Long Island University Faculty Lockout: A Grim Look into Higher Ed's Future?

We are witnessing a brand new tactic in administrations’ efforts to cut budgets and discipline faculty.

 Ever since the Great Recession, higher education has been in the crosshairs of the budget cutters. As state tax revenues plunged, state legislatures across the country slashed their contributions to public colleges and universities. At the same time parents abandoned pricier private institutions in droves, pushing many into crisis mode; public colleges picked up much of the difference, at the exact moment politicians were undermining their capacity.

Some states went even further: Wisconsin’s Scott Walker mounted an alternately full-throated and devious attack on his own flagship institution, seeking to water down its core mission and eliminate tenure for faculty.

On the private side, as enrollment declines have forced colleges to compete for a dwindling group of 18-year-olds, the liberal arts, especially the humanities, got hammered. In my discipline, history, many departments have half as many majors as they did in 2008. Parents have―understandably if short-sightedly—pushed their children to enroll in majors and professional schools that appear to have a more reliable connection to postgraduate employment: business, the STEM disciplines, health professions.

But now, at the downtown Brooklyn campus of Long Island University we are witnessing a brand new tactic in administrations’ efforts to cut budgets and discipline faculty—the lockout. To no one’s surprise, contract negotiations between the administration and the faculty union stalled this summer when the administration put a dreadful proposal on the table and then refused to budge. “It was strike bait,” according to English Professor Jonathan Haynes, even though the union leadership and negotiating team opposed a strike.

President Kimberly Cline’s true bad faith—she has yet to sign a contract with any of the four unions at her institution—became even clearer when the university began planning to hire scab professors as early as July. Over Labor Day weekend, days after the faculty’s contract expired, and with classes due to start that Wednesday, the university told its 400 faculty that their salaries were stopped, their health insurance and email accounts were canceled, and they were not welcome to meet their classes.

Claiming in disingenuous double-speak that “LIU’s first priority is our students,” the university has scrambled to put replacement bodies—scabs―in front of classes. Lots of students are furious, arguing that they’re paying tuition for the real thing—not whoever a duplicitous administration can scrape up to deliver other people’s syllabi.

My colleagues in labor history point out that no institution of higher learning has ever employed this tactic before—one pioneered by Andrew Carnegie (actually his second in command Henry Clay Frick) at the Homestead Steelworks in 1892. U.S. labor law prohibits workers being replaced permanently during a lockout, so it doesn’t seem likely that the entire faculty will lose their jobs—at least right away.

If the tactic works, though, look for the growing number of desperate college and university presidents and boards of trustees to look longingly backwards in history, to a time when employers faced few legal constraints, and used bad economic times and a surplus of available labor to push down wages and destroy unions. And look for President Cline to move on to her next budget-slashing, union-busting gig—along with a hefty raise.

The faculty needs to win this one: for themselves, for their families, and for the rest of us in the increasingly uncertain business of higher education.