Columbia College administrators get an earful

December 14, 2011

CHICAGO--The Columbia College administration was cajoled into holding an unprecedented town hall public forum on December 9. The administration of this private, urban arts school has been stonewalling contract negotiations with its part-time faculty union since August.

But the arrival of #OccupyColumbia as well as a newly formed citywide student organization called CACHE (Coalition Against Corporate Higher Education) has changed the dynamic on campus by spearheading new struggles that hold the prospect of substantial change in the way the school is run.

It started with rallies for a fair contract by PFAC, the part-time faculty union, on December 6 and 7. In a letter to the Occupy Chicago labor outreach committee asking for support, a representative of the union explains, "The purpose of this demonstration is to draw public attention to college practices and policies that are anti-labor and harmful to college faculty, staff and students."

The two-day rally enjoyed substantial participation from PFAC, the campus staff union, the full-time faculty Senate (full-time faculty cannot legally have a union) and students from across the city. On the second day, after marching outside for 30 minutes, the group stormed the boardroom where chief administrators and trustees of Columbia College were meeting. After successive attempts to pacify and divide the group, the administrators agreed to a one-hour public forum on Friday, December 9.

Campus activists and workers grasped the opportunity presented by the meeting, and the call went out across the city to mobilize in order to send a loud and clear message to the administration. Members of #OccupyColumbia and CACHE took the lead in planning the meeting, and it was decided to draw up a list of grievances that students would present to administrators.

More than 100 people crammed into the administration building's faculty lounge for the event. The student chair introduced the format, and after five individuals made comments, administrators were given four minutes to respond.

Only a fraction of the accumulated grievances of students and workers could be heard in the 60-minute meeting, and students from the University of Chicago, DePaul, Northwestern and other colleges across the city demonstrated solidarity with Columbia students by attending and asking questions. Interim Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs Louise Love and Interim Provost for Faculty Affairs Len Strazewski were visibly overwhelmed.

As the many grievances and comments issued forth, there was applause and agreements from the crowd.

JULIO, A first-year student, kicked things off. "For every Caucasian faulty member, there are eight Caucasian students," he said. "But for every Latino faculty member, there are 47 Latino students. What does the college intend to do about this?"

Aly, an #OccupyColumbia member, asked, "Shouldn't the spending of Columbia's tuition, grant and donation dollars be decided democratically? Much of that money comes from student tuition and loans, as well as the Illinois and U.S. governments, both allegedly democratic institutions. Doesn't it make the most sense to extend the democratic process to the allocation of those funds?"

In response to Love's claim that the college discloses its financial records, John, a part-time faculty member, stated, "If you look online, what you find on the Columbia website is not a full budget by any stretch of the imagination...Public colleges are required to publish very thorough budget information. Although private colleges are not required to do so, why doesn't Columbia do so anyway?"

Hope, an #OccupyColumbia member, stated, "In the latest issue of the Columbia Chronicle, it states that in 2009 President Carter received a $45,000 bonus. We also know that money has been allocated to infrastructure improvements and buying new buildings. I wonder if those things are really a priority if people cannot get courses before they graduate, people don't have access to computers, and teachers are making much less than they should."

Ben, a graduate student from DePaul, raised the issue of academic freedom. "Part-time faculty need to feel worried about the views they express inside and outside of the classroom," he said. "I'm sure you know that the tenure system was created to protect academic freedom, which is the basis of liberal and enlightened education that you talk about on your website. I don't know how you can say that when it seems like the majority of the people who teach here are contingent."

Brianne, an adjunct faculty member, built on the point. "I fail to see how getting rid of loyal adjuncts helps retention," she said. "What is planned to secure our future as adjuncts and let us participate more fully in the college?" Retention is an important issue at the college, as only 66 percent of freshmen return for a second year.

Will, a member of CACHE, focused his attention on contract issues for the part-time faculty. "You represented yourself as engaging in good faith bargaining practices with the faculty in PFAC," he said. "Why is it then that the National Labor Relations Board issued an official complaint charging Columbia with unfair labor practices against PFAC? The report states that the college refused to bargain with the union. Can you please explain yourself?"

ONE ISSUE came up repeatedly: the administration's infamous "prioritization process" to cut costs. On the chopping block, as many participants pointed out, are classes and instructors.

In response, Interim Provost Love offered the following:

I think any institution is obliged to manage properly. It's great if enrollment keeps on growing, and we keep having more sections. That's a win all around. We're not in that situation. Our enrollment has gone down in the past years, and that means fewer sections and fewer teaching opportunities. That's not our goal, and that's not what prioritization is about. Prioritization comes at a time when our resources are getting fewer, and we need to look very hard at what our core mission is.

Ashley, a CACHE member, responded. "Any university needs to be administered," she said. "I think that's right. However, there seems to be a variety of faulty and mismanaged investments on the part of Columbia. For example, there's the fact that President Carter has been making upwards of $600,000 with a $45,000 bonus in one year, the same year that faculty and staff were denied basic cost of living wage increases."

The administration publicly agreed to another town hall meeting at the beginning of next semester, another victory for Columbia students and workers.

While Love asserted that the administration "values activism for a good cause," the concrete questions and concerns raised by students and workers were not addressed in any meaningful way.

Before the end of the meeting, an official list of student demands was presented: freeze tuition; open the books of the college; limit administrators' salary to half the salary of the highest-paid faculty; stop using divisive tactics against students, staff and full- and part-time faculty; grant reasonable campus-wide email access; cease issuing slanderous statements against campus unions and their leadership; bring transparency to administrative policy; cease the current prioritization process; prioritize the Columbia College students, staff and faculty; and continue holding town hall meetings.

But though the administration ducked the issues raised by students and workers, what has now been created is a democratic forum where the community can hold the administration accountable.

Every comment and question pointed to the central aspiration of the Columbia College community: democracy. While Occupy encampments are raided and destroyed by the police across the nation, these actions prove that the movement is not dying, but rather taking new life in the workplaces and schools of our communities.

It's important to recognize that while the creation of this democratic forum is a fantastic victory, it is only the beginning of real change. What is crucial is that members of the Columbia College community take what they have learned back to the classroom and workplaces and start to organize in their own interests. We have created an unprecedented opening, but it is up to us to see that our demands are met, through direct action and solidarity.

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