Locked Out Teachers Say LIU Is Just 'Selling Seats,' Not Educating Students

Locked Out Teachers Say LIU Is Just 'Selling Seats,' Not Educating Students
Alana Mohamed

A member of the athletics staff taught developmental psychology. A dean, a professor of biology, was scheduled to give instruction in ballet. Organic chemistry, according to one student, was taught by a janitor. Many classes were in disarray, with students sitting around in half-empty classrooms or instructors handing out inaccurate syllabi; in another, students remained seated for an hour, waiting on a professor who never arrived because she wasn’t allowed on campus.

These were scenes reported by students during the first week of classes at Long Island University’s Brooklyn campus, after president Kimberly Cline took the unprecedented step of locking out its faculty just hours before the private university was to open for its fall semester. Students arrived last Wednesday to a campus where professors had been replaced with members of the school’s administration, as well as last-minute replacements the university had found on Monster.com and other online employment sites.

The lockout occurred only five years after a strike by professors in 2011 over a proposed salary freeze. (According to the administration — union leaders dispute this — five of the university's last six contracts were agreed upon during faculty strikes.) During that dispute, professors negotiated well into the first week of the semester to get their deal done. This time, faculty members — who were objecting to lower wages at the university’s Brooklyn campus than at its Long Island campus, and a proposed reduction of starting pay for adjunct professors — found themselves locked out even before they were able to vote on a new contract. While the administration had been advertising positions for replacement instructors in the weeks leading up to the lockout, no one expected the university to actually follow through with using them.

“The administration has sent a message to the world that’s very troubling. It shows that it’s in the business of selling seats, and not educating students,” psychology professor Philip Wong told the Voice on Friday. Wong, along with 236 fellow professors, had just had his health benefits shut off by the university. On Thursday, the faculty had gone to a nearby café en masse to sign up for unemployment benefits.

(LIU administrators did not respond to Voice requests for comment.)

Meanwhile, inside the university, the administration was insisting that students were still receiving a quality education, even as administrators were shuffled around to teach classes. One administrator in the speech-language pathology program had been assigned to teach 55 credits, or the rough equivalent of 18 classes.

“Dr. Cline must resign!” dozens of students shouted in unison on Friday as they marched through the gates of the campus, something their professors were no longer allowed to do. Inside the halls of the university, students reported that some parts of the school were still functional, however – a separate union represents the pharmacy program’s professors. A large contingent of athletes continues to attend all their classes, cautious of running afoul of LIU coaches.

The object of professors' scorn is Cline, who took office in 2013, as LIU was dealing with serious financial insecurity and facing $122 million in long-term debt. Some of that debt was created by an increase of financial aid of $34 million between 2009 and 2013, as the university tried to offer better deals in an academic environment where students and parents have grown increasingly wary of going into deep into debt to attend a private college.

Cline, the former CFO of the state’s university system, immediately cut more than thirty non-unionized university staff when she took office; the admissions and marketing offices were almost completely wiped out. At the same time, Cline committed to capping tuition increases to 2 percent per year through 2020, putting the pressure on the administration to look for ways to cut the budget elsewhere. Cline's decision to lock out faculty was accompanied by a letter to the student body from Senior VP of Academic Affairs Jeffrey Kane stressing that "every additional dollar spent on faculty salaries and benefits is a dollar not spent on student scholarships, new labs and facilities or campus safety."

All this is playing out against the backdrop of a nationwide push by university administrations to cut down on costs in a time of declining enrollments and rising tuitions. "If the number of administrators, and their salaries and costs, had not increased so dramatically over the past 25 years, tuition could be about a third less than it is,” said Benjamin Ginsberg, a professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University, of university costs nationwide. “This is a self-inflicted wound. The increase in administrative costs have all been internally generated. Administrators have paid themselves handsomely, and have hired even more of themselves.”

Indeed, while many lower-end administrative positions at LIU have been cut, Cline’s salary, and those of other high-end administrators, sticks out as especially generous. In 2014, Cline made almost half a million dollars. According to the university’s 990 filings, the salaries of high-end administrators at LIU doubled between 2008 and 2014, from a total of $2.5 million in 2008 to almost $5 million in 2014.

One of the main sticking points for LIU’s contract negotiations hinges on adjunct salary. Since 2010, the share of courses taught by adjuncts at LIU-Brooklyn has increased from 56 percent to 63 percent, according to the website College Factual. Adjuncts at LIU-Brooklyn make only $1,800 per course — a figure, the administration boasts, that is more than they would make at nearby universities. A quick glance at glassdoor.com would find that this is untrue – other private area universities like NYU ($144/hour) and Parsons ($96/hour) pay far better. The administration wants adjunct compensation to be even less under the new contract, cutting payment for office hours and limiting the number of courses individual instructors can teach.

Negotiating tactic or not, the university appears committed to actually running the university in this fashion as long as negotiations play out. With the add/drop deadline looming next Tuesday, students are starting to worry that they’ll be stuck with thousands of dollars in bills for meaningless classes taught by unqualified instructors.

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Carlos Calzadilla, nineteen, arrived from Florida early last Wednesday to start his first day of college. By that afternoon, he was leading student protests against the administration.

“I didn’t imagine starting college this way," Calzadilla told the Voice. "Understandably, a lot of freshman have no idea what’s going on — but more are becoming aware as it continues. They’re afraid of the consequences, but as students, we really have the power.”

Calzadilla said that if students organize against the administration and refuse to be taught by replacement instructors, the president would have very few options left. “The college is placing profit over people," he said. "This is supposed to be a nonprofit institution, but they don’t care about their students.”

The lockout now pits two desperate groups against each other: Students, who want to see their tuition money going toward a quality education, and the replacement instructors who desperately need employment (many of whom are in the process of paying off their own student debt as well).

One such instructor, an adjunct at a different institution who wished to remain anonymous, told the Voice that LIU's advertisement never mentioned the labor dispute, and the money being advertised on Indeed.com looked hard to resist. Usually, this adjunct said, applying for these types of jobs never yielded a response – the competition was too heavy. But the night the instructor replied to the ad, they got a call from LIU.

“Without ever saying ‘strike,’ their HR department made me aware that this was a temporary situation and I wasn’t being considered to teach for the whole semester,” the adjunct said to the Voice. LIU was offering $500 to prep for the class, an additional $500 for the second day of teaching, plus $1000 per credit. The money was tough to turn down, although by this time the adjunct knew it would mean crossing a picket line to get it.

“I was really desperate for work," the adjunct said. "I really wanted to be able to eventually be hired by Long Island University, and I had heard so many people crossing picket lines and feeling bad about it, but ultimately getting jobs as a result of it. I don’t want to cross a picket line, but these are desperate times.”

In the days leading up to the beginning of the semester, the adjunct was given a series of conflicting instructions from the university about how to prepare for the semester. The day before class was supposed to start, the adjunct had yet to be given a syllabus for the assigned course. Thinking that the labor dispute had been resolved, the adjunct searched online to see what had happened — and, learning about the lockout, backed out of teaching the course.

“I really feel bad for the students, because I want them to get a good education,” the adjunct said. “And believe me, my orientation group was filled with really, really good teachers, all of whom were out of work. But I didn’t want to do it this way, and not for an administration that was so unprepared to do this.”

In an email to replacement instructors leaked to Twitter, LIU reminded instructors to let students know that they were indeed qualified to teach, and that they should engage the class in a “brief review of credentials and experience,” as well explain the “relevance of credentials to course matter.” The email ended by telling instructors to remind students that this was only a “temporary measure” and that the university expected for the full-time faculty to ultimately return to teaching.

In the interim, LIU’s administration has so far refused to agree to a temporary contract that would allow professors to return to classrooms while a longer deal is hammered out, citing the “disruption” that replacing the replacement teachers would cause. But as empty classrooms, overburdened faculty, and lack of prep time for qualified teachers would attest, there’s not much left to disrupt.

Ginsberg believes this is likely to be just the beginning of a wave of strikes and lockouts that will seize higher education over the coming years, as administrations look to cut costs, and job-hungry adjuncts provide an almost inexhaustible cheap labor supply that, by sheer need, will inevitably cross a picket line.

“Without a doubt, they’re trying to break the union,” said Rebecca States, a professor of Physical Therapy at LIU-Brooklyn and the head of the faculty senate. “This is unprecedented. Over the last ten years, there has been a pressure on higher education to become more like a corporation. If you can’t measure how much someone is learning, then the higher-ups say it’s not worth it. They’re looking at it simply from a financial perspective. It’s all just a numbers game to them.”


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