Debates about cultural appropriation and free speech at elite universities have consumed both the Left and Right lately. While some college administrators have acquiesced to student demands around these issues, with many incoming student orientation programs incorporating the language of social justice and intersectionality, the underlying class dynamics of these schools remain unchanged. Amid left-sounding rhetoric from the top, workers at these elite colleges continue to run into barriers when organizing on campus.
Barnard College, a women’s liberal arts college where I am a student, exemplifies the ability of progressive rhetoric and class inequality to coexist. From its Social Justice Institute to its Zine Library, Barnard showcases its feminist credentials, marketing itself as an institution dedicated to “address[ing] issues of gender in all of their complexity and urgency.”
In recent years, Barnard has hosted commencement speakers such as Sheryl Sandberg and Hillary Clinton. It even awarded a Medal of Distinction to Lena Dunham. Yet at the same time, Barnard administrations past and present have come into conflict with workers on campus.
Whether by attempting to cut back on office workers’ and dorm attendants’ health benefits in 1996, a move that sparked one of the longest strikes ever to take place at a college in the United States, or by hiring a notorious anti-labor law firm to negotiate with its newly organized contingent faculty union in 2016, Barnard, like many other colleges, is riven by the class divide between administrators and campus workers.
These conflicts suggest that rather than producing a more egalitarian institution, Barnard’s social justice rhetoric is part of a limited brand of liberal, “lean-in” feminism.
“Barnard Cuts Women and Children First”
In 1996, about 165 office workers and dormitory attendants, the majority of whom were women of color, carried out a successful six-month strike following the administration’s proposal to reduce their health benefits.
Originally organized in 1972, Barnard workers in UAW Local 2110 (then District 65) were among the lowest paid workers on campus in an increasingly unaffordable city. In an interview with the New York Times, Local 2110 President Maida Rosenstein described many of the strikers as “single mothers who barely make it paycheck to paycheck.” Barnard wanted to add health care premiums to their list of expenses.
During this time, sympathetic faculty moved classes off campus and students organized to support the strikers. Workers at Yale, who were on strike at the same time, held a joint rally with Local 2110 in New York City. The Student Strike Committee staged demonstrations and eventually, a sit-in in solidarity with the striking workers. In response, Barnard withheld their diplomas.
With the ongoing strike and suppression of student activism in support of it, the 1996 graduation became a site of struggle. During the ceremony, both strikers outside the main gates and students in the audience held protest signs.
As Judith Shapiro, a renowned feminist anthropologist and Barnard’s president at the time, began to speak, students unfurled a banner reading “Anti-Worker = Anti-Woman, Contract Now.”
Eventually, Barnard withdrew its health care proposal and conceded to the strikers’ demands. But the school hasn’t changed. As recently as 2012, the administration sought to freeze pay and reduce maternity leave for the same group of workers, leading to the creation of Barnard and Columbia’s United Students Against Sweatshops local, Student-Worker Solidarity.
Faculty Fight Back
On Equal Pay Day, the provost of Barnard College discussed her research on the importance of women-led firms in closing the gender pay gap. Yet just a few months earlier, Barnard Contingent Faculty — about two thirds of whom are women — set a strike deadline during their fight for a fair first contract.
Organized and certified in 2015, Barnard Contingent Faculty-UAW Local 2110 began year-long negotiations with Barnard College in February 2016. Like many others in the growing academic precariat, Barnard’s adjuncts and other non-tenure-track faculty were fighting for demands such as higher minimum per course pay, access to affordable health and retirement benefits, a grievance procedure, and job security.
While Barnard’s president was busy writing an op-ed for the New York Times about body image, cosmetic surgery, and aging among her “liberal, feminist-leaning, highly educated peer group” on the Upper East Side, the anti-union law firm Jackson Lewis handled negotiations with the contingent faculty on behalf of the administration.
Frustrated by months of the administration stalling, contingent faculty voted to approve a strike deadline by an overwhelming majority of 89 percent in December. In a campus-wide email, the administration implied that a strike would contribute to students’ post-election distress. Meanwhile, the law firm they retained wrote that Obama-era anti-discrimination laws were “aggressive” and that Trump would “return to traditional theories of discrimination.”
Students organized rallies and went door-to-door in dorms to petition in support of professors. With student support rapidly growing, the administration attempted to pit living wages and benefits for adjunct professors against financial aid and campus programs for students.
Ultimately, Barnard Contingent Faculty-UAW Local 2110 reached an agreement a few days before the strike deadline. Their first contract — which included the highest minimum per-course pay for adjuncts of any college in New York City — was ratified in March 2017.
Not Just Barnard
The problem is not confined to Barnard or its administration. While one Barnard student correctly called the school “a women’s college for the one percent” in the Columbia Spectator, these patterns extend far beyond one college in New York City. This kind of anti-worker liberal hypocrisy is nothing new on college campuses. Likewise, the ascendance of corporate “lean in” feminism — prominently displayed in the Clinton campaign and in much of the mainstream women’s movement — is not confined to campuses.
Elite universities may try to hide it behind the progressive language of their brochures, but their place in the system at-large hasn’t changed. While many college presidents criticized the Trump administration in graduation speeches this year, they’ve also been eagerly awaiting Trump’s National Labor Relations Board appointments in hopes these appointees will overturn the board ruling that allows graduate workers to organize unions.
A few months ago, a dean at Yale who has touted her commitment to supporting students’ “multifaceted identities” made headlines for publicly calling New Haven residents “white trash” and “low class folks.” When housekeepers at the Harvard-owned Doubletree Hotel were organizing a union in 2014, as Sarah Leonard and Rebecca Rojer have detailed, Sheryl Sandberg couldn’t find time to meet with them when she was on campus to speak. Harvard’s first woman president fought them every step of the way. The list goes on.
Elite universities’ administrations can accommodate a particular brand of identity politics and progressive rhetoric. That rhetoric doesn’t threaten their bottom line or tight grip on control of the campus. But when university workers engage in some old-fashioned collective action on the job, these administrators suddenly drop their intersectional commitments — or, even worse, use that progressive rhetoric against those workers.
Don’t be fooled by their progressive posturing. Even the most “socially conscious” college administrator is still a boss.