The Thin End of the Wedge: Faculty House, Columbia University, and the Future of Higher Education in America

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Credit: Michael Discenza

While news of the ongoing labor dispute at Columbia University’s Faculty House has gotten out—you can read about it in The Nation—its full implications remain obscure.  On its surface the fight appears straightforward: Faculty House is a branch of Columbia University’s Dining Services and located on its East Campus. An event space and upscale restaurant ostensibly for Columbia faculty and their guests, it employs 34 workers. On March 31, 2013, their contract expires. It has been an awful contract, exploitative, and of questionable legality. It is a contract which the workers want to change. The story of this dispute is about stolen tips; it is about “part-time” workers pulling eighty-hour workweeks, and arbitrary stipend reductions; it is about insufficient wage increases, and skilled workers losing their job classifications; it is about cuts to healthcare. But, as of the writing of this article, the University has refused to negotiate. There is nothing mysterious about what is happening at Faculty House: Columbia is putting the pinch on its workers, demanding more for less.

Less clear is why. Admittedly, this fight seems a small one. While for the 34 workers at Faculty House it is truly a matter of life and death—of access to healthcare and a living wage—in the grand scheme of things it appears modest, its dimensions too small to warrant outsized outrage. But in this dispute I see what is yet another step forward in a larger and more widespread movement. It is spreading across the landscape of higher education in the United States of America, determined to fundamentally alter the very nature of that institution. Columbia’s shabby treatment of its own workers at Faculty House is only the most recent development in this transformation. All over the country, universities have been (to borrow the language of corporate America) “reinventing” and “rebranding” themselves. Like the private companies whose board members double as their trustees, major American universities have committed themselves to programs of global expansion. Names like Stanford and Harvard and NYU and Columbia no longer describe specific communities in specific places, but brand names lending credibility to anyone willing to pay. You can read Thomas Friedman’s apotheosis of MOOCs and their supposed messianic powers of uplift, or Andrew Delbanco’s more circumspect reflections on the sanctity of the liberal arts, but what has been left out is just this: the cost of this tectonic shift in the nature of higher education is being paid for out of the pockets of workers. Like the 34 workers at Faculty House. The crisis in higher education is not on the way; it’s already here, and this is what it looks like.

The first and most obvious question to ask is also the most difficult to answer: why has Columbia, a non-profit organization, committed itself to squeezing a handful of workers? With a giant endowment, what could possibly be so urgent as to drive one of the most prestigious schools in the country to stoop to this nickel and dime behavior?

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Credit: Michael Discenza

This is not the place for a lengthy history of managerial-capitalism and its attendant ideologies. Nor is this the place to discuss how the logic of corporate America has occupied the University President’s office with much more violent consequences than a passel of idealistic students in 1968 ever could have produced. Whatever the causes—the end of the New Deal state, the rise of neo-conservatism, the end of the Cold War—in the last decade the administrations of major universities, like Columbia, have come to understand themselves in the same terms as private corporations: as entities that must grow, broadly and constantly. Trustees and administrators act as though they equate success with size. We know about “global centers” and extension programs, we understand viscerally the mesmerism of the “global” fantasy and the megalomaniacal dreams that send tentacles shooting out to the far reaches of real and cyberspace on a mission of progress and profit. But less obvious is exactly how it is happening. For Columbia, as well as many other schools, size and reach are questions of prestige. It is prestigious to have global centers dotting the planet. Just as important, where prestige treads, profit is sure to follow, and vice versa. Columbia must grow.

But the current logic of managerial-capitalism, common sense to anyone familiar with the culture, insists that growth, which is expensive, must also be profitable. Although a non-profit, Columbia’s administration is devoted to this logic, and therefore finds itself caught in a Catch-22: how do you grow and make money at the same time?

Student Worker Solidarity_facultyhouserally
Credit: Student Worker Solidarity

If we are to believe those who work at Columbia—like the workers at Faculty House; like me, a doctoral candidate and teaching assistant in the history department; like my father who has worked here since 1966—it’s clear that something has changed. In the past decade, roughly correlated to the ascension in 2002 of Lee Bollinger as president, Columbia has become a worse place to work. People across departments and services voice eerily similar complaints. Administrators are preoccupied with the image of the brand, they say. Many also note (really) that administrators are intensely jealous of Harvard for some reason, and imagine themselves in competition with their Ivy League sister in Cambridge. (Although I doubt anyone at Harvard cares much.) Many report that, in the past few years, they are working harder and for the same or less pay. Over this past decade, the university has time and again proven itself hostile to unions on campus. Take for example the clerical workers’ union, UAW local 2110, who last year had to fight tooth and nail just to maintain their healthcare benefits, or more infamously, the administration’s refusal in 2002 to acknowledge TAs and RAs as workers, hiring anti-union counsel to help overturn a Clinton-era ruling that recognized the right of graduate students to organize.

Besides the expansion to places like Mumbai and Istanbul and Rio, Columbia has invoked eminent domain to take over Manhattanville, a neighborhood in Harlem that borders Columbia’s Morningside Heights campus. But, unfortunately for everyone, this move towards local and global expansion coincided with the worst economic recession since the Great Depression. Here the chronology of the Faculty House fight is helpful.

It began on April 11, 2008 when Columbia closed down the dining hall in order to effect a $31 million renovation. The university claimed that the renovation was intended to update the building and make it “green,” but really the overhaul had less to do with the amount of energy the building used than with its very purpose on campus. Before the renovations, Faculty House had been a place for students and professors to have lunch. When it reopened in the fall of 2009, it was a banquet hall for hosting events, often for outside groups willing to pay exorbitant rates to use the space. If you like, you can book it for a wedding, a bar mitzvah, or for a conference of somewhat more dubious intellectual rigor. (If you had been there on March 15, 2013, you could have attended “Becoming Mrs. Right,” where Tony Gaskins would have told you all about the “Benefits of Celibacy,” and “Why Men Don’t Express Themselves,” ultimately forcing you to ask yourself the soul-searching question like, “Are You Dating a Man or a Grown Boy?” Not exactly the Lionel Trilling lectures.) Columbia closed a cafeteria designed to serve the university community and in its place opened a revenue producing concern. With the new Faculty House came a new contract. The workers, disorganized after having been laid off for a year, signed it. The most shocking amendment, not seen until it was too late, was the transmutation of the mandatory 15-22% gratuity added to a patron’s bill—that is, a tip—to a mandatory “service fee,” which, while seemingly precluding other tipping, did not go to the workers but to Faculty House. Diners would have no way of knowing that their 22% tip was not going to their servers, not unless said diners happened to have read the workers’ contract.

The timing of all this is important. With the financial crisis and the precipitous drop in interest rates, Columbia’s administration was most likely concerned about the decreased income accruing from its endowment. As a rule, universities are loathe to touch the principal of their endowments and prefer to see as much of their operating expenses as possible coming out of the interest earned on their investments. Most likely the university, dismayed at the decreased revenue coming in from their shadowy investments tied up who-knows-where, began searching for ways to tighten up ship. At the same time that Faculty House, technically a part of a non-profit organization, became a for-profit event hall, the administration began pinching pennies in other areas, throwing numerous university services into chaos. The IT department went through a traumatic “re-org,” which consisted of a soon-abandoned “Vision” and a program of lay-offs. Administrators, pleading poverty, “streamlined” Public Safety and asked officers to take a pay cut. When their union refused, lay-offs followed. A year later, new officers were hired and new equipment purchased. It remains unclear just how impoverished Columbia’s administrators thought the university really was. Either way, it is the workers whom they are making pay for the Great Recession.

The supreme irony in all of this “fiscal responsibility” is, of course, the Manhattanville expansion, paid for through a giant fund-raising campaign. How could the university justify making its workers pay for the costs of recession and still plan a massive expansion? This is the heart of the issue; this is the new capitalist-managerial culture of the major American university. It is a logic that dreams of global reach, a politics of ubiquitous presence, education sold for non-profit profits—all of it paid for through greater “efficiency”—but all of it really paid for through campaigns to decertify unions, or accomplish the next best thing by making the unions toothless. The university will bring about moral uplift through an extension program in Istanbul by exploiting its workers at home in New York. The new global utopia will be built on the back of workers, and its foundation will be laid in the ashes of organized labor.

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Credit: Student Worker Solidarity

I stand with the Faculty House workers because I too work at Columbia. I went to school here. As did my father, mother, and two sisters. I want to be proud of the place which has given me the opportunity to study history, not for profit, but because I believe this discipline has the power to encourage sympathy, to foster knowledge and justice. I sat at the bargaining table with the Faculty House workers during the latest round of negotiations, me just another person with the forty-odd student-faculty coalition present as a part of the worker negotiating committee. I watched Sheila Garvey, Columbia’s lead negotiator, walk away from that table without hearing a word of the workers’ grievances. This is the third time she has walked out of negotiations, her stated reason that Columbia does not negotiate with students (or faculty, evidently) in the room. Of course not. Because if Columbia did negotiate with students and faculty in the room, it would have to be transparent in those negotiations, which is evidently unacceptable. In response, the Faculty House workers voted to authorize economic action, up to and including a strike. Instead of fair and honest dealing, Columbia has chosen to sit back and run down the clock until the contract expires on the 31st of this month in the hope that the workers will get nervous and back down.

The 34 workers of Faculty House are some of the first to pay the price of this new expansive model of the university, not because they have been earning so much, not because they can absorb the cuts to their wages and healthcare, but because they are so few. Faculty House is physically isolated on Columbia’s campus and the administration thinks it can implement the sharp edge of its new fiscal agenda there without anyone noticing. This is the thin end of the wedge. Columbia’s big ambitions are bearing down on Faculty House because it seemed the perfect place to set a new precedent in “labor relations.”

The future of the university will not be decided in the boardrooms where the Trustees meet, and it certainly will not be decided in an empty loft somewhere in Mumbai, pretentiously called a “global” space. It will be decided here, at Faculty House, with these 34 men and women. We hope to teach the university—because teaching is our profession—that it cannot build its global utopia by exploiting these workers. The university’s mission in the world will not be decided at the next World Leaders’ Conference, but in this fight between an administration and its workers. The means don’t justify the ends. The means are the ends, and we might all want to take a moment to imagine a new global Columbia whose mission in the world requires the exploitation of workers at home. I too have a stake in the future of higher education. I study and teach at Columbia, and I find that my own interests are inextricably wound up with those of the 34 at Faculty House. If you too see your future bound to the fate of academia in the United States, then this fight is also your fight.

Jason Resnikoff is currently pursuing a doctorate in American history at Columbia University. His work has appeared in The Paris Review and The Faster Times.