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Long Island U Profs Back to Work

Students and faculty force LIU administration to back down

Peter Rugh Sep 19, 2016

Walking through the halls of Long Island University’s Brooklyn campus recently, Mina Attalla saw something through the open doors of a classroom that made him do a double take. There in front of the room, instructing students in a mandatory freshman English course, the junior pharmacology student recognized a member of the school’s custodial staff. 

“He was fumbling around,” said Attalla. “You could tell he really didn’t know how to go about it.” 

It was a scene characteristic of the mayhem that ensued when LIU’s administration locked out professors at the university’s Brooklyn campus, just days before the Sept. 7 start of the fall semester. 

Under pressure from educators, however, whose picket-lines bottlenecked the university’s doors at the corner of Dekalb and Flatbush, and from students, who staged numerous walkouts, the LIU opened its doors to its professors once more.  

“The administration will end their unprecedented lockout effective 11:59 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 14,” read a statement from the union representing the Brooklyn campus’s 400 professors, the LIU Faculty Federation (LIUFF). “We will be reunited with our students and can resume our professional lives.” 

The statement noted that educators will be reimbursed for health care costs during the lockout and that the union will continue to “vigorously” pursue unfair labor practice complaints against the university related to the forced work stoppage.  

But trust in the university’s leadership remains far from restored. The administration had assured its 8,000 students the lockout was conducted in order to “achieve a seamless start to the school year.” It had already begun “recruiting and readying a temporary group of adjuncts with advanced degrees.”  

It turns out it’s not so easy running a university without professors.

Classroom Chaos

Students, many of whom are going into debt in order to receive diplomas from the private institution, were greeted by chaos when they arrived for class on the first day of school. Their professors were replaced by members of the administration or anybody it could round up. Several students reported not finding any teachers present in their classrooms at all. 

“They couldn’t have done anything more disruptive than lock us out,” said Deborah Mutnick, who has taught English at the university for 30 years and is a member of the LIUFF’s executive committee. 

LIU claimed baring its faculty from campus was a preemptive measure, to prevent the educators, whose contract expired Aug. 31, from walking out. It pointed to an authorization vote in favor of a strike the union held in May. But such votes are commonly taken by unions to empower their bargaining teams and the lockout took place before faculty had even voted on the administration’s proposal. 

“For them to say they were avoiding the chaos of a work stoppage is obscenely disingenuous,” Mutnick said. “This is an action the administration took to coerce us into signing a bad contract. It is a step they took in order to break our union.” 

LIU wants to put tenured faculty up for periodic review, which Mutnick and other instructors consider a threat not only to their job security but their academic freedom. It has also proposed cuts to pay and benefits for adjunct professors. 

Another bone of contention: LIUFF members want a contract that does more to address the disparity in pay between educators at the university’s lucrative suburban campus in Brookville, New York compared to those in Brooklyn. Professors in Brooklyn teach a student body comprised primarily of people of color while in Brookville the majority of students are white. Professors there make as much as 20 percent more than their counterparts in the city. 

The LIUFF ultimately rejected the administration’s previous offer by 226 to 10 on Sept. 6. That same day, LIU Brooklyn’s faculty senate cast a vote, 135 to 10, of no confidence in the university’s president, Kimberly Cline, and vice president for academic affairs, Jeffrey Kane. 

Student Walkouts

In support of their professors, hundreds of LIU students participated walkouts during the lockout, evidence that overtures from Cline — that the administration’s punitive negotiating tactics are in the interest of keeping tuition down — haven’t won the student body over. 

Furthering the rift between the administration and those who learn and teach at the university, the lockout fueled speculation that the LIU is seeking a pretense to close down its Brooklyn campus. The many hundreds of millions of dollars the university could fetch for the property Downtown, where real estate values are ballooning, are more than it could dream of collecting from tuition in years to come. But Michael Pelias, a philosophy professor at LIU for 25 years and a member of the team negotiating with the university, argues such conjecture is unfounded.  

LIU might rent out or sell off sections of its property here and there, he explained, but to abandoned the campus wholesale to developers would violate its certificate of incorporation from the New York Board of Regents. He said such speculation misses the real issue in the labor dispute and LIU’s attack on the union: neoliberalized learning.

“Real estate is valuable, obviously,” Pelias said. “But this is really an attack on higher education, on the humanities and critical thinking.” The administration wants “to reshape the university in the form of a corporate university — a new type of corporatization of education that emphasizes business education at the expense of humanities, a simple reproduction of the system rather than a critical assessment.”

As educators return to their classes, negotiations between LIU and faculty are ongoing. The university has agreed to the LIUFF’s demand that the two sides engage in professional mediation and that it’s previous collective bargaining agreement be extended until the end of May, which the union says gives it time to reach a more equitable deal.