When Columbia University celebrated its 250th anniversary in 2003, Lee Bollinger became President honored the history of Colombia and special place in society as “one of the leading universities in the world”. He noted that a university’s purpose of cultivating “democratic personalities” in our students and society at large rests on “a spirited curiosity coupled with a concern for others (the essence of what we call humanism)”. A great university, he noted, serves as a humanistic counterpoint to “more commonly cited interests of property and power around which we organize the economic and political systems.”
Today it’s hard to deny that Colombia was lost.
The recently concluded negotiations between Columbia University and its graduate student/workers, ending a months-long graduate student strike, serve as a lesson in that the modern, private university no longer embodies the higher calling Bollinger touted. Columbia’s approach to contract negotiations with graduate students shows how it has evolved into something of a predatory business, more like a real estate holding venture than an institutional player, whose original patent letter placed it outside of, and perhaps in opposition to, market-based, for-profit norms and values .
As a Columbia professor for over 20 years, I have witnessed several negotiation sessions between the university and the students/workers and walked away in disbelief. The university hired attorney Bernie Plum to sit at the table on their behalf. Plum, an attorney for a well-known anti-union law firm, approached negotiations with the graduate students/employees the same way he would any of his other corporate clients. When student negotiators justified their demands for wages, childcare allowances, and meaningful measures to address discriminatory harassment by the faculty on grounds based on their reality as students and employees of the university, Plum’s response was never with a substantive counterargument intended to justify the university Position. Rather, he barked at her, “Why should we do that? What do you give us for it?” For him it was just a game between two unequally strong teams. This makes sense, of course, given that his expertise, touted on the firm’s website, lies in representing sports management.
The Provost’s frequent communications to faculty reflected a similar approach to negotiation, rarely explaining the university’s position in terms of our mission as a research and teaching institution, but rather pointing to Harvard or other peer schools, noting that Columbia is something like much offer as the students got in these schools. The starting point was the market, not something inherent in a university.
Other have noticed that universities have come to see their students as consumers. In Columbia’s case, they’re treated more as revenue streams to be squeezed for maximum return on investment. Columbia is playing that game quite well, as the union negotiations came against the backdrop of Columbia’s endowment fund growing a dazzling 32.3 percent in fiscal 2021. Departments in the Arts and Sciences have been instructed to stop accepting graduate students who tend not to be sources of income while at university continues to invest in terminal master programs, a kind of academic money cow that often leaves students in enormous debt. Columbia was recently named a lawsuit which accused 16 universities of antitrust violations for participating in a “price-fixing cartel” that worked together to reduce the level of student financial aid in order to maximize tuition revenue.