer represented an “incredibly aggressive union-busting tactic that one would expect from employers such as Amazon, Starbucks, and John Deere, not a progressive, social justice institution like The New School.”
After Thanksgiving, 95% of the union’s membership voted to reject the administration’s offer. Facing the pressure of the semester ending, the New School administration sent an email to all faculty, including tenured professors, threatening to withhold pay if they did not return to teaching and to replace them with outside graders. The union claimed that the administration violated federal labor law because this new requirement was subject to bargaining. The striking part-time faculty, full-time faculty, student body, and New School parents were furious. This was a direct affront to the New School’s legacy of anti-authoritarianism and academic freedom.
On the picket line at University Center, this anger was palpable. Wind rushed down Fifth Avenue as strikers chanted, alternating between “Union busting is disgusting!” and “Who is the New School? We are the New School!” The picketers carried signs bearing characters ranging from SpongeBob and Snoopy to Gnarls the Narwhal, the New School mascot, all condemning the administration for its handling of the strike. On the second floor, large letters mimicking the New School’s proprietary font spelled out NOW OCCUPIED, referencing a student-led occupation of the building in support of restructuring university administration. Every few minutes, a driver coming down the avenue would honk their support. A few feet away, a Village Voice newspaper box sat on the corner.
The Voice has a long relationship with the New School. Two of the paper’s three founders, Dan Wolf and Edwin Fancher, met while standing in line to register for classes, in 1946. They were introduced to the paper’s third founder, Norman Mailer, through a New School professor. Compared to the state of the New School today, still recovering from disruption during the pandemic even before the strike, the late ’40s and ’50s look like one of the university’s golden ages. Veterans of World War II, Wolf (1915–1996) and Fancher (b. 1923) among them, flocked to higher education under the G.I. Bill, as did Mailer (1923–2007), who used the government program to study in Paris.
Like many of today’s students, Wolf and Fancher were drawn to the New School’s illustrious history and progressive aura. The school itself was founded in protest, in 1919, as academics outraged over Columbia University’s requirement of loyalty oaths during World War I sought to build a more liberal institution. Originally conceived as a school that mainly offered continuing education classes, the mission of the university expanded dramatically when its first president, Alvin Johnson, who served from 1922 to 1945, spearheaded a campaign to create the University in Exile, a graduate faculty made up of scholars fleeing fascist Europe in the 1930s. Since then, the New School has sought to revolutionize the social sciences in the United States, centering philosophy and social justice as the heart of the field.
Both the New School and the Voice recognized Greenwich Village as the center of art and culture in New York, and each made exploring innovations in the arts a core component of their identity. When the university was celebrating its centennial in 2019, Fancher was asked how his time at the New School shaped the Voice: “The New School is a very open place intellectually, and that’s the kind of newspaper we wanted to run. The other publications were all straitlaced and rigid and were following a textbook kind of journalism.” This attitude is captured by the tagline of Tomi Ungerer’s line of advertisements for the Voice in the late 1960s: “Expect the Unexpected.”
Firmly rooted in this belief that the New School should embrace the unconventional, the students protesting in December demanded that the university be restructured to be more democratic. The day after the strike concluded, in a town hall organized by Student Faculty Solidarity, a student-led group that has been a critical voice for students, hundreds of my classmates read off their demands. These included the resignation of President Dwight McBride for threatening to fire all faculty refusing not to cross the picket line (a charge leveled at other top administrators as well), a new process for choosing top administrators that requires a majority vote from all faculty and students, more transparent financial records from the university, and a ban on any tuition hikes until 2028. The call for banning tuition hikes is particularly important, considering that the average tuition for full-time students for one year of study is already between $30,000 and $50,000, depending on the program. Speakers discussed the possibility of restarting the occupation in the spring semester after pausing for the holiday break, as well as the threat of withholding tuition to ensure the demands are met.
Although everyone agreed that they were satisfied with the union’s victory of pay raises ranging from 30 to 155% over 5 years (depending on the type of course taught), retroactive raises beginning in the fall 2022 semester, and expanded healthcare eligibility, there was still concern for future students. One speaker explained, “We can’t let students 10 years from now pick up this fight again. We need structural change now.” Another agreed, stating that advantage must be taken of the “unprecedented unity” of the moment, as all six usually disparate divisions of the university (design, performing arts, public engagement, graduate school of social sciences, undergraduate liberal arts, and continuing education) came together over the dispute.
When asked about the students’ demands, Foulkes pointed out some of the barriers to changing the structure of the university, such as “legal restrictions regarding the constitution of the Board, regulations of endowment, or accreditation demands.” Still, she tells the Voice, “I think we only benefit if we listen to students now. Not only what they want to know but how they think the institution should be run. Even if the institution cannot comply with all their demands, we should be able to tell them why.”
Izzy Braham, a classmate of mine in the politics program, felt similarly, noting, “The school was born out of a total transformation in education, and it doesn’t surprise me that it may go through another transformation that will only promote new ways of practicing education. It’s really what the school is all about at its core.”
As a current student, I cannot agree more. Even though the story is not over and there is still uncertainty ahead, the New School, with its incredible legacy, has the capability to be a leading example of how the academy can be organized for the 21st century. ❖
Jackson Todd is studying the effects of technology on labor organizing and social movements. His work has been published in the New York Daily News and People’s World.