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The Power of a Hashtag (#LIUlockout)

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On the evening of September 14, Long Island University students and professors flooded Twitter to celebrate the end of a historic faculty lockout. The victorious coalition that had tweeted under #LIUlockout for nearly two weeks seemed almost stunned that the administration had relented and agreed to end its action.

Students and professors had found in #LIUlockout a virtual safe space in which to commiserate, voice anger, counter the administration’s narrative, engage the traditional media, and post photos and videos in real time deriding unqualified replacement instructors.

Pausing to savor the moment, one student was unclear what she would miss most, the warm feeling of solidarity or the hashtag itself: “Ok i have to admit Im kind of sad ‪#LIUlockout is over,” an LIU Brooklyn student named Josephine tweeted. “Never in my life did I ever feel so inspired & united w. ppl than during the protests.”

In its short history, social media has demonstrated an ability to serve oppressor and oppressed, dictator and Arab Spring protestor alike. Yet the forces that cohered around #LIUlockout won an unequivocal victory for the underdogs. rarifiedairEven if #LIUlockout did not register among Twitter’s trending topics, students and professors used it to mobilize with passion and urgency and check administrative power in a manner that surprised even themselves. Viewed through a Twitter lens, the LIU administration appeared clumsy and out of step with campus and popular culture.

On Labor Day weekend, LIU locked out the 400 or so full-time professors and adjuncts on the Brooklyn campus before they could vote on a new contract. Apparently calculating that shock and awe would quickly impose the administration’s terms, including a post-tenure review clause that effectively would have ended tenure, the university shut down email, canceled health insurance, and sent in replacement staff and administrators to teach the 8,000 or so Brooklyn students.

Labor historians called it the first lockout in the history of U.S. higher education and wondered if we were witnessing a bold new strategy in campus corporatization. Debates focused on the treatment of the faculty as “fungible,” mere replaceable workers delivering degrees in the mode of the for-profit university.

Although LIU’s pre-emptive move proved an overreach, this was hardly the first administration to bring institutional power to bear against students, faculty, and staff. And the Brooklyn students and faculty were not alone in pushing back. Even as Harvard recently announced that a capital campaign had surpassed $7 billion, dining hall workers voted to strike unless the university met their minimum guaranteed salary of $35,000. The University of Kentucky student newspaper, the Kernel, whose investigation questioned the handling of alleged sexual harassment and assault by a professor, has stood its ground against a university lawsuit and now enjoys the support of several trustees.

In the LIU Brooklyn lockout, Twitter proved pivotal. Student and faculty tweets exposed the administration’s corporate vision, including its decision in July to collect departmental syllabi and advertise for replacements on Monster.com. The suburban LIU Post campus had long watched as a push for student “entrepreneurship” and faculty “strategic planning” naturalized corporate-speak. Advisors were rebranded as “promise coaches.” Even amid the lockout, the university announced the creation of the T. Denny Sanford Innovation and Entrepreneurship Park.

Simultaneity was essential to the pro-faculty Twitter mobilization. Once classes began, students tweeted photos of empty classrooms and syllabi that in some cases were years out of date. The syllabus for “History of Civilizations to 1500” required World Civilizations since 1500 as the textbook. One student live tweeted that his history instructor was presenting as fact that aliens had built the pyramids and Stonehenge. Others claimed that replacements read from the Internet.

Having shut down email and with no other way to communicate with faculty, the administration needed four tweets to announce details of its September 5 offer. The #LIUlockout community derided the administration’s awkward abbreviations: “.@liubrooklyn faculty offer include: @LIU_FF has submitted minima sal issue to arbit. Res shouldn’t impact successful res of CBA #LIUResolve.” Twitter was not created with complicated contract negotiations in mind.

While attending an emergency Faculty Council meeting 25 miles away, some faculty on the LIU Post campus learned by Twitter that the administration had rejected the Brooklyn union’s proposal to extend the contract by five weeks and continue negotiations. Using #LIUlockout, a professor tweeted the news of LIU Post’s vote of no confidence against President Kimberly Cline a day before the Faculty Council could notify her and the LIU Board of Trustees.

Some, if not many, administrators assigned to teach at Brooklyn closely followed #LIUlockout as well. One replacement instructor liked one of my Tweets and then emailed me an aside to comment. Indeed, the lockout angered nearly everyone outside of the administration’s inner circle—not just parents, students, and faculty but also the staff and administrators assigned to teach classes for which they were not qualified.

Presidential candidate Jill Stein and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka tweeted their support for LIU students and faculty. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, tweeted and rallied with students and faculty. Tweeters ampersanded Rachel Maddow, John Oliver, Al Sharpton, and Mayor Bill de Blasio, among many others, in an effort to entice them to take up their cause. Far from supplanting traditional media, the Twitter community eagerly circulated links to lockout articles in The New York TimesThe AtlanticThe Nation, the Village VoiceThe Chronicle of Higher EducationInside Higher EdThe Guardian, and many others.

Two parody Twitter accounts, @PresKimCline and @LIUBoredofTrustees, brought much-needed levity as the lockout entered its final days. Whereas the real president was largely invisible during the lockout, her Twitter alter ego readily engaged students and boasted about finding “a retired postman with 6 years of civil war re-enactment experience to teach Western Civ.” @LIUBoredofTrustees tweeted that “we try discussing endowments, but then one of us makes a ‘well-endowed’ joke, we laugh for 45min and adjourn.”

Nonetheless, the lockout was no laughing matter to students and parents forced to decide whether to withdraw and get full tuition reimbursement or gamble that the lockout would soon end. The human fallout mounted. No one articulated the frustration better than Nichia McFarlane: “Officially wthdrw. 2much uncertainty. 2much risk. 0 faith in ‪@LIUBrooklyn. Registrar was so rude. I’m fucking heartbroken.”

The LIU Brooklyn case demonstrated that students and faculty can find a common cause and become an adversarial force that checks administrative power. As one professor told me, Cline “took neoliberalism to its logical extreme, and she found out that she is not totally in control. No one can try this now.”

As the @LIUBoredofTrustees tweeted to the student whose quote on solidarity began this article, “Please don’t hold on to that feeling. We really need for people to pretend like none of this ever happened. #LIUlockout.”

More articles by:

Willie Hiatt is an Associate Professor of Latin American History at Long Island University, Post Campus. He is the author of The Rarified Air of the Modern: Airplanes and Technological Modernity in the Andes (Oxford University Press, 2016).

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