Back to School at LIU? Faculty On Strike, Locked Out


Update below: LIU and Union head back to the table over the weekend, deal possible on Monday.

Like most schools in the city, this week was supposed to mark the normal start of fall classes at Long Island University’s downtown Brooklyn campus. Instead, on Wednesday morning, the LIU Faculty Federation went on strike, shortly before the administration locked them out.

At issue is LIU’s five year contract with the LIUFF (the union which represents all full time and adjunct instructors), which has expired. According to LIUFF Executive Committee member Sayed Ali, a sociology professor, the strike was called after the University’s final offer for a new contract was deemed unacceptable.  Students arrived on campus for the first time this semester to find their 140 odd instructors picketing and leafleting across the street from Junior’s.

According to Ali, being locked out means that “we can’t go on campus and we don’t get paid.” (Though the picketers were allowed on the wide Flatbush Avenue sidewalk outside of LIU’s Paramount Theater, they were not allowed to hold “classes” underneath the enormous red sculpture on the same strip of land.) And, in an email reviewed by the Voice from LIU Vice President for Human Resources Daniel Rodas, employees were also warned that:

If you go out on strike, you will be responsible for paying the full cost of your health care coverage…Faculty will have the ability to continue coverage in these plans, at their own expense, under COBRA (Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act).

A major ideological point of contention for many of those protesting, and the subject of several signs, was LIU’s proposal that pay increases be tied to tuition hikes in the contract. On the official LIU website, the university explains the contract like so:

Our most recent offer attempts to provide as expansive a salary increase to faculty as is practical. Following a 0% increase in the first year (consistent with what all non-union employees will experience), faculty would receive a 3% lump sum payment in year two. In year 3 there would be either a 2% lump sum payment which could become a 2% base increase, depending upon overall growth in tuition revenue. In years 4 and 5, there would be a minimum 2% base salary increase, with the possibility of a 4% base increase in each year, depending upon overall growth in tuition revenues.

Michael Pelias, professor of philosophy and member of the negotiating committee, said that he had a “huge philosophical problem” with tying salary to tuition hikes. “Never has an academic been asked to do this,” he says, noting that making their pay be determined by increasing overall enrollment and tuition would “make professors into micro-entrepreneurs.”

Surprisingly, LIUFF President (and chemistry professor) Edward Donahue says that “personally, I don’t have an ideological problem” with hitching pay to tuition.

He does, however, signal distrust that “we could be sure they were telling the truth” about overall revenue, as well as a belief that historically “our raises never had any correlation to a tuition raise. We’ve had four percent raises and they’ve raised tuition five percent. We’ve had two percent raises and they’ve raised it eight percent. One has nothing to do with the other,” he says, claiming that 10 years ago faculty salaries accounted for 25% of LIU’s annual budget, and that today they only account for 14%.

What is a problem, Donahue says, is that LIU depends on tuition alone for over 90% of its revenue. (We’ve reached out to LIU for confirmation of this number and will update when we here back from them.) Without money coming from an endowment or fundraising, LIU is particularly vulnerable in times of economic woe; and if LIU faculty agree to tie their salaries to this, Donahue says, they will be, too.

Meanwhile, LIU’s academic problems go far beyond this current labor dispute or any state of the economy. In 2010, Washington Monthly listed LIU as #41 on its list of the 50 Worst College Dropout Factories in the country. According to the list, LIU has a graduation rate of 18 percent (which Professor Ali tells us is the six-year graduation rate, and that the four-year graduation rate is only seven percent). Looking at either number, the odds are not great for those students whose tuition is keeping the entire operation afloat.

Speaking of students, it’s hard to get a sense of how they are faring with beginning their semester with a strike. LIU reached out to them on their website, saying that certain classes will happen. (According to the union, LIU administrators teach certain classes anyway, but most courses will be hard to find subs for, as the LIUFF covers all adjuncts and CUNY’s union won’t let their instructors cross LIU’s picket line.) As Ali admitted, LIU is “mostly a commuter school,” and there is not a strong student hang-out vibe on the campus. Though the striking instructors were trying to talk to their brand new students on the sidewalk, it’s hard to connect with “students who mostly come to class and leave” when there are no classes.

A message posted this afternoon from the LIU Provost tells students they “will incur no financial liability until classes are resumed and the faculty have returned to the classroom. Accepting course syllabi and signing a class roster will not prompt any financial liability/responsibility on your part.”

Both the union and LIU have posted information about actual faculty salaries. We’ve also reached out to LIU about salaries and costs of administration.

Update – Friday, 5:15 PM:

Statement from LIU:

Long Island University, after resuming negotiations with the LIU Faculty Federation, believes an agreement will be reached and ratified no later than Monday, September 12, 2011. This agreement, pending ratification, will return our professors to their classrooms early next week and make it possible for students to embark on their semester’s coursework without further delay. The administration and the faculty care deeply about our students, and we eagerly look forward to getting back to the business of teaching and learning.

Update – Friday, 10:30 PM: The LIUFF confirms to us that negotiations will continue over the weekend, and they are “hopeful of presenting a proposal to membership on Monday.” Meanwhile, a tipster pointed us towards an LIU graph showing how much revenue came directly from student tuition in 2010. While it’s not quite as high as the LIUFF said, it still looks to be about 84%, an unusually high percentage for an institution of higher learning. Here’s how the revenue breaks down: