A Long-Overdue Open Letter to John Sexton

Dear President Sexton,

As an alumna of New York University (Ph.D. English, 1998), I receive the usual set of appeals for donations, both from the university’s annual giving fund and from other fundraising bodies within NYU. In the past, I have given, not much, but happily–both to the Friends of Bobst Library and to the annual fund–but I feel it is important to let you know why, until things change, my response to any and all such appeals will be not just “no” but “hell, no.”

I was admitted to NYU in 1993, as a post-master’s Ph.D. student. I was given absolutely nothing in the way of funding during my first year–no fellowship, no assistantship, no tuition remission. Poor advising and a real desire to be in New York led me to make a decision I now counsel all of my undergraduates against–I enrolled anyway, supporting myself through that first year on loans and freelance work. Because of this decision, I graduated from NYU $21,000 in debt, a debt that was accumulated at your institution alone.

That I managed to hold my debt to $21,000 was due in part to the teaching position I applied, interviewed, and was hired for in the Expository Writing Program (EWP) in 1994. At EWP, instructors–all of us post-master’s Ph.D. students, from across the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences–taught two courses a semester. This is, of course, the same teaching load as that of full-time faculty at NYU. These were, furthermore, student-contact intensive positions, as we were teaching required first-year writing courses, and we instructors thus spent countless hours not simply in the classroom, in class preparation, or in grading, but in student conferences, in faculty development programs, and in the evaluation of required writing proficiency exams. For this work, we instructors were given tuition remission (those of us still doing coursework, in any case) and a stipend of less than $10,000 per year.

In New York City. For more than forty hours of work per week. Less than $10,000.

Needless to say, nearly all of us held down a second job as well, simply in order to eat. Many of my colleagues picked up teaching at other institutions around the city; some worked in publishing; others did tutoring or worked corporate jobs. All of this, of course, in addition to both being full-time graduate students and to teaching a full 2-2 load. I was lucky enough to find freelance work in electronic publishing, work that has not only helped me in my career since graduation, but that was sufficiently highly-paid that I was able to make ends meet.

In fact, during my fifth and final year at NYU, as I was on the academic job market, my freelance work had become lucrative and enjoyable enough that I decided to leave EWP. I made nearly $60,000 that year. (Of course, I took a significant pay cut when I landed an assistant professorship. But that’s another story.) More importantly, I spent no more than 40 hours per week working for pay, freeing up many hours for my own work. Given that ability to maintain better control of my time, I was able to finish my dissertation that year, spending a total of a year and a half on it.

The point of all of this history is to make clear exactly how the treatment of graduate instructors and teaching assistants affects their lives. All of us struggled to make ends meet. Most of us graduated in serious debt, debt that our future salaries–if we were lucky enough to land full-time professorial positions–would not easily cover. And many of us were put in the position of having to sacrifice our own studies, our coursework, our exams, and our writing, to our teaching. If we did so, it was because it was our job to do so, as employees engaged in the core mission of the institution–the education of undergraduates.

Things changed somewhat after I graduated: the English department moved toward a policy of accepting only those Ph.D. students to whom it could grant funding, for one thing. And the graduate students organized, and won recognition for their union (the Graduate Student Organizing Committee, or GSOC), successfully bargaining for a contract that dramatically improved their working conditions. I was enormously proud to have graduated from the first private U.S. university to recognize and bargain in good faith with its graduate employees union, and I was thrilled to think that students who followed behind me might not have to make the same difficult choices that I did, compromising the quality of their studies or taking on insupportable debt in the pursuit of a degree.

This pride made it all the more heartbreaking when it became clear that you were going to take advantage of the National Labor Relations Board’s politically motivated 2005 ruling in order to refuse contract-renewal negotiations with GSOC, and that, worse, you were going to use ugly strike-breaking and retaliatory tactics in an attempt to bust the union. That you still, months later, refuse to negotiate with the graduate employees, even when urged to do so by both U.S. Senators from your state, is an appalling display of pigheadedness on your part, and begins to suggest to me that NYU has become less educational in function–that “private university in the public service” that I put myself in debt to attend–than, as detailed by NYU Exposed, a giant corporation, one working to undermine job security through an increasing turn to underpaid adjunct labor, while simultaneously (and underhandedly) overcompensating its senior executives.

I did not go $21,000 in debt and work two full-time jobs in order to receive my doctorate from Wal-Mart.

With this letter, I want to add my voice to the many others, including not only many of your own faculty but also thousands of professors and graduate students around the world, as well as untold numbers of sympathetic citizens, urging you to resume good-faith negotiations with GSOC.

But I also want to note, very clearly, that until such time as you do, what modest donations I would have made to the university will instead be sent to the GSOC Strike Hardship Fund. Moreover, I’m going to urge my fellow alumni to do the same. And I will advise my undergraduates, 75% of whom go on to grad school in some form, not to apply to or attend NYU. They will certainly receive a better educational experience at an institution that values their labor appropriately.


Kathleen Fitzpatrick
Associate Professor of English and Media Studies
Pomona College

P.S. A video detailing the history of the GSOC’s strike can be found here.

3 thoughts on “A Long-Overdue Open Letter to John Sexton

  1. wow. it’s actually really appropriate that i stumbled upon this… i sent you an email asking about grad school earlier this morning and decided to visit your site to see how you’ve been. i’ve been seriously looking into nyu’s grad programs (lately, i’ve been most interested in the m.a. in visual culture)… but it seems like i should reconsider. thanks for the heads-up. i should talk more with you about this.

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