Columbia Unbecoming

This column was written by Jennifer Washburn.
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.

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