Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Not quite a Badger yet

Over at Stanley Fish's blog, this week's entry (click here) has a "conversation" between Stanley Fish and Walter Benn Michaels. Fish used to be an English professor and dean at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Michaels is currently an English professor. Their "conversation," which is actually a series of alternating paragraphs, discusses the recent public employees union debacle in Wisconsin. This "conversation" revolves mostly around the idea of faculty unions and not really the larger question of unions for public school teachers or for other public employees.

During this discussion, Michaels has this to say:
But what amazes us [the pro-union faculty at UIC] is the idea that somehow a faculty can’t be both unionized and, to use the word invoked by [Naomi Schaefer] Riley in her USA Today piece and by our own provost in his communications to the faculty, “elite.” This would come as a shock to the Rutgers philosophy department, which works on a unionized campus and which is nonetheless ranked as one of the two best in the U.S. And it’s even a bit of a shock to the UIC English department, which isn’t as elite as Rutgers philosophy but is (according to the National Research Council) among the top 20 in the country, and which almost unanimously supports unionization. Riley may think that only the “laziest” want unions, but our ranking is based largely on the strength of faculty productivity — it’s the hard-working ones who want the union most.
He goes on about a paragraph later:
Why [unionize]? Because we think that the people who actually do the teaching and the research should have more of a say in how the teaching and the research gets done
What amazes me about the attitude represented both these quotations and in the "conversation" as a whole is the refusal to recognize that tenured faculty at universities--especially at "tier 1 1/2" research universities--used to, in what some (e.g., Stanley Fish) have called the "Golden Age of being a professor" (c. 1950-1980), be a guild-like "union," a gate keeping boys-and-sometimes-girls club. Now they are losing power. Gone (or more accurately, going, and slowly, at least for the ones who already have tenure) are the days when they had to put up with "the bureaucrats who run the university" and whose job it was to make sure that the professors live up to such onerous job requirements as actually showing up for class or reading from lecture notes instead of from textbooks.

The why's and wherefore's are simple: the faculty are losing wealth and, especially, power and prestige. And they want it back, or at least not to lose it so quickly. They want keep their professional prerogatives and get back those prerogatives they have lost. They also would prefer to teach, say, two classes a semester rather than four (after all, that's what they have adjuncts and TA's for).

And now for all the caveats and qualifications: Yes, it probably is better for those who teach a class to have a say in how the classes are run or taught. Yes, professors at tier 1 1/2 research universities do work hard at publishing, which for some reason is valued over teaching even though the universities in question might be overrated in the rankings because of high-profile professors. Yes, most tenured faculty probably really do care about the adjuncts and TA's and some might even volunteer their time (without an increase in pay) to help the adjuncts and TA's in their duties. Yes, some professors sometimes take on extra classes to save their departments money. And yes, the caricature of the professor who doesn't come to a lot of their own classes or who reads from the textbook probably represents only a very small minority of the faculty. And maybe the biggest caveat: just because one has tenure doesn't mean one's life is easy; job security is great, but there are ways to make the money worth less and less (by, for example, doubling the number of classes someone must teach); and what seems like a lot of money to someone in my position would not necessarily be enough for a person who has to support a family.

I don't really know the vision that Fish and Michaels are advocating here. Is it a grand alliance of faculty unions, adjunct unions, staff unions, and graduate employees unions? If so, is there any account taken of the opposing interests involved? Tenured professors have much different interests, and much different kinds of work prerogatives and wealth at stake from the ones that non-tenured faculty and, especially, adjuncts do. A cynic might wonder if the function of faculty unions is to reassert themselves as the true elite, the true masters of their world.

The system is probably dysfunctional and something probably needs to be done, and perhaps unionization (even the unionization of tenured faculty) is one of those needful things. But let's keep in mind that these struggles are questions of power and retaining privileges as much as they are questions of justice, the fate of higher education, and the good of the Republic.

Update 3-23-11: I have edited this post to correct some typos and make a minor addition to the last sentence.

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