BY DEBORAH MUTNICK
Day 3 of the LIU lockout. Labor Day. I have been locked out of Long Island University’s Brooklyn campus by an administration that makes my colleagues and me feel like poster children for the neoliberal corporatization of higher education. We have lost our health care and other benefits, our pay, and our access to email and course management websites. On this Labor Day, we are unemployed.
The lockout is unprecedented in higher education. It is a union-busting tactic intended to bully the faculty into submission. Whether spearheaded by the board of trustees or the president, the lockout suggests, as one observer aptly put it, that we have “a bad actor at the helm.” True as this description is—affirming our experience at LIU over the past three years in particular—it would be a mistake to conclude that the lockout is simply the result of bad leadership.
Rather, we find ourselves unexpectedly at the vanguard of the new precariat of the professoriate. We know that we are not alone in facing draconian austerity policies and the diminution of faculty authority, and we know that those of us who are tenure track or tenured join our adjunct brothers and sisters at our own institution and across the country who have been living on the edge for decades.
My colleague Emily Drabinski has written movingly about the lessons of a lockout, how terrifying it is to wake up face-to-face with “brute power,” knowing she is at its mercy and experiencing it bodily: how the privilege she has experienced as a tenured professor could suddenly vanish—literally at the strike of midnight.
The lockout is shocking and we are feeling it viscerally. I share Emily’s sense of terror. But what’s happening to us is also part of a much bigger story of how working people are losing ground in education and other sectors to a tiny fraction of the world that is dispossessing the rest of us. I want here not to rehearse a litany of neoliberal policies but rather to focus on the rapidly increasing precariousness of all of us involved in education.
In Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class (1989), Barbara Ehrenreich argues that the middle class is defined by its need to work and its lack of any substantial inherited wealth, conditions that explain the pressures on middle class children to reproduce their class status through education. Ironically, even that road to middle class security has eroded so much that it is becoming nearly impassable.
On their first day of classes this Wednesday, LIU Brooklyn students will face a reality no others anywhere have ever before faced—an entire faculty of 450+ dedicated fulltime and adjunct professors locked out of their classrooms. Our students will be taught by administrators and union-busting subs, many completely unqualified and all unprepared. Like us, they have become a vanguard (appointed by circumstance) of a generation that has suffered through perhaps the worst era of K12-college education in American history. Their teachers are losing autonomy and corporate interests are taking over their—and our—classrooms. The university is becoming a ruthless marketplace and students are desperately trying to secure a future for them selves within and beyond it.
While I am still in shock three days after the lockout, and a part of me is terrified that I might lose my income and benefits for good, and then my house and my car and all the other stuff I take for granted, more than shock and terror I am feeling enraged and empowered.
Today the negotiating team returns to the table. Maybe there will be some positive movement. We hope so. If not, the union executive committee will argue against ratification despite the fear a lot of our colleagues understandably feel.
We’ll need to explain that caving into the administration’s effort to bully us into signing a bad contract while being locked out will send the wrong message not only to our own administration and board of trustees but also to our students, our lower level administrative friends, the other campus unions working without contracts, our colleagues across the country, and every other university president and trustee out there watching what happens at LIU.
If there is no movement today in negotiations, and if we reject the contract, we will be outside protesting on the first day of classes as bewildered, angry students pass through the campus gates without us, having been told by President Cline that “the University’s first priority is and will always be your education.” Really?