My Alma Mater is an embarrassment


Fifty years ago this April the administration of Columbia University deployed the New York City Police Department to clear hundreds of student protesters from five campus buildings they had occupied for nearly a week, during which the police ran riot, indiscriminately beating students and faculty members, protesting or not, while “clearing” the campus.  The protesters — I was one of them — were demanding an end to the construction of a gymnasium being built by the university on public parkland that served neighboring Harlem and an end to Columbia’s participation in the Institute for Defense Analysis, which conducted secret war research for the Pentagon, demands ultimately won.  (My own brief look back at these events and their impact on my life is one of over 60 short memoirs from participants in this key rebellion in a year of global student unrest collected in A Time to Stir: Columbia, 1968published last month by Columbia University Press).

Fifty years earlier, during World War I, Columbia’s infamously autocratic president Nicholas Murray Butler suspended academic freedom for the duration of the conflict.  As the late Columbia historian and long-serving AAUP Committee A member Walter Metzger put it, Butler demanded of his faculty a level of loyal patriotism “defined in effect as the particular degree of indignation and bellicosity displayed by President Butler.”  Soon Butler successfully fired James McKeen Cattell — the country’s leading psychologist at the time and a perennial thorn in Butler’s side — for his opposition to wartime conscription.  Cattell was, according to AAUP associate secretary Hans-Joerg Tiede, “perhaps the most prominent academic gadfly of his time.”  In 1912 he publicly called for the creation of the AAUP and helped organize its founding, but never played a role in its leadership.

It seems that every half-century Columbia’s administration must do something despicable and, true to form and right on schedule, the other day they did.  This time it is the university that is engaging in a perverse sort of “civil disobedience” by refusing to observe the law.  On Tuesday Columbia Provost John Coatsworth announced in an email to the university community that Columbia will not bargain with the Graduate Workers of Columbia (the UAW-affiliated union for teaching and research assistants) despite the ruling of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) that Columbia graduate workers are entitled to collective bargaining through their chosen representative and the overwhelming victory of the union in a representation election.

On August 23, 2016 the NLRB overturned a 2004 decision to rule in Trustees of Columbia University in the City of New York and Graduate Workers of Columbia–GWC, UAW that student employees at private universities have the right to organize unions to bargain collectively over the terms of their employment.  The issue decided was not whether student employees, primarily graduate student teaching and research assistants, are “primarily students” but that “[s]tatutory coverage is permitted by virtue of an employment relationship; it is not foreclosed by the existence of some other, additional relationship that the [National Labor Relations] Act does not reach.”  In response Coatsworth, an historian of Latin America and a radical activist during his own graduate school days at the University of Wisconsin, wrote a message all but urging Columbia student employees to reject collective bargaining in favor of “productive dialogue” with the university administration.  In response, I wrote this open letter, which was widely circulated on campus.  In December 2016 graduate and undergraduate students voted 1602 to 623 in favor of joining the UAW.  The election results were subsequently confirmed by the NLRB.

On the Remaking the University blog UCLA history professor Michael Meranze explains the meaning of Columbia’s decision not to bargain with the union:

Although the University characterizes this decision as simply acting on its “right to have the status of graduate student assistants reviewed by a United States Court of Appeals” in reality it is choosing to engage in an unfair labor practice and daring the union to sue it.  As with the longer history of the University’s employment of labor-busting law firms to stretch out the certification process, Columbia appears determined to take advantage of President Trump’s election in order to find a legal venue hostile to labor.

The hypocrisy of Columbia is overwhelming.  Columbia’s President Lee Bollinger is a renowned scholar of the First Amendment and Columbia trumpets its commitments to the notions of free debate and the force of reasoned argument.  But apparently they are only committed to these principles when it will not cost them control over their graduate student laborers.  Both the University and the Union have debated these issues for years and the graduate students have voted that they want representation.  Columbia has refused to accept that it lost the argument when graduate students overwhelmingly voted in favor of unionizing.  Columbia–like so many of its peers–claims that a union would constitute a “third party between student and teacher.”  But it has not hesitated in seeking out external law firms to fight the unionization.

More importantly, the issue of unionization is not concerned with the relationship between teachers and graduate students as students.  It is concerned with the relationship between university management and graduate student workers as employees.  By implying that the issue is about relationships of teaching Columbia’s management has misrepresented the situation–what the graduate students are demanding is the right to bargain over employment conditions not over their activities as students.

Since Columbia’s intellectual and academic arguments are very weak it appears that ultimately this is about power.  The Columbia administration’s decision to hoard theirs in clear contradiction to both the NLRB and the expressed will of their graduate student workers.  Like their fellows at the University of Chicago and Yale, to name only two, they are behaving much like feudal aristocrats have always done when faced with a challenge to their authority–by claiming that they are only concerned with maintaining personal relationships.  But what that really means are paternalistic relationships in which subordination is key.

It is important to recognize that the threat to academic freedom and learning does not come from graduate student unions but from overweening managerial authority.  I have taught in universities with unionized graduate students for nearly three decades and have not once had the union interfere with a genuinely pedagogical question.  I have, however, seen unions support graduate student employees in preventing their employment by the university overwhelm their capacity to fulfill their jobs on the one hand and pursue their studies on the other.  But as we can see more generally with the consistent decision by university managers to impose precarious working conditions on more and more of their labor force, management is not in fact thinking about either academic freedom or the relationship between teachers and students.  Its concerns lie elsewhere.

Meranze concludes, “Columbia’s administration should be ashamed of itself.”  He’s right.  Columbia is, of course, a great university with brilliant and often iconoclastic scholars and the most diverse student body in the highly competitive Ivy League.  And some things have changed since the dark days of ’68.  Bollinger surely represents a marked improvement over the aloof, arrogant, and bumbling Grayson Kirk, who was far more at home in the corporate board room than the university classroom.  Ten years ago Columbia welcomed back the protesters for a remarkable conference on the ’68 rebellion.  My classmate Jonathan Schiller — a member of Columbia’s 1968 Ivy League champion basketball team, an avowed strike supporter, and a prominent liberal attorney — is now chair of the board of trustees.  He too should be ashamed.  And I, despite how much I continue to value the fine education I received on Morningside Heights, am simply embarrassed once again to be an alum.