03 April 2016

Walkers Unite!

Nicholas Maes, Death and the Miser, 1650/55.
Image courtesy National Gallery of Art
The conversation went something like this, as I came upon a couple of acquaintances talking today.

Colleague in another UIUC college: "Do you watch the Walking Dead?"
Me: "No, my family loves it, but I can't stand anything with an apocalyptic, end-of-the-world premise."
Colleague...: "Wow, and yet you're supporting the NTT union contract negotiations?!?"



I laughed, as one does, and the conversation about TV resumed.

I've already declared "The corporate university has won" on this blog, but this is the part where faculty themselves start dig the grave of the thing it has replaced.

The options, for everyone still on the faculty when classes resume on the fall, will be either (1) to sustain the relevance of the humanistic liberal arts in terms that can be understood and respected by an institution that has at its heart business values rather than the traditional academic ones, or (2) find other ways to leverage the strengths of the humanistic liberal arts, including collective union action.

It would be a "which side are you on?" moment, except that the genius of the corporate university is to meld the sides into a single self-interested glob of relentless activity. My job at the moment (helping English majors with internships and career planning) sits squarely within (1), even as I try to keep the dream of (2) alive by blogging and increasing the numbers of English majors.  The world is moving forward in ways we can't imagine, the first-world injustices of the R1 university are already being dwarfed by the mass layoffs and closing institutions around the state, and the whole enterprise of higher education is only a few decades away from being engulfed by global climate change.

However, a public university, like a union, is made up of people making choices about how and to what end they do their jobs.  Though in the case of the university, the workers are public servants for the state higher education system.  None of the nouns in that sentence mean what they did when the land-grant universities were founded in the nineteenth century. We each of us working here contribute to their redefinition.

If and when you face the decision about whether to cross your colleague's picket line, know that the issue is not money; it's the terms on which teaching at the University of Illinois happens. As you decide whether to treat your colleagues' labor actions as a meaningful collective gesture or as a quixotic act of futility, think about what happens next. Financial exigency will always be there as a reason to reason to let go of faculty who are not protected by tenure, and it will always be there as a reason to let the numbers of tenure-stream faculty dwindle. Who then will do the teaching?  On what terms? What will you have done to make sure that the conditions under which your work has thrived are available to others? What will you have done to make sure that the teaching workforce is professional, effective, and accountable?

Whose university is it?

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