Columbia Unbecoming

Nowhere has this new, corporate style of management been more evident than at Columbia. Just over three years ago, Columbia's graduate students held a union election, which was sanctioned by the National Labor Relations Board. (In 2000, the NLRB issued a landmark ruling granting graduate student employees at private universities the right to unionize. Students at public universities have enjoyed those rights since 1969.) Columbia, which hired one of the nation's foremost union-busting law firms to represent it, filed a federal appeal which caused the students' ballots to be impounded. Then, in 2004, a new Republican-dominated NLRB reversed its earlier pro-union ruling and rescinded graduate students' right to unionize. This left the students with few options except to strike.

Columbia has consistently argued that graduate students are apprentices, not employees, making collective bargaining inappropriate. This position is shared by nearly every private university, including Brown, Tufts and Penn (student election ballots were impounded prior to being counted on these campuses, as well). Yet the private universities' argument flies in the face of reality. Graduate students no longer feel like apprentices who are being mentored to join a scholarly guild. A generation ago, when these students could look forward to full-time careers in academia, their years of training, heavy teaching loads and low pay were tolerable. Now they increasingly feel exploited: Most are acutely aware that their chances of finding a secure full-time position in academia are slim. Worse, they know that by allowing universities to exploit their cheap labor, they are helping to eliminate the very full-time positions for which they are purportedly being trained. Today, roughly 50 percent of the faculty in higher education teach on a part-time, contingent basis. A remarkable 60 percent of all new faculty appointments are "off the tenure track," meaning that professors are ineligible for tenure and have only short-term contracts. So it should not come as a surprise that informal lists of signatures -- verified by New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer and Connecticut Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz -- indicate strong majorities of graduate students at both Columbia and Yale do support a union.

Ironically, although conservatives continue to see liberalism as the bogeyman, the rise of a corporate labor model in higher education may pose a far greater risk to academic freedom and free speech. Historically, let's not forget, the leaders of the academic freedom movement recognized that the only way to prevent corporate trustees and other outside interest groups from violating the free speech rights of their professors was to establish a system of faculty self-governance, peer review and long-term job security. Otherwise, any professor who voiced unconventional or unpopular views was extremely vulnerable to getting fired.

Viewed through this lens, the unionization campaigns at Columbia, Yale, Brown, Harvard, Penn and other institutions may be the last, best hope for stopping administrators from imposing a corporate labor model on universities that erodes faculty power -- and with it academic freedom.

Jennifer Washburn is a fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of "University, Inc.: The Corporate Corruption of Higher Education."

By Jennifer Washburn
Reprinted with permission from The Nation