Alan Brinkley: Liberalism in Collapse?

News at Home

Mr. Lemisch is Professor of History Emeritus, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York.

Direct Textbooks Textbook resource center

  • Response by Alan Brinkley

  • Response by Jesse Lemisch
  • Columbia historian and leading liberal Alan Brinkley has once again illustrated in his behavior something of the hypocritical and contradictory state of much of contemporary liberalism.

    A year ago, Columbia Graduate Student Employees United struck (as they did again last week). In a speech delivered in support of their strike at that time (April 21, 2004) I pointed out that Columbia had hired a leading law firm (Proskauer, Rose) which boasted of having 160 lawyers engaged in union-busting. Brinkley, who is provost, had previously voiced his support for unions, but in an embarrassing interview with the Columbia Spectator, attempted but failed to square that position with his union-busting role as provost. I pointed out:

    Columbia President Lee Bollinger and Provost Alan Brinkley are known as liberals -- but certainly not when it comes to GSEU. This kind of disconnect often happens in universities... What does it mean when abstract doctrines are ignored at home? Bollinger and Brinkley are liberals until they find themselves challenged on their own turf.

    Now, in an extraordinary journalistic feat, Jennifer Washburn and the Nation have uncovered a February 16 internal memo from Brinkley to 19 Columbia officials. This memo might well be remembered as a classic document of early 21st century liberalism. Rather than using his time to acknowledge the legitimacy of TA/RA unionization, Brinkley plans for the strike which is the necessary outcome of Columbia's continued reactionary behavior. What does Brinkley propose? Hire scabs from inside and outside Columbia; punish strikers by taking away their stipends, barring them from certain fellowships, telling them that they will lose further employment.

    Read this shameful piece for yourself.

    What we have here is union-busting by liberals. I would hope that colleagues would call for the resignations of Brinkley and Bollinger and call for their replacement with an administration that would do the right thing -- recognize GSEU.

    Response by Alan Brinkley

    During the period surrounding the two UAW/GSEU strikes at Columbia, in the spring of 2004 and the spring of 2005, members of the administration had many meetings to discuss how the university should respond. During both periods, there was a wide range of views within the administration as to what an appropriate response should be, and the private memo of February 2005 that has now been released was a compilation for discussion within the administration of proposals that had emerged from a number of people at that time.

    In both 2004 and 2005, however, the administration enacted no punitive measures against any graduate student who participated in the strike. I believe our actions, and not the various options that members of the administration privately discussed and ultimately rejected, should be the measure of our response.

    Response by Jesse Lemisch

    I'm glad that Alan Brinkley, fearful for his standing among historians, has decided to address himself to the historical community in defense of his actions as administrator. Historian Brinkley defends himself in part by attempting to distance himself from Provost Brinkley's memo of February 16. But it just won't wash. Were his memo to fellow administrators on what to do to TA/RA strikers simply a" compilation" (as he now calls it) of hysterical and punitive rants that had been bruited about among Neanderthal (no offense, Neanderthals) Columbia administrators, it would be awful enough for him to pass on over his signature their ideas for hiring scabs, instituting financial punishments, intimidation and blacklisting. But any reader who looks at the memo will see that Brinkley's retroactive attempt to cleanse himself doesn't work: his memo is something other than a neutral list of contingency plans. Rather than separating himself (as he now attempts to do) he is proposing and endorsing in a memo that begins:

    To help us plan for the possibility of a strike by graduate teaching fellows, I am distributing this memo about possible courses of action for our discussion at tomorrow's meeting. In the event of a strike, the University's top priority should be to minimize the disruption to our educational programs by assisting the departments and programs in finding alternative means of instruction. In addition, we should seek to reduce the possibility of future strikes in our response to those teaching fellows who fail to meet their instructional commitments.

    There follows in Brinkley's memo in the neighborhood of twenty uses of the verb"should," i.e. things that Columbia should do. This is hardly the Brinkley who now presents himself as a humble conveyor of the views of others. Noplace does he divorce himself from any of these"shoulds." And there is no mention here of another"should" that would be compatible with the other Brinkley, the historian and teacher who speaks and writes of the virtues of unions; recognition of GSEU. Columbia continues to sail along, a great ship commanded by liberals, in convoy with Bush's NLRB.

    Meantime, from the right, KC Johnson rises to Brinkley's defense. It surprises me to see that of all the crimes he might have accused me, the best he can do is to present a chain of indirect connections in which I'm described as"an activist in CUNY's faculty union [would that this were true] whose leadership [defended] Lori Berenson." This kind of connection of subject to predicate is essence of McCarthy (and understates my direct life-long involvement in radical causes). It would make as much sense for me to counter Johnson's argument by noting that he teaches in Brooklyn, a borough well known for its Dodgers.

    comments powered by Disqus

    More Comments:

    Tony Luke - 4/29/2005

    Nor are tuition reimbursements/waivers or stipends a requirement for earning your degree. If you want those things, you have to be willing to do what is required of you to obtain those things. Whether you want to call that a job or an apprenticeship or some other term of art, it's all "work" of some sort and not all work or types of employment are treated the same under the NLRA. The NLRB has ruled that the work performed by teaching assistants does not qualify for coverage under the Act. Wishing and acting like it is so is not the way to change that. Appeal the NLRB's decision to the courts, lobby Congress to change the Act, or appeal to the university's board to change the rules/benefits for teaching assistants, but don't resort to destructive acts of self-help like striking.

    David Suisman - 4/29/2005

    "it seems to me that teaching assistants are receiving tuition reimbursements/waivers and a stipend in exchange for teaching classes..."
    It seems that way to the union as well. This is called work, and those who perform it are supposed to be protected by the NLRB. The university has argued the opposite, that grad students are not entitled to those protections because they perform these duties only as part of their "apprenticeship"--although this "apprenticeship" is not actually a requirement for earning a degree.

    Tony Luke - 4/28/2005

    Hmmm... it seems to me that teaching assistants are receiving tuition reimbursements/waivers and a stipend in exchange for teaching classes... it's entirely reasonable for the university to withhold and/or deny those benefits if the teaching assistants are not willing to teach... I don't think the university is in the legal bind you seem to think that it is on that point.

    You're quite right that they can't really increase the term of service for the teaching assistants... there's no involuntary "stop-loss" program there... I'm sure that at any time any teaching assistant can say no to the whole deal and go ahead and pay his or her full tuition for their graduate education. Of course, if they can't afford that and are only willing to pay for their graduate education through a teaching assistantship, then they may have to extend their timelines for completing their graduate education. It's completely up to them.

    Adina Popescu - 4/28/2005

    Because of this year's NLRB decision, nothing in the letter is illegal, but whether or not it is out of line is debatable.

    It is entirely fair to dock the pay of strking workers, however doing so would put the University in a legal bind: their argument to the NLRB was that Teaching Assistants are not working for pay, so that not paying them for not working would compromise their legal case.

    They are therefore placed in the position of trying to discipline a workforce that is, in their view, unpaid and so have to come up with the various scenarios outlined in the memo.

    Increasing the "term of service" by a semester or a year in order to make students fulfill the teaching requirements of their degrees is problematic because there ARE no teaching requirements for a degree at Columbia, contrary to what the memo implies. Besides this, there is no labor scenario that I can think of (short of indentured servitude) where such a "punishment" could even be considered.

    Witholding dissertation fellowships and summer fellowships is problematic because neither of those have anything to do with teaching: they are ostensibly based on the merits of one's dissertation alone. The suggestion that merit-based awards should be politicized and should be doled out based on the recipient's political activity or engagement in a labor dispute should be extremely worrisome to all of us.

    Yes, the memo simply outlines potential courses of action and none have been officially adopted by the university. Still, releasing such threats publicly is a potentially effective means of squelching union support, and while this is neither illegal nor unusual for an employer facing a unioinization campaign, I think we need to take the implicatiions for academic freedom (a phrase bandied about liberally at Columbia of late) quite seriously.

    Todd McCallum - 4/28/2005

    Welcome to the real world? What kind of attitude is that? It's only "fairly standard" because of the NLRB ruling....

    Tony Luke - 4/27/2005

    I read the letter sent by Professor Brinkley... for those of you who think this is terrible... welcome to the real world... nothing in the letter is out of line or illegal.

    Rick Perlstein - 4/27/2005

    "...As a last resort, looking for additional part-time faculty outside the university."

    In this part of the memo, which the Nation doesn't mention, the PATCO Professor advocates the hiring of scabs. I'd say we're dealing with understatement here.

    Robert KC Johnson - 4/27/2005

    To say that this article is a wild overstatement would be treating it charitably. I have responded at greater length at Cliopatria.