New York City

Barbara Bowen still wants more for CUNY

A Q&A with the outgoing Professional Staff Congress-CUNY president.

Outgoing Professional Staff Congress-CUNY President Barbara Bowen

Outgoing Professional Staff Congress-CUNY President Barbara Bowen Dave Sanders

The City University of New York has been at the forefront of a common struggle in higher education: Public university systems are battling to obtain funding and provide rights and resources for their staff as many states slash education budgets. CUNY leaders have launched the CUNY Rising Alliance and promoted state legislation known as the New Deal for CUNY, which aims to reinvest in CUNY over the next five years. One of the leading figures in this struggle is Barbara Bowen, president of Professional Staff Congress-CUNY, a union that represents some 30,000 CUNY faculty and staff. Bowen is a professor of English at Queens College and the Graduate Center of CUNY. After 21 years leading the union, Bowen did not run for reelection and will be replaced by Brooklyn College professor James Davis this month.

City & State spoke with Bowen about her legacy, what CUNY faculty want and about the New Deal for CUNY. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Can you talk a bit about your accomplishments as Professional Staff Congress-CUNY president?

We took on that belief, explicitly, that the kinds of benefits and supports that are considered typical at other universities would be considered out of the question at CUNY. We took that on and we showed that that is not true. So for example, one thing we negotiated was the equivalent of a full year of full paid research leave for the full-time faculty who are on their way to tenure. That's one thing. We were the first public sector union in New York state to do this, we negotiated paid parental leave for staff or academic staff, as well as faculty.

We also negotiated health insurance for adjuncts who work at CUNY who reach a certain threshold of work levels or a number of hours of employment. And that was a tremendous breakthrough, I mean nothing really is more important than health insurance in this country. 

Those are some of the contractual things that I'm proud of, and I’ll just throw in a couple of the other things. We organized consistently since 2000 against imperialist wars. As a union we felt that that was something we needed to do. The PSC under our leadership has been a consistent and vocal and effective critic of racist policing and police violence. I'm also very proud of the fact that the PSC has taken on, under our leadership, a consistent campaign against the deliberate underfunding of CUNY, by the city and state, and we have named the racist basis of that funding, or that loss of funding, you should say. 

You’ve negotiated wage increases, health insurance for adjuncts and graduate employees and paid parental leave among other things. How do you go about identifying the needs of CUNY and advocating for them, and what important lessons did you learn in your role?

The very first time we went into contract negotiations, we convened scores of working groups to help develop contract demands, and people gathered and studied and brought forward the demands that they felt they had.

We (have) convened various working groups since then to identify demands. Several years ago I put out an agenda for a series of future contracts (related to) what we would try to achieve, and each one was based on our overall sense of demands and also things that we hadn't achieved so far.

Also we have conducted membership surveys that have been very important. Then we've come in with a structural sense that there is a huge structural employment problem in higher education, and that is the reliance on underpaid part-time labor. CUNY is one of the biggest offenders in the country on that issue. We came in with a critique of the employment system in higher education and have struggled to dismantle that system. I would say that we have not succeeded in dismantling that system. We've made some improvements and we've made some real difference in people's lives, but we have not succeeded in transforming the exploitative labor system at CUNY, not entirely.

I know you’ve been involved with the New Deal for CUNY to widen funding streams, improve faculty to student ratios and shore up mental health supports for students. How has that effort been going and how do you hope to see it progress once you leave office?

Well, it's a very exciting effort. Many of our officers and leaders made that happen (and) had the vision … to work with community groups to form a community alliance with us, CUNY Rising Alliance, and to push to get that alliance funded. 

We knew that legislation that ambitious would take a coalition, and also that the legislation itself represents the convergence of the needs of students, of communities, and the faculty and staff. It's not just about our own wages. It's about what CUNY needs, and we came together over many years to develop that.

I'm excited that this year we were able to get the legislation introduced and immediately many, many sponsors jumped on. People want to sponsor, they were excited about it, there is a growing sense of commitment to that legislation in Albany, and of course I want to see it pass. I want to do everything I can to help to get it to pass, whether I'm president of the PSC or a rank-and-file member.

What do you hope for in terms of the union’s future?

Well, I hope it will go from strength to strength. I'm excited about the new leaders. I think it's a very important moment for unions, so I hope to see, with a slightly more progressive shift in mainstream politics and democratic politics, the PSC … crack the problem of funding for CUNY. We know that some of these campaigns take a long time, so I'd love to see the transformation of CUNY funding come to fruition. I'll be excited to see the new energy and different perspective that new leaders bring.

What will you be doing after you step out of your role?

I plan to go back to teaching at CUNY. I've always loved teaching, it's really all I ever wanted to do, and I'm excited about going back to teaching, so I'll be a rank-and-file member. I've been active in unions before I came to CUNY, and I'm sure I'll continue being active beyond being the PSC president. I want to be supportive in any way I can. We have a tradition in our union of previous principal officers continuing to be active and supportive, and I really look forward to that. 

Update: This story has been updated to reflect the most recent union membership number.