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Time for Faculty Union

The future of higher education depends on it

Across the UO campus, teachers and researchers are organizing to create a faculty union.

Of course everyone wants better wages and benefits. UO salaries are well below national averages, and health insurance has gotten progressively worse. With a union, health and pension benefits could never again be cut without neogitations with faculty representatives.

But money is not the biggest issue. Anyone who’s smart enough to earn a Ph.D. is also smart enough to have gone to business or law school and be making more. Academics by definition are people who explicitly chose the lower-paying path because they’re driven by some deeper commitment to intellectual life. 

But higher education is being reshaped in ways that threaten to destroy the very values that drew us to academia. It is this, even more than wages and benefits, that lends the union its urgency.

Universities are being remade in the image of corporations. Students are viewed as customers, which means charging as much tuition as possible while spending as little as possible on teaching. It also means abandoning the mission of educating smart working-class kids from local communities, in favor of attracting higher paying students from out of state or abroad. 

So too, academic departments are increasingly viewed as revenue centers — encouraged to promote big lecture classes and to avoid hard-to-grade writing asignments or other expensive forms of personal attention. The decision of which departments grow or shrink is made not on any intellectual or pedagogic basis, but as a financial decision. What generates tuition dollars or outside grants grows; everything else — including traditional liberal arts staples like philosophy and religion — get cut. 

For faculty, corporatization means the wholesale replacement of tenure-track faculty with part-time, adjunct and temporary instructors. Nationally, 70 percent of all teaching hours are now performed by “contingent” teachers; an undergraduate signing up for an English class has a less than one-in-four chance of being taught by a tenure-track professor. Non-tenure-track faculty — people with degrees and skills, but no job security — are much cheaper than regular faculty, and can be treated as just-in-time production inputs, hired or fired at the last minute in response to fluctuating enrollments. This is what led NYU Dean Ann Marcus to famously celebrate adjuncts as faculty she could “abuse, exploit and then turn loose.”

 

Traditionally, a university is supposed to be a place that is specifically outside the rat race, a place for curiosity and critical thinking. The idea of academia is to raise up a crop of bold thinkers freed to pursue their own idea of the truth without fear of losing their jobs for it. This is why campuses are homes for a broader range of ideas than can be found anywhere else. 

But by locking the majority of faculty to positions of institutionalized insecurity, the corporate university does just the opposite: Instead of building thinkers up, it tears them down, creating a scared and silent teaching staff.

In the sciences, the days when Ph.Ds. were encouraged to their own ideas in their own lab have been replaced by a corporate structure where a single professor oversees an army of postdoctoral “fellows” who constitute the country’s most highly trained low-wage labor force, and whose hopes of ever running his or her own lab shrink by the day. 

These are national problems, not created by UO administrators. But administrators — under pressure to squeeze all possible revenue out of each function of the university — are not well positioned to resist them. A faculty union is the only organization that can serve as an effective counterweight to these pressures, in a fight to restore the more humane vision of education. 

Personally, I’d like to see a contract that not only improves wages and benefits, but that guarantees UO students access to smaller classes where they can formulate their own arguments and learn how to write; increases the share of teaching done by tenure-track faculty and creates a pathway from non-tenure to tenure-track positions; and encourages mentoring of grad students by providing course release for supervising large numbers of dissertations.

Whether we can win these things depends on how many faculty join the cause and how strong a union we create. 

But without a union, the future is clear, and it’s bleak. 

It’s time for faculty to put down our books and and pick up the phone to the union (uauoregon.org). For ourselves, for our students, and for anyone who hopes to follow us into this life.