Why a professor would trade his job for a union (opinion)
The recent layoff of 33 employees, including tenured professors, at Emporia State University in Kansas is deplorable. On my university’s faculty mailing list, it caused a wringing of the hands of tenured professors, who lamented it as heralding the dismantling of tenure and the further deterioration of higher education. According Inside Higher Educationthose at Emporia State view it the same way.
“Tenure is not an ivory tower,” Max McCoy, a tenured journalism professor who was among those laid off by Emporia State, wrote in an article for the Kansas Reflector last month. “It’s as essential to higher education as the fire department is to your community.
At times like these, we fail to recognize that according to Statistics from the American Association of University Teachers, 62% of faculty members in the United States are already working without the protections afforded by tenure. In our fear that our own privileges will be stripped, we overlook the fact that theirs have already been stripped. Our hand twist is insensitive, to say the least. It is also proof of the individualism cultivated by the land tenure system and which will eventually contribute to its disappearance.
Unlike the majority of my tenured colleagues, however, I believe there is potential for positive change in this demise. The end of term does not necessarily mean the end of academic rights to free speech or protection from arbitrary dismissal. We could see this as an opportunity to develop better ways to protect these rights, ways that work for all higher education teachers and researchers, not just the lucky few.
I’m a tenured professor at the University of Washington in Seattle, where the professors aren’t unionized. I spent the 2021-2022 academic year working at Northumbria University in England, a country where legal tenure does not exist but where higher education professors are heavily unionised. Based on my observations of these two ways to protect faculty, I would gladly trade my mandate for a union.
Tenure theoretically protects faculty from arbitrary dismissal, although there are many loopholes and it can be suspended in case of economic emergency. A union protects teachers from a range of other harms in addition to arbitrary dismissal – discrimination, unfairness, harassment and intimidation, for example. Perhaps more important than the rights and privileges it protects is the mentality a union cultivates. Tenure protects the individual; a union protects the collective. Unions cultivate a sense of solidarity, while the tenure system creates divisions and pits people against each other. Those in non-tenure positions at my university are afraid to voice their opinions on the shortcomings of the tenure system on the faculty mailing list for fear of retaliation. The tenure system guarantees free speech only to those who need it least.
Higher education in the UK is far from perfect. During the 2020-21 academic year, 32 percent of faculty were on fixed-term contracts, about half the proportion of faculty on conditional contracts in the United States. These 32% share the same access to University and College Union resources and protections as those on permanent contracts. Colleges and universities, including University of Portsmouththe University of Roehampton and Goldsmiths, University of London, among others, decided to lay off dozens of faculty members to make up for budget shortfalls or shut down university programs. But a ranking boycott organized in response to job cuts by the University and College Union recently won big concessions of Goldsmiths, including a commitment to no longer require layoffs or dismissals, increased severance pay for those whose jobs have already been terminated, and a review of the institution’s use of fixed-term contracts.
We talk about “winning” or even “winning” tenure, language that implies a meritocracy. “At Emporia State, like most colleges, tenure is hard-won,” McCoy writes in the Reflector. This formulation obscures the fact that privilege and luck are often what separate those who “earn” tenure from those who hold non-permanent positions and can never earn it, no matter how hard they work. The protections provided by a union are not “earned”, nor are they reserved for a few elites. They are given in exchange for a contribution calculated according to a sliding scale. However, the preservation of these rights requires participation – an active commitment to the ideals of solidarity and community embodied in a union. The grading boycott at Goldsmiths would not have worked if a significant number of professors had decided not to participate.
I took part in three strikes while working in the UK. I shared my colleagues’ concerns about the effects of canceled classes on students’ education and their regrets for what amounted to 10 days of lost wages. But I also recognized industrial action as a means to achieve important political reform and an opportunity to show students my hope that collective action can create positive change.
Unions, academic or otherwise, enjoy a much stronger presence in the UK than in the US, and it would undoubtedly be difficult for American academics to learn to embrace collectivism rather than individualism. In a provocative blog post, Steven Mintz recently argued that individualism ruins higher education because each of us prioritizes professional pursuits that primarily reward us (e.g., publishing) over those that benefit others (eg, peer review, mentorship, committee service). While I agree that individualism certainly does not improve higher education, it is wrong to blame the demoralized and exhausted faculty members of the crashing plane that is American higher education for putting their own oxygen mask before helping those around them put on theirs. Individuals do not create individualism. The systems within which individuals operate do so.
I am sorry for the suffering of those who have been deprived of their positions at Emporia State University and elsewhere and who are at risk of losing their livelihoods. There is nothing redeeming in this situation. At the same time, I have a feeling that faculty members in the United States will never come together to fight for our collective rights until the tenure system is dismantled, until all the remaining haves, including i am definitely the one, will become helpless. .