Across the street from Brooklyn landmark Junior’s, faculty and students from Long Island University (LIU) are waging a battle with the administration in the latest labor dispute rocking higher education in the United States. Newspapers from The Guardian to New York Times have reported that administrators, facing declining enrollments and revenue, took the unprecedented step of locking out faculty, preempting an anticipated strike over contract negotiations. As soon as the last contract expired on August 31, professors found they had been cut off from their health insurance and denied access to email, and that old syllabi had been posted for their courses.
The draconian measures of the administration have resulted in support for the faculty from public authorities, other unions, and students. The New York City public advocate, Letitia James, sent LIU President Kimberly Cline a letter advising her to sign contracts with all four unions at the institution and warning her that hiring replacement workers for faculty “will only exacerbate your troubled relationship with labor in New York City.”
Yet there is a bigger lesson here than a union struggle: this is what happens when an institution of higher learning passing for a private university is really a for-profit institution. All the reporting on the LIU debacle has omitted to mention this fact, interpreting the university’s claim to be “private” to mean the same as it does when nonprofit liberal arts colleges and universities claim to be “private” universities.
But LIU’s “private” should be clarified to mean “private for-profit”. While most for-profit colleges are comparatively recent, LIU was founded in 1926. A university that makes 90% of its profit from student tuition has a business model no different from the defunct Trump or Phoenix U. LIU’s masquerading as a private university is the triumph of marketing over reason, and the complicity of all involved – administration, faculty, and alumni – in the cover up of this reality. It has blown up because the demand for profit is unsustainable against the academic standards that should in theory govern an institution of higher education.
Is it any wonder, then, that the university leadership had prepared for the lockout by hiring temporary instructors, many of them unqualified for the courses they were assigned to teach? They also told administrators they had to teach courses in addition to their other duties or face being terminated. As Emily Drabinski, the coordinator of library instruction and secretary of the faculty union, told The Nation: “I think this administration thinks it doesn’t matter who’s teaching in the classroom. I think they think that teaching and learning is about a production of commodities, that it’s about delivering something to students, filling a student with learning that they will then go out and use to make money, and that’s not what higher education is about.”
There are about 8,000 students at LIU taught by about 250 full-time faculty and about two hundred adjunct professors. Under the new contract, the adjuncts, who are paid by the number of courses taught, would have their teaching load reduced from 12 to nine credit hours. Pay for office hours would be eliminated, and new hires would be paid less under a two-tier wage system.
The Atlantic reported that Arthur Kimmel, an adjunct at LIU for over 20 years, would have his income cut by 30 to 35 percent. “That’s because, in addition to the $1,800 or so per course he teaches, he has received pay for having office hours and money from an adjunct- benefits trust fund to help defray the cost of health insurance. Kimmel says the university’s proposal would eliminate the adjunct- benefits trust fund and payments for office hours, among other cuts. The new proposal would also decrease the number of credit hours he could teach, and establishes a two-tier system for adjuncts so that new employees would receive less than Kimmel does.”
Many of the tenured faculty’s salaries are 20 percent lower than their colleagues at LIU’s C.W. Post campus in Nassau County, and this is a sticking point in the contract negotiations. Brooklyn professors worry that their campus, which serves more black, Latino and low-income students than C.W. Post, is undervalued by the administration. Tuition is the same at both campuses—$34,352 per year.
The administration is also proposing a new post-tenure review process that would allow administrators more control over academic standards. On Tuesday, tenured faculty voted 226 to 10 to reject the proposed contract, and the faculty senate voiced their support for a vote of no confidence in Cline. They rallied outside the Brooklyn campus with a giant inflatable rat as classes began on Wednesday September 7, taught by non-union members. On Thursday hundreds of students walked out to protest the lockout.
Students are told they will get high quality education that will qualify them for high-paying jobs, but professors are pressured to graduate struggling students in order to keep the tuition money rolling in. And while some of those who graduate from LIU find jobs in pharmacy and healthcare, two fields where the institution has had success in placing its graduates, only 26% of its student body manages to graduate at all. This means that 74% of students take on loans for a degree they will never finish. The administration and the faculty have long known this, but still persist in calling LIU a “private” university.
Students are encouraged to think of education as a commodity by LIU’s efforts to market itself as a private university. Hakim Sulaimani, a psychology major, is protesting the lockout because, he says, “You expect to get what you’re paying for. You’re paying upwards of 40 grand for a certain level of education and you’re expecting a quality education. I selected certain professors because they’re very passionate and knowledgeable about their subjects. I expect to be taught by the guy I signed up for and not some guy who just popped up two weeks ago.”
“We aren’t planning to go back to class at all until our professors are back,” said Sharda Mohammed, 18, a sophomore studying philosophy. “Today I walked into my English class and the guy gave us a syllabus and told us we could leave. He couldn’t even pronounce the names of the books. They are charging us full tuition for this, and they’re not teaching us,” she added.
While students feel rightly cheated, the bigger lesson is that for profit institutions, even older ones like LIU, are incompatible with the goals of higher education. The LIU faculty deserves support, but they should abandon their collusion with the administration in branding LIU as a “private” university. The administration has exposed what drives LIU. It is not a love for higher learning, its faculty, or its students. It is the same thing that drove the now defunct Trump U: greed.