BY HANK REICHMAN
For seventeen years Georgette Fleischer taught first-year English, now first-year Writing, at Barnard College in New York. For most of those years she found Barnard a “wonderful place to work. We felt like our work was appreciated, and that meant a great deal,” she told a reporter in September. That changed, however, under the administration of former president Debora Spar when Barnard refused to reappoint her to first-year seminar for the 2014-15 academic year, citing negative evaluations by some of her students. Fleischer tried to file a grievance under the school’s faculty internal grievance policy but was told that as a part-time lecturer she wasn’t eligible to do so because she was not a member of the “faculty.”
On May 16, 2014, the AAUP wrote to Spar pointing out that by denying Fleischer the right to grieve Barnard was in violation of longstanding AAUP-approved principles of due process rights. The AAUP recommended that Fleischer “be retained for an additional academic year with opportunity to appeal the decision that was made.” But it took a law suit and the support of an attorney willing to work pro bono for her to win the right even to grieve. In April 2015 New York State Supreme Court Justice Alexander Hunter ruled that Fleischer was indeed a faculty member and entitled to file a grievance. The decision marked, as the Chronicle of Higher Education noted, “a rare effort by the courts to define adjunct instructors’ status and rights at the colleges that employ them.”
That apparent victory was, however, only the start of Fleischer’s continuing ordeal. By then she had started organizing Barnard Contingent Faculty Local 2110 of the UAW to represent the school’s non-tenure-track instructors. In October 2015 over 91% of Barnard’s contingent faculty who voted chose to unionize. Fleischer was elected to the bargaining committee, receiving more votes than any other nominee. She served in that capacity for 16 months, before resigning in February of this year because she objected to provisions of the proposed contract, including what she saw as weak protection for academic freedom. The contract was signed two months later, but two weeks after that two faculty members on the cusp of becoming post-probationary were dismissed. In May seven long-term members of the local were terminated. Fleischer was among them.
While the other faculty members have apparently accepted severance offers, Fleischer is heroically fighting her dismissal with the support of her union, which filed a grievance under the contract charging violations of articles covering discrimination, academic freedom, and appointments. On August 28, however, Barnard Provost Linda Bell rejected the grievance and the process has moved to arbitration.
On September 12 the union held a counter-convocation protest outside Barnard’s gates. Union President Maida Rosenstein said that the college failed to act “in good faith” when deciding not to rehire Fleischer and the other faculty members. “Though we’re very, very proud of that contract, we’re very disappointed with the college and the actions it took against Georgette Fleischer and other long-term faculty members,” she said. Adjunct English lecturer Sonam Singh told the Columbia Spectator that Fleischer was unfairly discriminated against for her union advocacy. This allegation, as well as the “in good faith” violation, form the basis of the grievance.
Fleischer has shared with me a rebuttal to Bell’s letter denying the grievance in which she points to several weaknesses in Barnard’s case against her. First, although Bell denies that there has been discrimination, Fleischer counters that “there is an open age discrimination case against Barnard College at the New York City Human Rights Commission.” Moreover, she adds, “of six known long-term faculty who were fired in the wake of the contract, five are 50 years old or older, and three are 60 years old or older.”
And while the College claims that an evaluation of Fleischer’s student evaluations “showed a long term pattern of teaching weaknesses,” she responds that these concerns are more about her rigorous grading standards. She adds as well that the college’s criticism of her teaching is belied by, among other evidence, a 2015 comment by her program director that she was “a dedicated and creative teacher” with whom the director looked forward to working on the curriculum. Adds Fleischer,
a review of teaching evaluations for AY2016-2017 indicate that there are two shorter-term faculty members who despite giving much higher grades than I do have teaching evaluations that are really no better than mine and in one case one could argue worse, yet they were asked to return while I was fired after 17 years of service, no fewer than four courses per year.
Unfortunately, Barnard may be trying to gain a victory by dragging out the grievance process. An arbitrator appointed to hear the case has proposed a hearing to commence at the end of April 2018, a year after Fleischer was dismissed. That arbitrator also has a reputation of taking as much as a year after the hearing to publish a decision.
It may well be, however, that Barnard has underestimated Fleischer, a tireless organizer who has gathered support from near and far. Speaking at the September 12 protest were Marc Kagan from the Professional Staff Congress, the AAUP-AFT affiliated union representing faculty at the City University of New York; Cathy Cleaver, Executive Director of the Adelphi University AAUP chapter; and Robert Gottheim from the office of Congressman Jerry Nadler, whose district includes the Barnard and Columbia campuses and who is a Columbia alum (and a member of my class, I might add). Already close to a hundred unique letters calling for Fleischer’s reinstatement have been sent to Barnard President Sian Beilock from unions, Barnard alumnae, parents, students, and colleagues, state legislators and city council members. The New York State Conference of the AAUP has extended its support, as have other AAUP conferences and chapters in Wisconsin, Georgia, and California. More letters are on their way. To join in this effort write to President Beilock at email@example.com.
Union president Rosenstein is hopeful that the college and union can develop a stronger relationship by successfully resolving Fleischer’s case. “We are hoping not to be disappointed by the new President, [and] to see that this new relationship with the college is launched on a better footing,” she told the Spectator.
And, finally, here is a video interview with Fleischer filmed shortly after her grievance was denied:
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