When the COVID-19 pandemic forced the closing of campus on March 10th, we responded, together with every other member of the campus community, with remarkable speed and efficiency to ensure a continuity of service and instruction for our students. While there have been hiccups along the way—how could there not have been?—we have played a critical role in making sure that the majority of students enrolled in classes will be able to finish the Spring 2020 semester successfully, regardless of whether those classes were taught by members of the NCCFT or the AFA. As I have said before, that is no small achievement. We should be very proud of ourselves.
Looking beyond the end of this semester, however, beyond the summer and beyond even Fall 2020, we need to face the fact that the changes we’ve made to achieve this success will not be temporary. It’s not just that we need to prepare for the likelihood that the college will be in “remote mode” for the entire fall semester; it’s that the college will need—it will, in fact, be negligent if it does not—build into how it does business the capacity to switch to “remote mode” even more quickly and efficiently than we did it this time, should the need arise again. The technological, pedagogical, and organizational changes this preparedness requires also requires us to embrace new ways of doing things, including the acquisition of new skills and a willingness to accept as an inherent part of our job the increased workload that comes with preparing classes for and then, if necessary, delivering online and/or remote instruction.
We—the NCCFT Executive Committee—are right now in discussion with the college about a variety of MOAs that will address the specific circumstances arising from what we had to do to make things work for this semester. We are very aware, however, that the larger “ask” the college has already made of us (see President Williams’ April 28th email) comes at a time when our contract is expiring and it is therefore possible we will be working without a contract in the fall. We have already communicated the untenability of that position to the administration.
That said, we also want to assure you that the negotiation process continues. The pandemic may have scuttled the schedule we made with the college’s legal representatives at our first meeting back on March 8th, but your Negotiating Committee is still hard at work. On April 20th, as per Section 67 of our contract, we met with VP of Finance Julio Izquierdo to discuss the college’s proposed budget for the 2020-2021 academic year, which he and Dr. Williams first presented to the Board of Trustees’ Capital and Finance Committee on April 14th. (The video should start playing at the beginning of the presentation.)
This is a proposed budget, so some of the figures in the final, approved budget may turn out to be different—depending, for example, on what our enrollment numbers actually are—but we have no doubt that the underlying logic driving the budget will remain the same: ((In fact, at its meeting last night, after I finished writing this post, the Board of Trustees passed a revised budget which included a $100 tuition increase, as well as some other adjustments. Nonetheless, the logic driving the budget remains unchanged. We will, of course, post the videos of both the meeting of the Capital and Finance Committee and the Board’s public session as soon as they become available.))
- that any drop in enrollment/FTEs caused by COVID-19 will only exacerbate a problem that goes back at least 10 years, the starting point for a 43% decline in FTEs;
- that increasing revenue to close the budget gap by drawing down the fund balance is not a viable option;
- that, even with a tuition increase, the only place in the budget where the college can realize savings substantial enough to close the gap is salaries and fringe benefits.
Add some additional factors and you begin to see more clearly the potentially devastating financial outlook the college is facing:
- a flat state contribution that will not be adjusted, as it was last year, for any decrease in FTEs;
- the widespread expectation that the state budget office will decrease SUNY funding in one of the near future budget review quarters (see this email from Professor Ethel Weeks for some additional context);
- Nassau County’s assumption that county homeowners will not be able to pay their taxes as a result of the pandemic, thereby delaying the transfer of county money to the college;
- the fact that the revenue from the federal CARES Act cannot be factored into the budget since that money must earmarked for COVID-related expenses and at least half of it must be made in direct grants to students.
It has always been the college’s practice to budget for the worst case scenario and hope for the best (which in this case would mean, at the very least, a substantial uptick in fall enrollment, as students who stay home seek out alternative educational opportunities). This practice makes the budget process frustrating for the NCCFT because the burden of worst-case-scenario budgets inevitably falls most heavily on terms and conditions of employment. The current budget cycle, however, is the first one since Donald Astrab was our president during which we have had to discuss with the administration the very real possibility not only that they would be laying people off, but that they would try to circumvent Section 48 of our contract and start laying off full-time faculty immediately. (According to Section 48, they have to start with the adjuncts.) Even one layoff, of course, is one too many, but the number the administration put on the table in the conversations I had with them was absolutely unacceptable under any circumstances.
I let the college know that if they tried to circumvent our contract they would be in for a legal battle that would likely keep them tied up in court for years. I also pointed out that the layoffs they were contemplating were in direct violation of Section 18006 of the CARES Act, which states that any “institution of higher education [that] receives funds under the ‘Education Stabilization Fund’, shall to the greatest extent practicable, continue to pay its employees and contractors during the period of any disruptions or closures related to coronavirus.” We would, I assured them, take them to court over that as well.
In response, the college put on the table the early retirement incentive (ERI) announced last night at the May 12th Board of Trustees meeting. This, they said, would constitute their best effort not to lay people off, which I feared meant that if I didn’t accept their offer, they could argue they were off the hook as far as the CARES money was concerned. Such a move, at the very least, would leave the sixteen members on temporary lines, as well as those members on probationary lines, at risk for termination based on budgetary concerns, as per their letters of appointment.
The choice before me was simple: negotiate the best ERI I possibly could—not only for those who might take it, but also for the union as a whole—or call the administration’s bluff and, essentially, gamble with the livelihoods of a substantial number of our members. Especially given the current state of the economy, the latter course of action was unacceptable to me and so I negotiated the package the administration has put before you, including a formula for replacing those members who decide to retire. While the formula may not be ideal, the administration made it clear there was no more room to negotiate. At the very least, however, this language opens the door to replacing lines the college would be under no obligation even to consider if people retired without the incentive.
In the end, it seemed to me far more humane to offer those members already considering retirement an opportunity to leave, rather than putting other members in a position where they might be forced to have to leave. This is why I signed the early retirement MOA that is linked to in several places throughout this post.
If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact the NCCFT Office.