Guess Who's Really Getting Scrooged At LIU Brooklyn?

Two businessmen, one with pocket full of money
Two businessmen, one with pocket full of money

From The Atlantic (Monthly) to the Pacific, newspapers, magazines, online education news sites, columnists, bloggers, pundits, activists, unionists, Facebook friends and Tweeps worked the "Je Suis Charlie" angle hard on behalf of the 400 faculty whom the President of Long Island University-Brooklyn (LIU-Brooklyn) locked out for 12 days in response to a contract dispute. The faculty lost their health and dental insurance, to boot, as well as access to school email accounts.

For LIU President Kimberly Cline, the lockout was a bad news buffet, in part because most mainstream media education reporters lack a fundamental understanding of the inner workings of higher education and higher education unions. The blind led the blind into the same ditch of simplistic reporting and rehashed skirmish journalism.

Is it any wonder the American public was decidedly disinterested?

The education media coverage was predictably deep on hyperbole and frenzy and shallow on nuance. The coverage of the "battle," the "conflict," the "war" between LIU and the faculty union has been shrill and predictably partisan. This disconnect does a disservice to the public, particularly since higher education is a multi-trillion dollar industry that is reported on with infrequency by the mainstream media.

Such reporting does an even greater disservice to LIU's adjunct faculty who are being used as puppets in a very public charade by their own union leaders.

Let me explain.

According to a recent LIUFF union member update, adjuncts are "the group of faculty who teach the majority of classes at LIU." To hear the union's negotiators tell it, the proposal from the administration is "a regression that our part time members truly cannot endure." That's saying a lot because, as we know, adjunct faculty across the globe endure enormous pay gaps, lack of job security, caprices and a level of professional disrespect that could be described as coming dangerously close to sadistic--from their employers and their own union leadership.

This dispute should have resulted in widespread news coverage of the lopsided union contract under which LIU's adjunct union members toil. The lockout ought have raised pointed questions about how these contractual disparities came to be, how they've been perpetuated and to whose advantage (hint: it's not just fat cat administrators).

Judging from the news coverage thus far, mainstream media reporters have little appetite to wade through the LIUFF's 165-page union contract. It's a pity, because a much juicier, spicier and important news story awaits the reporter who spots the enormous gaps in pay, benefits and overall lack of employment parity that separates the school's full- and part-time faculty, despite a consolidated union local and long-time union representation.

With that bit of backstory, the LIUFF's insistence that the 12-day stand-off was precipitated by the college's outlandish proposals to cut the pay and "benefits" for adjunct faculty resembles more The Lady Doth Protest Too Much and much less We Happy Few, We Band of Brothers.

Before I criticize, it's fair to first give LIU-Brooklyn President Dr. Kimberly Cline her due. Shortly after her arrival in 2013, Dr. Cline took an axe to LIU's administrative bloat: she condensed the PR department then fired administrators and staff in the Conolly College Dean's office, Public Relations, Advertisement, Admissions, Registrar, Academic Reinforcement Center, ESL, Secretarial staff and Telephone Services. She also trimmed the ranks of the faculty. Dr. Cline made clear that at LIU-Brooklyn the sun did not revolve around the college's administrative organizational flowchart. What she did was courageous and forward-thinking.

Alas, the LIU president's present proposals concerning cuts to adjunct teaching hours and benefits come off as having been devised by a summa cum laude graduate of the Ebenezer Scrooge School of Management & Parsimony. Here they are:

  • Cut the single hour of pay given to adjuncts for office hours;
  • Cut the $80,000 Adjunct Benefit Trust Fund (used by adjuncts to offset the cost of their self-funded health and dental insurance premiums);
  • Cut $65,000 lump sum seniority payment for adjuncts (which the union was using to provide a pension plan for part-timers).

"Are there no workhouses?" Dr. Cline might be expected to enquire.

Here's where reading the union contract comes in handy in telling a more interesting, important and nuanced story. Think of it as the moment when we read of Scrooge coming face-to-face with the ghost of his long-dead partner Jacob Marley, whose long, heavy chain Marley wears around his body, forged during his life. The union contract is the long, heavy chain forged by LIU's full-time faculty union leaders and wrapped tightly around the college's adjuncts.

The union contract provides 60 minutes of office hour pay to adjunct faculty who teach ten or more credit hours in a given semester. LIU courses are normally three credit hours, and LIU adjunct faculty are contractually permitted to teach a maximum of 12 credit hours (4 classes). Thus, the ten credit hour minimum necessary to be paid for the single office hour is really little more than a bit of hotdog on a string with the majority of LIU adjuncts chasing it.

Likewise, the Adjunct Benefit Trust Fund cut sounds draconian--unless you remember that Obamacare offers very generous health insurance premium subsidies to people who earn less than $25,000 per year.

According to a 2013 piece by NPR, "Adjuncts typically earn between $20,000 and $25,000 annually." LIU-Brooklyn adjuncts earn $1,800 per course.

There's also this: Since 2011, the LIU has contributed $80,000 annually to the Adjunct Benefit Trust Fund, with no negotiated increases. The union contract "allows" adjunct faculty to self-insure under the auspices of the college's health insurance program. Simply put, this means the lowest paid faculty fork over 100 percent of the cost of their health insurance premiums. Per the contact, full-time faculty--whose salaries start at $80,000 and go up to $150,000--pay 18-25 percent of the cost of their health insurance premiums.

LIU's president wants to cut seniority payments for adjuncts. Wrong-headed, yes, but again, there's more of Jacob Marley's chain in the details.

According to the contract, each year, LIU gave over $65,000 to the union for Adjunct Seniority Payments (approximately $300 per adjunct). This money was to be distributed "amongst the adjunct faculty in a manner to be determined by the Union." The union used the money, according to its negotiators, "to provide a minimal sum to be used toward a pension plan." To call such a sum for 250 people's retirement minimal is taking unfair advantage of literary license.

A 2014 piece in The Atlantic included this: "[A] report by the American Association of University Professors showed that adjuncts now constitute 76.4 percent of U.S. faculty across all institutional types, from liberal-arts colleges to research universities to community colleges. A study released by the U.S. House of Representatives in January reveals that the majority of these adjuncts live below the poverty line."

Per the union contract, each full-time LIU retiree receives $50,000 to purchase retiree health insurance benefits through the university's retiree health insurance program (adjunct faculty are barred from participation). Add to this the fact that the full-time faculty at LIU are in up in arms because, according to union bargainers, "Full-time hires will receive lower contributions to TIAA/CREF (8% rather than 11%)." The union contract requires LIU to match pension contributions for full-time faculty up to 11 percent.

Is it any wonder, then, that the majority of adjuncts live and retire below the poverty line, including those who are unionized? The media should be asking pointed questions about why a union contract permits $65,000 in seniority pay to be used instead to provide a minimal sum toward a pension plan for the adjunct faculty as opposed to union leaders bargaining for pension plan parity.

So what's really at the heart of the dispute between Dr. Cline and the members of LIUFF whose expired contract was recently extended through May of 2017?

More pay for full-time faculty.

According to LIUFF union officials, full-time faculty at LIU-Brooklyn are paid starting salaries that are $16,000 less than those faculty on the LIU-Post campus, whose salaries start at $96,000. Full-time faculty on the Brooklyn campus want those starting salaries raised.

In addition, the full-timers object to the administration's insistence on post-tenure review. Yet, the LIUFF contract requires adjunct faculty to reappointed based on annual "positive reviews."

University officials propose to cut the maximum number of credit hours adjuncts are permitted to teach from 12 per semester to nine per semester. LIUFF union officials have framed this proposal as a heartless reduction in adjunct pay. The truth is less altruistic: if adjuncts teach fewer classes, full-time faculty will be required to do so, because LIU's president wants a new contract that increases class sizes.

Given the frequency with which some in higher education testify before state legislatures, comment, and publish essays in mainstream newspapers alleging (incorrectly) that adjunct faculty adversely impact student retention and success, it's not a stretch to see why Dr. Cline wants more credit hours taught by full-time faculty.

The labor dispute at LIU-Brooklyn is a story of the 99 Percenters who teach less than half the credit hours, but whose salaries, perks and benefits amount to over 80 percent of the money allocated to faculty compensation, and the 1 Percenters. These faculty, despite union representation, remain seated in an economic Jim Crow upper balcony; they do not get equal pay for equal work.

Since women comprise the majority of faculty off the tenure-track, the dispute at LIU-Brooklyn illuminates the pernicious, growing pay and benefits gap between women and men in higher education. Make no mistake, the LIU-Brooklyn dispute is about money. More than that, however, it's about privilege, power and the larger question of whether higher education unions with both full-time and part-time faculty members should be forced under the auspices of federal law--Title IX, for instance-- to provide equal representation to both adjunct and full-time faculty.

Adjunct faculty comprise over 76 percent of the American professorate, and this lockout is a chapter in the infrequently reported on story of institutionalized sex and economic discrimination that directly and indirectly impacts the hundreds of thousands of adjunct faculty who teach 15 million American college students each and every day.