From The New York Times to Fox News, there’s no shortage of media panic over the moral state of America’s elite university campuses and their supposed “threat to democracy.” They’re right about one thing at least: these campuses are the site of huge and critical battles for rights. But the real threat isn’t about whether a handful of professional white supremacists should get to give speeches on campus or not—it’s about the millions who make up the universities’ work force.
Since the election of the most viscerally disgusting POTUS in living memory, a different set of presidents—those of America’s elite colleges and universities—have lined up to denounce the anti-democratic vileness of Donald Trump. While these denunciations of Trump’s bigotry towards vulnerable people aren’t completely worthless, they amount to self-righteous spit against the waterfall of Trumpist exploitation those same people are currently facing. A waterfall flowing down the office windows of those very same university presidents and administrations who, when it comes to the vulnerable people they actually employ, use the Trump administration as their very own private weapon.
Take Harvard. Drew Faust, the university’s first female president, has said that under Trump, she is “very concerned” for the “safety and welfare [of] our students, our undocumented students…[and] immigrants who are students and faculty.” She’s publicly opposed the Muslim ban, saying it creates a “very real risk that students and scholars from all corners of the globe may no longer see Harvard and other U.S. universities as attractive places to pursue their studies.”
In contrast to her predecessor, Obama economic advisor and misogynist Larry Summers, Faust has made waves by taking steps to address sexism at Harvard, especially at the business school. According to a report by the The Nation, she went so far as to appoint a new dean of the business school who “set about trying to remedy the problem by doing everything from placing stenographers in every classroom to help study class participation (a crucial part of grading) to intervening in campus social life.”
All commendable, just as her promise to “ramp up” advocacy after Trump’s election. Unfortunately, The Nation’s report shows the truth: that this advocacy does not extend to everyone. If you’re at Harvard, the institution may stand up for you, but only if you’re deemed worthy and talented enough to warrant its protection—a category which tends to be determined by whether Harvard is your school or your boss.
The housekeepers referred to in that article’s title are the employees of a Doubletree hotel owned by the university, whose 90% female, heavily POC, immigrant workforce fought for years to unionize in order to fight against their horrible conditions. According to a survey from a local Boston-based union representing hospitality workers, they experienced work related injury and illness rates 75% higher than the state average, chronic back pain, and injuries described as similar to those of construction workers.
The short version is that when workers attempted to meet with Faust, they were either kept out of the building, held back by receptionists, or had the police called on them. When students involved in the effort managed to get in a room with the president, she responded with disinterest and claimed a lack of power to do anything about the situation.
Forbes ranked Drew Faust as the 33rd most powerful woman in the world—does this power suddenly dissipate when faced with the extremely simple task of providing decent wages and benefits from her enormously powerful institution’s $35.7 billion endowment? Apparently not when it comes to the power to make it worse, like when Harvard broke a worker boycott against the hotel to host, no joke, its second annual Gender and Work Symposium.
In a fight where the sides are “paying workers decent wages and protecting them from constant, debilitating physical pain” and, well, “not,” Harvard would rather choose the art of the deal and save a few bucks. In reference to the Muslim ban, Faust asked the question, “Who are we going to lose if enormously talented people don’t feel welcome here?” In 2015, the Doubletree workers finally won their union, but only after a three year long fight that showed the lengths Harvard will go to fight you if they don’t consider you “enormously talented.”
Oh, and another thing they’d rather do than easily improve the material conditions of the vulnerable people it employs? Pay seven financiers a cool $58 million to manage that endowment. Same when it’s dining hall workers who had to strike against limited hours and increasingly costly benefits in order to obtain a minimum $35,000 a year salary. And same when it’s holding elections for a graduate student union that the National Labor Relations Board ruled so improperly run that it recommended a re-vote.
The richest university in the country is, sadly far from alone on this. Across the country, university and college employees have become a new front of labor organizing. This has led universities and colleges to be a new front runner in hiring Proskauer Rose LLP, a high profile and high paid union-busting law firm that’s taken on everyone from Volkswagen plant workers to the NBA.
At Columbia, president Lee Bollinger—who Trump once called a “total moron”—says that “when you have a position that produces a president and vice president that challenge the central idea of a university, one has to do something.” Because:
“The denial of climate change, the rejection of the fact of evolution, the attack on free speech, the dissemination of falsehoods deliberately and intentionally that would make George Orwell seem naïve and unimaginative.
...the attack on groups that we celebrate at Columbia and embrace as part of our greatness—these are not political issues. This is where we stand. This is a challenge to what we stand for.”
Since Bollinger gave the call to “teach the Core Curriculum with more fervor and passion than it has ever been taught before,” you’d think one of the groups celebrated would be the grad students, whoteach a large portion of the required Core Curriculum classes he’s referring to.
That particular group has been trying to unionize with the aid of UAW since 2000. In 2014, they voted overwhelmingly—1,602 to 623 unionize. As described in a Politico piece, this was met with a legal challenge by Columbia and Proskauer Rose.
Bollinger says that allowing a union would violate a “deeper principle” of considering grad students to be students and not employees. Worse than the president of Columbia University’s apparent unfamiliarity with the concept of “both” is how one hand attacks the Trump administration for opposing the “idea” of a university while the other uses the Trump administration to attack members of the actual university in practice. There are two vacant spots on the NLRB where Columbia is appealing, which means if the school drags it out long enough for Trump to fill them with anti-labor appointees, they could defeat their own workers thanks entirely to him.
It’s not like Trump has brought about some sudden shift in any of these schools’ priorities; their hypocritical moralizing just crystalizes what’s already been there. Columbia is the same school who forced dining hall employees to work in facilities reaching temperatures of 115 degrees. They fought against everything from installing a new air conditioner to something as simple as providing uniforms with shorter sleeves with a strategy that, as described in The Columbia Spectator, ranged from outright ignoring workers’ requests to citing seemingly arbitrary cost figures that changed depending on who administrators were talking to. Whatever the “deeper principle” here was, it has much more resemblance to the one underlying Donald Trump’s own treatment of workers than to anything else.
Even Yale, where President Peter Salovey has been less outspoken against Trump than some others, declaring that he would only “speak out on issues that are most relevant to University life,” manages to produce equivalently huge hypocrisy. As seems to be a theme among University presidents, Salovey has (thankfully) no problem condemning the Muslim ban… but how about graduate students desperate enough to hold a hunger strike?
As detailed by fasting grad Alyssa Battistoni, Yale opposes the efforts of their graduate student-teachers to unionize and fight unfair labor practices including pay cuts, low wages, and pervasive sexual harassment (which 54% of graduate students on campus report experiencing) so strongly that they’ve spent years refusing to even sit down at the negotiating table. But, as Battistoni explains, Yale too has adopted the strategy of hiring Proskauer Rose to prolong the fight until the Trump administration fills those same two vacant NLRB and its student teachers’ union hopes.
Those are some of the most glaring examples, but there’s no shortage of others.
Across the street from Columbia at Barnard College, President Deborah Spar condemned the Muslim ban in a tone deaf email invoking her experience with her husband’s Canadian immigration but dragged out contract negotiations with precariously employed adjuncts attempting to gain better pay, benefits, and job security for over a year with the aid of Jackson Lewis, a different top anti-union law firm.
At Northwestern, president Harold Shapiro and his administration have condemned the Muslim ban but have no problem using a tone deaf email of their own to accuse grad union organizers of trying to “capitalize on fears” of international students by, it seems, providing them union protection.
Pitzer College president Melvin O. Oliver went further than some, declaring the school a sanctuary campus, and said in a letter they’ve “always stood as a campus that mobilizes to advance social justice for the vulnerable and to work for an inclusive society regardless of the political climate.” A few months later, workers and students organized around a report detailing wage disparities below poverty pay. This was enabled in part by not making all employees official Pitzer staff, plus a “culture of fear and retaliation” against them to demand—among other things—a shift from the current president-worker wage ratio of 36-to-1 down to 15-to-1. So far, the school has sided with the 36, disputing the claims it’s the vulnerable it supposedly wants to include.
While acting as president of Pomona College, David Oxtoby managed to find the time to write a column in The Hill defending the high salaries given to the “top-tier managers” of his school’s investments. He had less time, as student newspaper The Student Life reports, for the dining hall workers who, after gathering a delegation to voice concerns over “violations of their contract, uncovered shifts, and fear of retaliation [for voicing] complaints as problems with the administration,” experienced the exact retaliations they feared in the form of disciplinary action against 11 of them. According to the report, Oxtoby “thanked workers for sharing their concerns but did not respond otherwise,” leaving an anonymous worker to sum it all up:
“I know it’s hard for the administration to believe in us, to believe in the people who wash dishes, who sweep and mop the floors … We feel in many ways that they hate us because that’s the message that they give us.”
The treatment of workers at so many of America’s top academic bodies extends beyond mere rhetorical hypocrisy into tangibly aligning with the Trump Administration. Institutions that purport to pursue knowledge in order to create better citizens and communities don’t just undermine their moral declarations when they fight against worker rights and wages in order to retain dominance and save some cash—they’re making people’s lives worse, and setting a precedent that doing so is in line with university values.
They do want to help people but not if it means actually relinquishing some power to the grad students teaching the classes that bigger name professors don’t, nor to the staff doing the literal dirty work that keeps their US News & World Report campus scores high.
What causes this? Is it hypocrisy? The out of wack priorities of the increasingly corporatized university? Whatever the reason, the result is the same: elite colleges and universities claim to be on the side of the people, but would rather dole out huge sums to law firms, launch endless lawsuits, and even send in police than pay the people a little more.
Unless you’re trying to become the narrator of a classic Phil Ochs song, this is the wrong choice. If you’re a multi-million or -billion dollar institution opposing Trumpism, and your employees need better wages, benefits, working conditions, or anything else so badly that they’re willing to spend years risking their jobs and livelihoods for them, don’t hedge or fight or stall them until Boss Trump beats them for you. Just give them what they want!
And if by some small chance any of you are reading this, please consider: if you’re truly against the anti-university ideals Trump stands for, stop running your university like he would!
Charlie Heller is a freelance writer and member of the NYC DSA Climate Justice Working Group.