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Students at the Most Expensive University in America Are Going on Tuition Strike

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At the end of Novem­ber, mem­bers of the Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty-Barnard Col­lege chap­ter of Young Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca (YDSA) launched a tuition strike cam­paign against ?“exor­bi­tant tuition rates” which, they say, ?“con­sti­tute a sig­nif­i­cant source of finan­cial hard­ship” dur­ing the pan­dem­ic. Stu­dent demands are wide-rang­ing and include a 10% reduc­tion in the cost of atten­dance, 10% increase in finan­cial aid, and an amal­ga­ma­tion of demands from dis­parate stu­dent cam­paigns, many of which were set in motion long before the pan­dem­ic began. So far over 1,700 stu­dents have signed a peti­tionto with­hold tuition for the Spring 2021 semes­ter and any future dona­tions to the uni­ver­si­ty after graduating. 

Colum­bia has con­sis­tent­ly topped charts as the most expen­sive pri­vate uni­ver­si­ty in the coun­try, charg­ing over $61,000 a year in tuition and fees, which accounts for near­ly a quar­ter of the school’s rev­enue. ?”We just felt like the only way to pres­sure a uni­ver­si­ty that is struc­tured around the prof­it motive would be to direct­ly impact their bot­tom line,” says Emma­line Ben­nett, a stu­dent at Columbia’s Teach­ers Col­lege and one of the found­ing mem­bers of Colum­bia-Barnard YDSA, which she co-chairs.

Since the pan­dem­ic began, the university’s $11 bil­lion endow­ment has seen a $310 mil­lion increase while the response from admin­is­tra­tion, Ben­nett says, ?“has been most­ly emp­ty rhetoric around shared sacrifice.”

In These Times reached out to the uni­ver­si­ty admin­is­tra­tion and did not hear back by the time of pub­li­ca­tion. In a Decem­ber 1 arti­cle in Patch, a uni­ver­si­ty spokesper­son said, ?“Through­out this dif­fi­cult year, Colum­bia has remained focused on pre­serv­ing the health and safe­ty of our com­mu­ni­ty, ful­fill­ing our com­mit­ment to anti-racism, pro­vid­ing the edu­ca­tion sought by our stu­dents, and con­tin­u­ing the sci­en­tif­ic and oth­er research need­ed to over­come soci­ety’s seri­ous challenges.” 

Bec­ca Roskill, a junior in Columbia’s school of engi­neer­ing and sec­re­tary of Colum­bia-Barnard YDSA, says that the cam­paign has been care­ful to frame the tuition strike as a means of address­ing the ongo­ing stu­dent debt cri­sis and not just wors­en­ing con­di­tions under Covid-19. ?“We want­ed to shift the con­ver­sa­tion away from pay­ing less because of online class­es and shift the con­ver­sa­tion toward a cri­sis that’s emerged from the fact that we’re treat­ing edu­ca­tion as a com­mod­i­ty in the first place.”

Lead­ing up to the strike’s announce­ment, stu­dents orga­nized a peti­tion for par­tial tuition reim­burse­ment (dif­fer­ent from the one list­ed above), an email cam­paign and phone zaps, a pres­sure tac­tic used to flood office lines, to impress upon admin­is­tra­tors the bur­dens of the university’s exces­sive costs. Before the start of the Fall semes­ter, a tuition freeze was issued for the university’s two main under­grad­u­ate schools, Colum­bia Col­lege and the Fu Foun­da­tion School of Engi­neer­ing and Applied Sci­ence?—?con­ces­sions that Ben­nett believes were a direct response to stu­dent orga­niz­ing over the sum­mer. But sup­port for stu­dents and work­ers across cam­pus, Ben­nett says, has been uneven, and the tuition strike is aimed at much more than just high tuition. 

In addi­tion to low­er­ing the cost of atten­dance and increas­ing finan­cial aid, the tuition strike has includ­ed demands to put an end to cam­pus expan­sion, invest in the sur­round­ing West Harlem com­mu­ni­ty, defund the university’s Depart­ment of Pub­lic Safe­ty (the cam­pus law enforce­ment body), com­mit to trans­paren­cy around the university’s finan­cial invest­ments, and bar­gain in good faith with unions on campus.

“We just felt like the only way to pressure a university that is structured around the profit motive would be to directly impact their bottom line,” —Emmaline Bennett, student at Columbia’s Teachers College.

“The stu­dents orga­niz­ing the tuition strike view it as a last-resort tac­tic to com­pel the uni­ver­si­ty to lis­ten to demands that stu­dents have been orga­niz­ing around for the past few years,” reads a state­ment released Mon­day. The tuition strike has received wide sup­port in part by build­ing coali­tions with oth­er groups on cam­pus that have put for­ward their own demands in the past. This includes ref­er­en­dums vot­ed on by the stu­dent body, which the demands let­ter says should be respect­ed and enforced.

A ref­er­en­dum that was passed in Sep­tem­ber demand­ing the uni­ver­si­ty divest from com­pa­nies that prof­it from or sup­port Israel’s human rights abus­es against Pales­tini­ans was the cul­mi­na­tion of years of orga­niz­ing from mem­bers of Stu­dents for Jus­tice in Pales­tine and Jew­ish Voice for Peace. The ref­er­en­dum has been all but dis­missed by the admin­is­tra­tion despite being passed by the stu­dent body. Sim­i­lar­ly, admin­is­tra­tors have been slow to respond to stu­dent demands to divest the school’s endow­ment from fos­sil fuels, a cam­paign that has been waged on cam­pus since 2015. YDSA has been busy build­ing ties with the cam­pus chap­ters of Extinc­tion Rebel­lion and the Sun­rise Movement.

The tuition strike has also includ­ed demands from Mobi­lized African Dias­po­ra (MAD), a coali­tion of Black stu­dent activists on cam­pus that sent its own detailed list of demands to Colum­bia Pres­i­dent Lee Bollinger. After spend­ing the sum­mer mobi­liz­ing against police vio­lence, MAD called for the uni­ver­si­ty to com­mit to anti-racism and pro­vide employ­ment and afford­able hous­ing to the sur­round­ing Harlem com­mu­ni­ty, end the university’s rela­tion­ship with the New York Police Depart­ment, cut fund­ing from the university’s Depart­ment of Pub­lic Safe­ty and increase sup­port for Black students.

On Decem­ber 3, mere days after the strike’s announce­ment, Barnard Col­lege can­celed its search for a new exec­u­tive direc­tor of Pub­lic Safe­ty and announced it would restruc­ture the office to focus on com­mu­ni­ty safe­ty under the new Com­mu­ni­ty Account­abil­i­ty, Response, and Emer­gency Ser­vices office. Ben­nett says MAD has been a major coali­tion part­ner, and the group’s demands to repair harm to the sur­round­ing com­mu­ni­ty and invest in com­mu­ni­ty safe­ty solu­tions are reflect­ed in the tuition strike.

YDSA’s let­ter to the admin­is­tra­tion also includes a demand to bar­gain in good faith with unions on cam­pus for increased ben­e­fits and com­pen­sa­tion in addi­tion to pro­tec­tions for inter­na­tion­al stu­dents. State­ments from the tuition strike cam­paign have empha­sized that cuts to cost of atten­dance ?“should not come at the expense of instruc­tor or work­er pay, but rather at the expense of bloat­ed admin­is­tra­tive salaries, expan­sion projects, and oth­er expens­es that don’t ben­e­fit stu­dents and workers.”

The Grad­u­ate Work­ers of Colum­bia-Unit­ed Auto Work­ers Local 2110(GWC-UAW), which has been the recip­i­ent of strike sup­port and sol­i­dar­i­ty from YDSA, will be ask­ing its mem­ber­ship to pledge their sup­port for the strike. This would include dis­trib­ut­ing tuition strike mate­ri­als to stu­dents and con­tin­u­ing to teach stu­dents who plan on with­hold­ing tuition even if told not to by uni­ver­si­ty officials.

Susan­nah Glick­man, a fifth year PhD stu­dent in his­to­ry at Columbia’s Grad­u­ate School of Arts and Sci­ences and a mem­ber of GWC’s bar­gain­ing com­mit­tee, says YDSA and the union have been work­ing close­ly to sup­port each oth­er. ?“It’s good that stu­dents rec­og­nize that they have some pow­er to influ­ence the con­ver­sa­tion [around cor­po­rate gov­er­nance], even if they’re not employ­ees,” Glick­man said. ?“They prob­a­bly have more [pow­er] because they’re the finan­cial base of the university.”

Tuition strike orga­niz­ers say the idea for a tuition strike pre­ced­ed the pan­dem­ic, but was in part inspired by the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go where 200stu­dents with­held pay­ments in late April with a num­ber of demands, includ­ing a 50% reduc­tion in tuition. By the end of their tuition strike in mid-May, Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go stu­dents had won a freeze on tuition, which is now over $57,000 a year?–??–?sec­ond only to Colum­bia. Today, the total cost of atten­dance at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go is esti­mat­ed to be upwards of $80,000 a year when includ­ing fees, room and board, per­son­al expens­es and books.

With over 1,700 stu­dents signed on, Columbia’s tuition strike next spring could rep­re­sent the largest tuition strike since 1973, when stu­dents at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan with­held pay­ments in oppo­si­tion to a 24% increase in tuition from the year before. About 2,500 signed up for a tuition strike which coin­cid­ed with a wave of labor orga­niz­ing on the part of teach­ing fel­lows and oth­er grad­u­ate employ­ees. While the stu­dent tuition strike alone was not enough to win con­ces­sions from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michigan’s admin­is­tra­tion, the Grad­u­ate Employ­ees’ Orga­ni­za­tion (GEO), which rep­re­sents grad­u­ate work­ers on cam­pus, was ulti­mate­ly able to win a tuition reduc­tion and increased pay and ben­e­fits through con­tract nego­ti­a­tions after more than half of under­grad­u­ate stu­dents joined GEO mem­bers in a pick­et line in Feb­ru­ary 1975.

As stu­dents con­tin­ue to mobi­lize toward next semester’s tuition strike, YDSA orga­niz­ers report an increase in mem­ber­ship and par­tic­i­pa­tion with­in their chap­ter, which some believe has been strength­ened by their abil­i­ty to orga­nize digitally.

“I think we’ve seen a strength­en­ing in our com­mu­ni­ty that we did­n’t expect to be able to cater to over Zoom,” says Roskill. ?”And we’re real­ly hope­ful that social­ist pol­i­tics will pro­vide an answer to the polit­i­cal ques­tions that weren’t being answered by Biden or Trump, par­tic­u­lar­ly on stu­dent debt advocacy.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on December 4, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Indigo Olivier is an In These Times Good­man Inves­tiga­tive Fellow.


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“We Demand Food for Thought”: UIC Grad Workers On Strike for Living Wages and Respect

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In front of the historic Jane Addams Hull-House Museum on March 19, University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) graduate workers began an indefinite strike. The union is joining a national movement of higher education employees demanding livable wages and better working conditions in the often-unstable field of academia.

The strike is the result of more than a year of negotiations between UIC Graduate Employees Organization (GEO) Local 6297and the university administration. Since September 2018, over 1,500 teaching and graduate assistants have worked without a contract. An overwhelming 99.5 percent of UIC GEO members authorized a strike last month as part of a wave of educator work actions, from public school teachers in Los Angeles and West Virginia to faculty at Rutgers University and Wright State University. Jeff Schuhrke, co-president of the UIC GEO and labor history Ph.D. candidate, said the strike exemplifies the vital labor graduate students provide.

“The University of Illinois system just seems to not care about its employees and is always very hostile to collective bargaining and to unions,” Schuhrke told In These Times. “They just try to lowball us and they disrespect us. We’re fed up with it, obviously.”

UIC graduate employees make a minimum salary of $18,065 for two semesters of 20-hour work weeks, with $13,502 in fee and tuition waivers. Schuhrke said this doesn’t account for the amount and quality of labor, which can include teaching classes for up to 60 students. He said since the union was recognized by the university in 2004, “modest” raises haven’t accounted for increasing university fees, which cut into graduate employees’ salaries. Currently, UIC GEO is seeking a 24 percent pay increase over three years, with the university offering 11.5 percent.

“They can give us raises all they want,” he said, “but as long as they can just introduce new fees any time they feel like it or increase the fees, that just serves as a back door pay cut.”

In recent years, the university has boasted record-high enrollment and projects to improve existing infrastructure and invest in academic expansions, including recently acquiring the John Marshall Law School. Schuhrke said, “The reason students come here is for an education, not the shiny new buildings, and we’re the ones providing that education.”

The strike is already having an impact on campus with some classes canceled. On the sunny Tuesday afternoon outside the bustling UIC Student Centers, hundreds of graduate students and allies picketed with clever signs like, “We Demand Food for Thought,” and classic protest chants, such as, “This is what democracy looks like.” A giant inflatable Mother Jones representing the iconic socialist labor organizer watched over the crowd. UIC GEO also organized a GoFundMe to cover strike costs and potential docks in salary, which Schuhrke said the university might use as a scare tactic.

Many striking students said they don’t make enough to pay for living expenses and rely on food aid and other assistance. A Ph.D. student in the biology department who prefers to remain anonymous said he’s working on getting Medicaid for his young child, as he can’t afford campus health care, even with a waiver.

“Better salaries is an important step: lower fees, lower tuition,” he said. “Those things really impact us because we don’t have huge salaries, so every small amount that we can save is a huge help.”

International students who, according to Schuhrke, make up a little under half of the GEO UIC members, are also central to bargaining. They face an additional fee each semester, as well as work limitations, particularly during the summer.

Dominican Republic-native Natalia Ruiz-Vargas came to Chicago to complete a Ph.D. in biology, but said the financial strains can be alienating for people who are not U.S. nationals. “If you have family back home and you’re alone over here and someone gets sick, you can’t really find the money to go back, so it can be a little lonelier,” she said. “We can’t apply for any financial aid outside of what we already have from the university.”

When reached for comment, the university sent a press release that highlighted the union’s right to demonstrate, but stated, “We believe that this work stoppage is not in the best interest of the University, or our students.” While striking graduate assistants aren’t completing instruction, mentoring and coursework revision, many of their students are expressing solidarity.

English and political science undergraduate Joseph Strom is part of the UIC Student and Worker Advocacy Network. A resident assistant on campus, Strom said the strike is an opportunity to educate students about labor issues instead of pairing co-eds against their educators. He said some of his professors are expressing support by giving online work so they don’t have to cross the picket line. The UIC United Faculty union is also currently in negotiations, having worked without a contract since last fall.

GEO Co-President Schuhrke said, “We talked to a lot of our students beforehand and let them know why we’re doing this, that our working conditions are their learning conditions.”

Members of GEO University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) in Southern Illinois are coming to Chicago to increase demonstration numbers, as they go up against the same administration. In February 2018, the UIUC GEO led an almost two-week long strike for higher salaries and guaranteed tuition waivers. The plastic buckets that provided a soundtrack to their picket are now being used by UIC students. UIUC GEO treasurer Allan Axelrod, who studies agricultural and biological engineering, is spending spring break making multiple trips with fellow graduate students.

“We understand all the issues that are going on there, especially things like the higher incidence of mental health issues that is a product of the poor working conditions of graduate employees,” said Axelrod. “When we show solidarity, we actually are paving the path toward improving our own working conditions because we’re under the same threat each bargaining cycle.”

For Axelrod and others, this extends beyond the public university system. A 2016 National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) decision granting private university students employee status has galvanized student workers to organize through collective labor. Only a few miles from UIC’s Near West Side campus, University of Chicago graduate students have fought since 2007 for recognition of their Graduate Student Union (GSU). Last fall, they participated in one of their school’s biggest demonstrations in recent years, a response to their overwhelming vote in favor of unionization despite administrative pushback.

GSU brought its case to the NLRB, but withdrew along with Yale University and Boston College, worried that under President Trump, a business-friendly Republican majority would overturn the 2016 precedent. Further, last year’s Janus Supreme Court decision prevents public sectors unions from collecting dues from nonmembers. Co-President Schuhrke said they saw a slight membership decrease following Janus, but it “made them more militant and more angry.” No matter how long the UIC strike lasts, graduate students are clearly using it as a teachable moment.

“This [university] administration has a great responsibility,” said Schuhrke. “We hope our students are learning by participating in this and watching this how to stand up for your rights, stand up for justice and organize.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on March 20, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Hannah Steinkopf-Frank is a Chicago-based freelance writer and photographer. Her work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Atlas Obscura, Bitch Media, the Columbia Journalism Review, JSTOR Daily and Paper Magazine, among others.


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As Universities are Gutted, Grad Student Employee Unions Can Provide a Vital Defense

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The exploitation of academic workers has simmered for decades. Now, buoyed by a National Labor Relations Board ruling that graduate employees at private universities have the right to unionize, a new generation is organizing unions across private universities—defying a wave of pushback from administrations. Some students win (Columbia, Loyola). Some withdraw (Duke). Some get caught in a limbo of university appeals (Yale).

But all of these efforts are integral to the U.S. labor movement, as graduate workers challenge their own exploitation and the neoliberal decimation of the higher-education institutions that employ them.

I’m a graduate worker at Vanderbilt University and a member of the committee organizing to unionize 1,200 graduate employees. I attend graduate school out of a passion for learning, writing and teaching young people. I came here to critique Western intellectual history by analyzing social, economic and political issues. These matters impact my life and the lives of loved ones; they are not academic hobbies or intellectual fancies. Even lecturing is no mere academic exercise: Higher education is what fosters democratic citizenship. It cultivates capacities for critical self-reflection, engagement in public discourse and thoughtful participation in a rapidly changing world. We need these pursuits now more than ever.

I did not come to graduate school to spend thousands of dollars out-of- pocket to fulfill professional obligations while watching my institution insidiously cut funding opportunities for faculty and graduate workers. I did not come to graduate school to listen to administrators rebrand us as students gaining ‘experiential education opportunities’ rather than as employees teaching introductory classes, executing research programs, or building scholarly communities. Most importantly, I did not come to graduate school to bolster a system that abuses its workers, ignores academic rigor, overlooks sexual harassment allegations against distinguished (male) faculty, engages in unlawful labor practices and disregards the needs of its staff and faculty.

And yet, this system demands that I participate by providing constant intellectual, physical and emotional labor, despite minimal job security.

Many scholars have already exposed the decline of education and the poor labor conditions of university educators. In his 2011 The Fall of the Faculty, Benjamin Ginsberg published a devastating analysis of the decline of faculty power. More recently, Elizabeth Anderson’s 2015 Tanner Lectures at Princeton, published as Private Government, chronicled dictatorial employment practices. And last month, University of Michigan dual-Ph.D. candidate Maximillian Alvarez penned “Contingent No More,” a manifesto criticizing the laissez-fare academic culture that perpetuates the “neoliberization of higher education.”

These writers illuminate the struggles of a new generation of faculty and graduate workers in academia. Burdened by insurmountable student debt and confronted by the machinery of U.S. capitalism, we fight just to survive.

Recent struggles in higher education are part of a long history of economic exploitation and domination over workers, problems that have pervaded U.S. society since its racist, genocidal and profit-driven founding. Whereas in the 1970s almost 80 percent of faculty were full-time, universities today have shifted to a contingent employment model. Non-tenure track faculty now compose 70 percent of the academic labor force, 41 percent of whom are part-time. Graduate workers are 13 percent of the academic labor force, almost 5 percent more than full-time, tenure-track faculty.

Why? Because contingent labor is cheap, and no tenure means we’re expendable. This allows universities to slash salaries for faculty while expanding bureaucratic administrations that obstruct grievance processes and legal redress.

In fact, Business Insider reveals that tuition has increased by 260 percent since 1980, compared to the 120 percent increase in consumer items over the same period. So, where is that money going, if not to faculty and graduate employee salaries? It is going to university administrators, whose employment has increased by 221 percent from 1975 to 2008. In contrast, faculty employment has increased by only 3.5 percent.

All the while, faculty and students are left in the dark as to how university revenue is spent. The Illinois State Senate’s 99 Percent General Assembly 2015 Report on Executive Compensation notes that “tuition increases have coincided with a dramatic increase in administrative costs, including the size of administrative departments and compensation packages for executives.” Vanderbilt University’s Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos was cited by Forbes as the fifth-highest- paid university president in 2012, with an annual salary of $2.23 million. He and 35 other university presidents across America made over $1 million that year. Nearly 40 percent of university presidents are eligible for financial bonuses for increasing statistics like graduation rates, at the expense of faculty resources for research and conference travel.

For the administrative university, undergraduates—our students—have gone from ‘future leaders’ to ‘commodities.’

The generation of capital, rather than free and critical thought, is increasingly becoming the purpose of higher education. Deans see themselves as micro-CEOs, while provosts and chancellors view the university as a money-making venture. We instructors are the face of the university and provide the classroom education that students pay for, yet revenue we bring in doesn’t pay for our security. Instead, we are told that admission to a doctoral program is a gift, that our employers are benevolent, and that quiet gratitude is the only appropriate response to our conditions. They pretend this is enough to ignore watching us sink below a living wage, struggle with mental health with little support, and work ourselves to exhaustion.

This piece was originally published at In These Times on July 5, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Sabeen Ahmed is a PhD student in the Department of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University. She is interested in social and political philosophy and critical phenomenology. She is currently working to analyze refugee discourses through a critique of Western intellectual history.


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