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Columbia University Has Lost Its Way

The Ivy League institution’s approach to the contract negotiations with its grad student workers reveals how it has evolved into a predatory business.

Katherine Franke

January 18, 2022

Students and faculty members of Columbia University rally at the sundial on campus to speak out against recent threats of retaliation against striking workers.(Karla Coté / SIPA USA via AP Images)

When Columbia University celebrated its 250th anniversary in 2003, President Lee Bollinger honored Columbia’s history and special place in society as “one of the leading institutions of higher learning in the world.” He noted that a university’s purpose in cultivating “democratic personalities” in our students and the wider society is grounded in “a spirited curiosity coupled with a caring about others (the essence of what we call humanism).” A great university, he observed, serves as a humanistic counterpoint to “more often cited interests in property and power, around which we organize the economic and political systems.”     

Today, it is hard to deny that Columbia has lost its way.

The recently concluded negotiations between Columbia University and its graduate students/workers, ending a months-long strike by PhD students, serves as an object lesson in how the modern, private university no longer embodies the higher calling touted by Bollinger. Columbia’s approach to the contract negotiations with the grad students reveals how it has evolved into a kind of predatory business, more like a real-estate holding venture than an institutional actor whose original letter of patent positioned it outside of, and perhaps in opposition to, market-based, for-profit norms and values.

As a tenured Columbia professor for over 20 years, I sat through several of the negotiating sessions between the university and the students/workers and walked away in disbelief. The university hired attorney Bernie Plum to sit at the table on its behalf. Plum, a lawyer from a well-known union-busting law firm, approached the negotiations with the grad students/workers in the same way he would with any of his other corporate clients. When the student negotiators explained their demands for wages, childcare subsidies, and meaningful measures to address discriminatory harassment by faculty with justifications grounded in their reality as both students and employees of the university, Plum’s response was never with a substantive counterargument meant to justify the university’s position. Rather he barked at them: “Why would we do that? What will you give us in return?” To him, it was just a game between two unequally matched sides. Of course, this makes sense, since his expertise touted on the firm’s website is in representing sports management.

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The provost’s frequent messages to the faculty reflected a similar approach to negotiations, rarely explaining the university’s position with reference to our mission as a research and teaching institution, but rather by pointing to Harvard or other peer schools and noting that Columbia was offering about as much as the students at those schools got. The baseline was the market, not something intrinsic to an institution of higher learning.

Others have noted how universities have come to see their students as consumers. In Columbia’s case, they are treated more as sources of profit to be squeezed for maximum return on investment. This is a game Columbia plays quite well, since the union negotiations took place against a backdrop in which Columbia’s endowment increased by a dazzling 32.3 percent in fiscal year 2021. Departments in the Arts and Sciences have been instructed to stop admitting doctoral students, who tend not to be revenue generating opportunities, while the university continues to invest in terminal masters programs, a kind of academic cash cow that often leaves students in enormous debt. Columbia was recently named in a lawsuit that charges 16 universities with antitrust violations for participating in a “price-fixing cartel,” working together to reduce the amount of financial aid awarded to students in order to maximize income from tuition.

During the last two Covid-saturated years, grad students, like everyone else, have had to adjust their housing to escape partying roommates, care for sick relatives, or minimize expenses. Many of them who were living in Columbia-owned apartments report being hit with university fines of $1,000 or more for walking away from their leases, and the university was unwilling to discuss waiving these fines under the circumstances. As if there were any ambiguity about the importance of real-estate holdings to Columbia’s identity and interests, two days after the strike settled it was revealed that the university had won a bidding war for the 2.4 acre abandoned Fairway Market site in southwest Harlem with an $84 million all cash offer. One of the cheapest locations for food in the neighborhood, now pretty much of a food desert, will likely be replaced by another starchitect-designed building inaccessible to the larger west Harlem community.

“Management,” as Columbia referred to itself in the negotiations, is not the only party worthy of some critique. The union, Local 2110 of the United Automobile, Aerospace, and Agricultural Implement Workers of America, or UAW, is widely regarded as doing a pretty bad job of representing the grad student workers in this case. They left the students to negotiate against Bernie Plum on their own, providing them with minimal advice about labor law or collective bargaining. When asked if they wanted to run the final agreement by a union-side lawyer, the union declined. They also did a miserable job of explaining the student workers’ demands and engaging the rest of the university community on their side.

Equally, if not even more, troubling is the fact that the same union represents many other workers at Columbia, and the union seems not to have taken a holistic approach to bargaining with the university. In fact, the students/workers were able to negotiate salaries for half time work that is more than newly hired clerical workers make for full time work. The clerical workers’ contract expires at the end of January and some bargaining unit members tell me that they can’t even get the union reps to return their phone calls. Many of the grad students who are rejoicing in what they won in their new contract have little interest in leveraging their victory to lift the secretaries, janitors, cafeteria workers, and groundskeepers at the university as well.

The end of the grad student strike and the return to a more harmonious teaching atmosphere at Columbia invites reflection on the nature of collective bargaining in an academic setting, and even more so on the degree to which US universities have become more businesses than institutions that stand outside of routine market relations. What does it mean for a university, a not-for profit enterprise, to negotiate pay and benefits with its students as workers? What is revealed by the fact that graduate students identify more as employees than scholars in the structure of graduate education in many universities?

The challenge for all of us affected by the increasing monetization of higher education is to resist the unfortunate tendency of unionization to solidify already well-entrenched status hierarchies.

Katherine FrankeKatherine Franke is the James L. Dohr Professor of Law at Columbia University and the founder and faculty director of the Law, Rights, and Religion Project.

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