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Columbia University Has Lost Its Way

When Columbia University celebrated its 250th anniversary in 2003, President Lee Bollinger honored Columbia’s history and special place in society as “one of the leading institutions of higher learning in the world.” He noted that a university’s purpose in cultivating “democratic personalities” in our students and the wider society is grounded in “a spirited curiosity coupled with a caring about others (the essence of what we call humanism).” A great university, he observed, serves as a humanistic counterpoint to “more often cited interests in property and power, around which we organize the economic and political systems.”     

Today, it is hard to deny that Columbia has lost its way.

The recently concluded negotiations between Columbia University and its graduate students/workers, ending a months-long strike by PhD students, serves as an object lesson in how the modern, private university no longer embodies the higher calling touted by Bollinger. Columbia’s approach to the contract negotiations with the grad students reveals how it has evolved into a kind of predatory business, more like a real-estate holding venture than an institutional actor whose original letter of patent positioned it outside of, and perhaps in opposition to, market-based, for-profit norms and values.

As a tenured Columbia professor for over 20 years, I sat through several of the negotiating sessions between the university and the students/workers and walked away in disbelief. The university hired attorney Bernie Plum to sit at the table on its behalf. Plum, a lawyer from a well-known union-busting law firm, approached the negotiations with the grad students/workers in the same way he would with any of his other corporate clients. When the student negotiators explained their demands for wages, childcare subsidies, and meaningful measures to address discriminatory harassment by faculty with justifications grounded in their reality as both students and employees of the university, Plum’s response was never with a substantive counterargument meant to justify the university’s position. Rather he barked at them: “Why would we do that? What will you give us in return?” To him, it was just a game between two unequally matched sides. Of course, this makes sense, since his expertise touted on the firm’s website is in representing sports management.

The provost’s frequent messages to the faculty reflected a similar approach to negotiations, rarely explaining the university’s position with reference to our mission as a research and teaching institution, but rather by pointing to Harvard or other peer schools and noting that Columbia was offering about as much as the students at those schools got. The baseline was the market, not something intrinsic to an institution of higher learning.

Others have noted how universities have come to see their students as consumers. In Columbia’s case, they are treated more as sources of profit to be squeezed for maximum return on investment. This is a game Columbia plays quite well, since the union negotiations took place against a backdrop in which Columbia’s endowment increased by a dazzling 32.3 percent in fiscal year 2021. Departments in the Arts and Sciences have been instructed to stop admitting doctoral students, who tend not to be revenue generating opportunities, while the university continues to invest in terminal masters programs, a kind of academic cash cow that often leaves students in enormous debt. Columbia was recently named in a lawsuit that charges 16 universities with antitrust violations for participating in a “price-fixing cartel,” working together to reduce the amount of financial aid awarded to students in order to maximize income from tuition.


https://www.thenation.com/article/society/columbia-university-strike/