On the Saturday before Labor Day, the 400 members of Long Island University Brooklyn’s faculty union (LIUFF) received word from the administration that their salaries, health insurance, campus email accounts, and jobs were being discontinued. Replacement “professors” (scabs recruited as early as July on monster.com) and administrators stepped up to the lecterns to face confused and angry students on the first day of classes as professors filled out unemployment forms at the nearby Brooklyn Commons cafe. The lockout ended last Wednesday with a faculty contract extension until next May. The LIUFF declared victory. And qualified professors returned to classrooms.
LIU’s lockout was unprecedented in higher education. Lockouts normally occur in the industrial sector, not in the service economy where customer satisfaction trumps business disruptions. And lockouts rarely work because the media and the public side with workers who are available to work but are blocked from doing so by management. Lockouts are bad PR. LIU’s administration–led by its president/CEO/union breaker Kimberly Cline—hoped to preempt a faculty strike, but their ploy failed miserably. Perhaps Cline should have consulted labor history. Perhaps she assumed students wouldn’t raise a ruckus. Perhaps she assumed, as is typical of a corporate mindset, that LIU’s students were passive consumers, indifferent to who stood in front of them, as long as they got a grade for the money they paid. Perhaps Cline bet on the fact that this majority minority student population, poor and heavily indebted, couldn’t afford to walk out of classes. But, man, these students were pissed. Hundreds walked out of classes at noon Thursday, the second day of school. The students joined protesting faculty, chanting, “Let us learn!” and faculty chanted in return, “Let us teach!” And, meanwhile, in the midst of the chaos unleashed by a reckless administration, some students had tough choices to make.
The Guardian ran a profile of one such student in a recent piece, “LIU Lockout: US Professors and Students Seen as Disposable Commodities.” The article’s author, Rose Hackman, writes, “The lockout—thought to be the first of its kind in the US—not only signals a worrying turn for the value placed on professors as disposable commodities, but highlights the extra hurdles faced by working class students of color as they seek to fight their way to the American dream.” Hackman highlights the case of Nichia McFarlane, a 24 year-old Brooklyn native, who after running away from a difficult home, worked two full-time jobs and enrolled full-time at LIU. After a difficult time early in her studies, Nichia’s life was changed by an English professor. She won essay awards in the English department, and became an academic star. Her most recent essay reflected on the importance of higher education to the empowerment of women of color. LIU’s faculty empowered Nichia. But then the lockout was announced. Looking forward to courses taught by faculty she knew and esteemed, Nichia realized that might be not be possible. She also received an email from the administration saying the date to withdraw without penalty had been shortened. Feeling coerced and conned, she withdrew from LIU: “As they were locking out faculty, they were trying to lock students in. It felt like a con or a scam. I don’t want to think that about the university I am going to.” Nichia doesn’t know what her next move will be.
Nichia’s story has many lessons for us. One lesson has to do with faculty. Her professors changed her life. In her English classes, Nichia, a poor but brilliantly talented woman of color, found a voice and found hope. Kimberly Cline’s lockout has stifled that voice and dimmed that hope. A second lesson has to do with racism. The contract standoff at LIU involves pay parity: faculty at LIU Brooklyn, an urban majority minority campus, make significantly less money than faculty at the main LIU Post campus, a majority white institution located “on the plush 300-acre estate of a cereal magnate, along an area of Long Island known for its opulence, sometimes named the Gold Coast.” Paraphrasing the view of Ben Saunders, an LIU Brooklyn psychology professor, Rose Hackman writes, “[The] campus in Brooklyn is effectively funding the Post campus, echoing critiques long made over the centuries by black public intellectuals: that communities of color are systematically plundered to support unrealistic standards of living for whiter communities.” A third lesson has to do with administrative bloat and exploding administrative salaries. Hired to cut costs, Kimberly Cline went after faculty and unions, while earning about $475,000 a year, about $75,000 more than President Obama. The final and most important lesson from Nichia’s story has to do with the students. The message sent to students at LIU is: The quality of your education doesn’t matter to us. You don’t really matter to us. But your dollars do. And the students, sensing a grand betrayal, cry, “Let us learn!”
-Professor Timothy Strode, NCC AAUP, Executive Committee