The Battle of LIU-Brooklyn: Whose University Is It Anyway?
This one matters to all of us.
I don’t really know what happens to my semester syllabus when I email it to my department. I assume it’s collected with the other syllabi somewhere. Maybe someone reviews it to make sure I’m not up to anything too lunatic.
But at LIU Brooklyn, currently in the midst of an administrative lockout of faculty, instructors’ syllabi are being used by scab labor to “teach” their classes.
Or not. Based on the testimony of LIU Brooklyn students, not much teaching is happening with courses staffed by unqualified instructors, or not staffed at all.
A couple weeks into the semester and the administration is asking for “resumes” of the people they’ve hired to teach the courses.
This has me wondering, though, who does the syllabus belong to? Should someone else be allowed to take “my” syllabus and teach a course from it? Would that course be my course?
Those of us who teach know that the answer is “no,” that the course itself takes shape only when instructor and students interact, hopefully generating the byproduct of learning. (On both sides of the relationship.) Without that process, how can the course be said to exist in any meaningful way?
The events at LIU Brooklyn seem to be putting that question to the test.
As Aaron Barlow observes at Academy Blog, the lockout by LIU Brooklyn administration looks like an object lesson in not just how to destroy that college, but a roadmap for destroying college in general.
LIU Brooklyn is the ultimate expression of a much broader trend that has established the labor of teaching as essentially fungible. As long as someone is available to stand in front of the room in the role of “professor,” LIU Brooklyn administration seems to believe that education is happening.
The same trend is evident in the adjunctification of faculty, where little concern is given to whether or not an instructor will be part of the institution for longer than a semester, or in some cases have the bare minimum of support necessary to teach their courses.
The same trend is evident in the initial (now almost entirely dissipated) enthusiasm for MOOCs, which seek to substitute access to content for interaction with an instructor. The same trend is evident in the promoters of the “university of everywhere.” If it does not matter where the learning is happening, it probably also does not matter who is doing the teaching. When the credential is the focus, we can give credentials for whatever we want.
Barlow thinks we should be deeply worried about the consequences of the ultimate outcome at LIU Brooklyn, “If LIU succeeds in destroying the LIUFF and its faculty, administrators everywhere will breathe a sigh of relief. All of us on faculties across the nation will find ourselves on the path to contingent status. No longer will we tenured (and tenure-track) full-times be trying to bring contingent hires and adjuncts more firmly into the faculty fold—but we will be joining those others in their uneasy and, ultimately, untenable status.”
I don’t think a victory for administrators will hasten an immediate wave of similar actions, but over time, we will look back at it as a turning point, the same way we should see the Wisconsin state legislature acting to redefine tenure as a turning point. As Barlow says, we are in the midst of a battle over whether or not colleges and universities are run from the top-down as administrative bureaucracies, or from the bottom-up as places of instruction and learning.
I was just kidding about that “battle” part. That battle is over, and for the most part, faculty failed to notice that battle was even happening before it was over.
Clearly administrations are in control, except in the increasing number of states (like Wisconsin) where legislatures pull the strings, often with the help of compliant or cowed administrators.
The notion that faculty of any stripe have sufficient power to resist these larger forces is starting to seem quaint. Faculty are not only outgunned, but also often seem reluctant to use the power they do have, particularly in extending that help to their faculty colleagues in less fortunate circumstances.
Maybe there is a glimmer of hope, however, as evidenced in the solidarity that LIU Brooklyn students are demonstrating with the locked out faculty. The students seem to recognize that paying tuition for a course that doesn’t meet, or is staffed by an unqualified instructor is not something one should accept, and definitely not something one should pay for.
Unless you are one of the rare college faculty who is essentially self-funding through external grants, or of such superstar prominence that elite institutions will compete for your services, as though you’re someone important, like say, a football coach, the only power you possess is your labor, and the only labor that is meaningful in this equation is teaching.
Students will not act in solidarity to protect your research course release, but even in an era where credentialing seems more important than learning, students know when they’ve had an experience worth paying for.
If the contemporary university is going to be run top-down like a business, and faculty are not actually central to the institution, but are instead employees responsible to the supervisors above, it’s important for faculty to demand the resources necessary to do the work of teaching and to provide those resources to all of those who work as instructional faculty, regardless of title.
It is the only thing of value we have left because it’s the value that students are willing to protect as meaningful.
For how much longer is this going to be true?
I don’t know if the tide can be fully reversed (I suspect not.), or if we’re looking at an inevitable race to the credentialing bottom, but I know that this battle matters, we can’t let it pass by without notice this time, and the front line of that battle right now is on the streets of Brooklyn.
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