13 April 2014

Prestige Paralysis, or Who are We?

Well, we really don't know what to make of an impending strike at our sister campus upstate.

Some of us spin it into a cautionary tale.  Others of us yearn for the kind of solidarity that can take place when a critical mass of people realizes that things aren't fair.  And still others turn their heads quickly back to the lab, the classroom, the next grant proposal, the next article, the student at the door, the meeting in the next half hour: our university is big, and that other campus is a different place.

To acknowledge that labor unrest elsewhere has something to do with us would be to acknowledge that the work we do matters in ways over which we exert little control.  Higher education is being buffeted by growing student debt, declining public funding, unrest among contingent workers, a struggling economy.  We believe that we can't solve any of these problems, but we can do right by our students, our funding agencies, our departments, our service obligations.  "A union?" we say, "That's not a solution.  That's not us."

But who are "we"?  We are increasingly untenured and untenurable.  We are increasingly dependent on external funding or the vagaries of departmental needs.  We are, some of us, eligible to take part in shared governance, but many of us are excluded from decisions at all levels of the university.  Some of us see no institutional structures that represent us or protect our interests.  We may have the protections of tenure and tenure-stream regulations or we may not know from one semester to the next whether we have a job.

Some of us have read our university's mission statement and learned, to our surprise, that our work consists of "teaching, research, public service, and economic development."  And we wonder when we decided that we should serve the marketplace in ways that couldn't be folded into "teaching, research, and public service."  We wonder why no one in our units has pointed this out to us before.  We wonder when it will start to matter.

We, being academics, have looked into the research on faculty unions.  We are heartened to find that it fails to confirm the dire prognostications of the anti-unionist, but we are also nonplussed.  The data is scant, the problems confronting higher ed are vast, and the face of the U.S. labor movement is rapidly changing.

Many of us did not get into this business to find common cause with Walmart workers and automotive unions. We prefer to think of class as a concept we study, not a category we inhabit, but we are nonetheless comforted to learn that solidarity involves engineers, orchestral musicians, park rangers, and baseball players as well as hourly workers.

We are also finding that we no longer constitute the institutions that define our working lives--that we no longer govern ourselves, if we ever did, and that our institutions seek to impose a "we" that may not share our values.

We are starting to understand that we may need to define ourselves in new ways if we are going to have a voice in higher education.

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