• Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.


Unions, Tenure and Job Anxiety

Anxiety leads to protest movements.

March 1, 2017

During the last few weeks we’ve seen a lot of anxiety expressed in the streets, in airports, and town halls—over immigration rights, the Affordable Care Act, the Dakota Access Pipeline.  The unraveling of the EPA and climate change politics are yet to be fully acknowledged. The unraveling of the State department, and the NEH are only just beginning.  Contrary to Trump’s promise to create jobs, his first month in office has been more about pushing to eliminate thousands of government jobs. “Drain the swamp!” politics are closer to a “You’re fired!” Apprentice episode unless, perhaps, you work in the Department of Defense.

My son Nick is getting ready to graduate from college this semester. After dropping out and taking time off to work, Nick found a larger purpose in life, reentering college as a fiction writer. Now he’s getting ready to graduate with a creative arts degree to face the cold, cruel world that is trying to eliminate the NEA.  He’s anxious…

As I’ve been telling Nick, if you want to support yourself as a writer or artist in a nation-state that seems to resent funding the arts, one way to do this is to get an MFA or a PhD and start teaching. His first question — with enrollments declining in humanities majors, will there be college teaching jobs? Second question -- how to afford graduate school? 

I’m not really going to address the first question. Life isn’t worth living without the humanities, so I think there will always be a few jobs around. But how well they are paid and whether they can be secured with tenure need to be explored. The costs of graduate school only make sense in the humanities when you have scholarships or teaching fellowships.  Without graduate students and adjuncts teaching and delivering courses, tuition costs would be an even bigger mess than they are currently. 

Since the forces of economic power often work against paying the young, the vulnerable, and the undereducated a decent, living wage, God created labor unions.  Yes, this sentence contains a bit of irony, particularly as I teach at a private, religious institution where three teaching groups have voted to unionize recently (four groups, if you count the maintenance staff).   The NLRB voted last year that ESL instructors at religious institutions were not “religious leaders” and could unionize.  NLRB also confirmed that graduate students and adjuncts at private universities could unionize. Upper administration at my progressive Catholic institution performed rhetorical somersaults to argue that unionization should be avoided since the SEIU may not understand our religious mission, and could interfere with a religious institution’s ability to negotiate directly with their employees.  Administration lost that argument.

Even though at least one of these union votes was accomplished with relatively low voter turnout, the fact that my school had four unions form so quickly tells you as much about the economics of universities as it does about my institution, where employees regularly give the school a high employee satisfaction rating. Since I was a department chair, I know that my university pays our adjuncts and professional faculty competitive wages.  But the cost of living and historic, deflated salaried positions are at odds with one another. Two full time college teaching salaries are barely enough to pay the mortgage and the day care costs, much less the graduate student loans.  How Mama PhD’s accomplish it ‘all’ in this climate is one of the ongoing themes of this blog.

Tenure is one of the reasons we do not have more faculty unions at institutions. With tenure and collective bargaining under attack in higher education across the country, and ‘right to work’ cases just waiting to return to the Supreme Court, AAUP predicts ongoing faculty union battles under our new “anti-regulatory” government.  This threat to the underlying principles of academic governance is happening at the same time that university economics and tuition costs are not holding, and seem destined for both collapse and confrontation.  Protecting our not-for-profit principles before the financial (and political) bottom falls out is crucial if we want to recruit the next generation of college professors.

Nick held a party to raise funds in support of the Standing Rock pipeline protesters. I’m not too worried about his anxiety levels. (He’s already an activist.) But wait until he faces a stack of freshmen composition papers to grade…


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