Columbia Unbecoming

Columbia Unbecoming

An internal memo urges retaliation against graduate students who want a union.


In recent months, a growing chorus of conservative critics has decried the existence of a liberal orthodoxy on college campuses and called for new measures to safeguard students’ free speech. Curiously, however, these critics are silent regarding the free speech rights of graduate student employees, including teaching assistants (TAs) and research assistants (RAs) who have been trying to hold union elections and have been censored by their university employers. In recent years, in fact, Columbia, Tufts, Penn, Brown and other prestigious private colleges have responded to student organizing drives with tactics that can only be described as profoundly illiberal and undemocratic.

At Columbia, where the students just concluded a weeklong strike in tandem with their brethren at Yale, a previously undisclosed internal memo (just obtained by The Nation–download here) reveals that the administration has been flirting with union-busting tactics that go well beyond anything an academic institution should contemplate. The memo, dated February 16, 2005, is signed by none other than Alan Brinkley, a well-known liberal historian who is now serving as Columbia’s provost. Brinkley has gone out of his way to assure outside observers, including New York State Senator David Paterson, that “students are free to join or advocate a union, and even to strike, without retribution.” Yet his February 16 memo, addressed to seventeen deans, professors and university leaders, lists retaliatory actions that might be taken against students “to discourage” them from striking. Several of these measures would likely rise to the level of illegality if graduate student employees were covered under the National Labor Relations Act.

Such measures include telling graduate student teachers and researchers who contemplate striking that they could “lose their eligibility for summer stipends” (i.e., future work opportunities) and also “lose their eligibility for special awards, such as the Whitings” (a prestigious scholarship and award program). Yet another proposal cited in the memo would require students who participated in the strike “to teach an extra semester or a year” as a condition for receiving their scholarly degree.

It’s unclear whether Columbia’s deans and department chairs ever deployed any of these punitive measures–or threatened to deploy them–during the most recent strike, where hundreds of students, joined by other union sympathizers, participated in rowdy demonstrations along Broadway. But the fact that Brinkley proposed such illiberal tactics is itself highly revealing. It suggests that, when it comes to the universities’ current administrations, the conservatives have it wrong.

True, college professors in the United States overwhelmingly vote Democratic. But it is hard to make the case that the governance of these institutions–most of whose trustees and regents have backgrounds in business, not education–can be classified as “liberal.” In fact, in recent years, most major universities have adopted a corporate cost-cutting model–predicated on the elimination of full-time professorships and the downsizing of teaching–that is anathema to the academic culture.

Nowhere has this new, corporate style of management been more evident than at Columbia. Just over three years ago, Columbia’s graduate students held a union election, which was sanctioned by the National Labor Relations Board. (In 2000, the NLRB issued a landmark ruling granting graduate student employees at private universities the right to unionize. Students at public universities have enjoyed those rights since 1969.) Columbia, which hired one of the nation’s foremost union-busting law firms to represent it, filed a federal appeal which caused the students’ ballots to be impounded. Then, in 2004, a new Republican-dominated NLRB reversed its earlier pro-union ruling and rescinded graduate students’ right to unionize. This left the students with few options except to strike.

Columbia has consistently argued that graduate students are apprentices, not employees, making collective bargaining inappropriate. This position is shared by nearly every private university, including Brown, Tufts and Penn (student election ballots were impounded prior to being counted on these campuses, as well). Yet the private universities’ argument flies in the face of reality. Graduate students no longer feel like apprentices who are being mentored to join a scholarly guild. A generation ago, when these students could look forward to full-time careers in academia, their years of training, heavy teaching loads and low pay were tolerable. Now they increasingly feel exploited: Most are acutely aware that their chances of finding a secure full-time position in academia are slim. Worse, they know that by allowing universities to exploit their cheap labor, they are helping to eliminate the very full-time positions for which they are purportedly being trained. Today, roughly 50 percent of the faculty in higher education teach on a part-time, contingent basis. A remarkable 60 percent of all new faculty appointments are “off the tenure track,” meaning that professors are ineligible for tenure and have only short-term contracts. So it should not come as a surprise that informal lists of signatures–verified by New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer and Connecticut Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz–indicate strong majorities of graduate students at both Columbia and Yale do support a union.

Ironically, although conservatives continue to see liberalism as the bogeyman, the rise of a corporate labor model in higher education may pose a far greater risk to academic freedom and free speech. Historically, let’s not forget, the leaders of the academic freedom movement recognized that the only way to prevent corporate trustees and other outside interest groups from violating the free speech rights of their professors was to establish a system of faculty self-governance, peer review and long-term job security. Otherwise, any professor who voiced unconventional or unpopular views was extremely vulnerable to getting fired.

Viewed through this lens, the unionization campaigns at Columbia, Yale, Brown, Harvard, Penn and other institutions may be the last, best hope for stopping administrators from imposing a corporate labor model on universities that erodes faculty power–and with it academic freedom.

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