Submitted by Lynn Adler on March 25, 2005 - 4:00am
Imagine that you are looking for a job. Imagine that you are good at what you do, and you have a choice of opportunities. Imagine being offered jobs that were comparable in almost every way, but located in different states.
In one state, you and your spouse would be able to use a family health insurance plan, visit each other in the hospital, and have a relationship and family that was legally recognized. In the other state, your spouse would have to buy separate health insurance, and there would be no guarantee that doctors, hospitals, lawyers, banks, schools, or anyone at all would recognize your relationship or family.
It’s hard to imagine that anyone would select the second option. And yet, states seem to be lining up to become the next to do away with any recognition of, or benefits for, same-sex relationships. It will be difficult to track the economic impact of these new laws. Some gay and lesbian faculty members will stay put, either because of limited opportunities elsewhere or because of their roots in their communities. But there are also academics who will vote with their feet, and leave institutions in such states.
I left a state that did not recognize my relationship in favor of one that did. I was hired as an assistant professor of biology by the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in 2001. Although I knew that Virginia was a conservative state, I found the department to be very friendly and supportive. Colleagues were welcoming toward my partner, and we enjoyed living in the area.
I believe that I contributed substantially to teaching, research and grant funding during my time at Virginia Tech. In three years, I taught hundreds of students, involved over 40 undergraduates in research, and was awarded over a half million dollars in competitive grants from the National Science Foundation. Most of these funds went toward hiring and training undergraduate and graduate students in Virginia.
During those three years, however, my partner and I paid thousands of dollars for private health insurance when my partner was working part time, because she could not get those benefits through me. We did all we legally could to provide ourselves with the rights enjoyed by heterosexual couples, including the right to visit each other in the hospital and make medical decisions for each other. But we wanted to have a family, and in Virginia we could not both be legally recognized as parents of our future children.
Because it seemed clear that laws of Virginia were not going to change in any way beneficial to us in the near future, I went on the job market in 2004. I was offered an exciting position at a university in Massachusetts, which had just become the first state where same-sex couples could get married. By contrast, around the same time the Virginia legislature passed the "Marriage Affirmation Act." This bill outlawed any same-sex "partnership contract or other arrangements that purport to provide the benefits of marriage." Under some interpretations, this law negated the medical powers of attorney we had obtained to guarantee hospital visitation in case of emergencies.
Virginia Tech attempted to retain me in my position with a counter offer, and my partner and I had several discussions about what it would take to convince us to stay. In the end, we concluded that no amount of salary, extra funds, or other benefits would counteract the risk that our relationship might not be recognized in a time of crisis. While some businesses, schools or hospitals might acknowledge our relationship, we were not willing to risk that they would not. If they did not, the laws of Virginia would support them.
When I announced my departure, I received an e-mail from an administrator who told me that others had left for similar reasons, but had done so quietly. I spoke out about why I was leaving, and I'm writing this article because I believe it's important for educators and politicians to understand that discriminatory laws have a price.
My partner and I moved to Massachusetts and promptly married. Naturally, I have moved my research and whatever funding could be transferred to my new institution, and I am building a federally funded program in my new home. In my first six months, I've brought in more than $150,000 in competitive national grants.
Our primary reason for leaving Virginia was to gain the rights that come from legal recognition of our relationship and future family. It is clear that we would not obtain those rights in the near future in Virginia. States that choose to discriminate against their same-sex couples will continue to lose valued citizens to states that provide the same rights to all individuals, couples and families.
Lynn Adler is an assistant professor of entomology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
Let's begin with a riddle: When is Purdue University to be preferred over Harvard? You might guess that there is an agriculture or engineering program at Purdue that Harvard cannot match. But we had something less rational in mind: namely, the annual spring ritual in which department heads seek outside letters of evaluation for faculty members being considered for tenure and promotion.
A few years ago, a friend of ours who played that role at a large public university experienced a little more than the usual level of frustration. Like many higher education administrators, the provost at this university had announced that outside letters evaluating candidates for tenure had to be from "peer" institutions. It is standard, though far from rational, for administrators to insist that outside letter writers must come from schools at least as good, but the short-lived pasha at this university added a less common caveat: the letters should not be from either lessor or greater institutions. Based on the institutional categories used at the time, there were 32 public research universities sharing the institution's rank. They were to be the only acceptable sources of evaluation letters. Letters from Ivy League universities or distinguished liberal arts colleges would not do. In a choice between Purdue and Harvard, you'd best choose Purdue.
Like faculty all over the country, we endure only slightly less crazy rules at Illinois and Indiana, where "equal or better" quality institutions are mandated, among other credentials, for letter writers. Last year an administrator at one of our institutions pushed his glasses down his nose, looked wisely over them, and asked "Is Penn State really a peer institution?" A department at another college had to reject the possibility of using a letter from an internationally renowned sociologist at Louisiana State University because the university was considered no match for his own. Then of course there are the apples and oranges matches: How do you compare a small, distinguished liberal arts college to a megauniversity?
Our own universities are hardly unique in employing such practices. Precisely because they are so common across the academy, the time has come for a national meditation on the procedures commonly associated with promotion and tenure. We begin with letters of recommendation because they are one of the more conspicuous and egregious components of a system in dire need of an overhaul. That's what we want to advocate here: a reform of the practices associated with awarding tenure and promotion to younger faculty and an equally serious reform of the procedures employed in promoting tenured associate professors to the rank of professor.
In some ways the rampant insanity of the process is even more striking in the latter case, where a lifetime employee is implicitly told: "You've done a great job, and we want to promote you. But over the next year we want you to assemble a lengthy dossier about yourself while we seek out poorly paid -- or unpaid -- experts to prove to us that you're worth it. Meanwhile, we may raise unpredictable and demeaning doubts about your qualifications. After we've finished with a ritual that makes fraternity hazing seem compassionate by comparison,we'll let you know if you've met the grade."
At a major Midwestern university this year, colleagues await the final decision in the case of an associate professor of philosophy up for promotion to full professor. He is the author of two books, each 400 pages in print, the co-editor of a massive reference book, and the author of half a dozen articles. His department voted unanimously to promote him. Then the problems began.
Although his outside letters were all clearly positive and supportive of promotion, some members of a college review committee felt they were not positive enough. That opened the door to a series of additional ill-informed complaints: he hadn't presented enough conference papers; he had no outside grants; the time between the publication of his two authored books was too great; he hadn't directed enough dissertations.
Cast aside as irrelevant was his decade of service in his department. Cast aside was the evidence of his devoted mentoring of graduate students not in his field. He had spent a summer writing the department's 60-page guide to graduate study. Cast aside was the evidence in both his writing and his teaching that he is a passionately committed intellectual. Cast aside was the judgment of both his colleagues and the outside referees.
After berating the philosophy department head for even proposing the promotion, the college committee voted against promotion. An appeals committee reacted in obvious anger, urging that the dean write a strong letter endorsing the promotion. Another committee is now reviewing the decision.
Why did the college executive committee act with such cruelty and irrationality? Why humiliate a faculty member who already has tenure? Why chip away at a case in which the faculty member has met all objective criteria?
The answer may have come from a dean at Indiana, who remarked recently that wholesale retirements over the last few years have made it impossible to appoint a competent college committee. There just aren't enough sane senior faculty members available to make up a committee with a sense of institutional history, a rational sense of fairness and an in-depth knowledge of campus standards. It is hard to rely on a college executive composed of three chimpanzees, a scorpion, a pit viper, and a coma patient.
Meanwhile, they are egged on by empty demands from provosts and chancellors to ratchet up "standards." At some point ratcheting up the standards for outside letters merely means institutionalizing paranoia. For many years we have argued that the scholarly achievements and status of the individual referee should be the basis of comparison. No sale.
We are told that a faculty member at a liberal arts college will not understand the standards at a major research institution. Of course that is complete nonsense. The standards at major schools are well known. Anyone actively participating in the profession will fully understand the criteria for tenure at the best institutions. It's the standards at the other end of the spectrum -- at small colleges with modest or largely nonexistent expectations for publication -- that are often mysterious.
When administrators demand letters from institutions that are equal or better, the latter is often preferred. This is all part of the pressure to increase standards for promotion. Since administrators cannot actually evaluate a candidate's work, they must ratchet up such "objective" criteria as the quality of colleges approached for outside letters. This goes hand in hand with demands for increased numbers of publications.
We'd rather see a candidate have one splendid book than three average ones, but judging the quality of scholarship requires serious intellectual engagement with a person's work. Hardly a job for a multidisciplinary committee or an administrator outside the field.
As we saw in the case of the philosopher, once the outside letters leave the department they may be subjected to another strange rite of passage. They are read and reread in search of doubts, criticisms, or exceptions. In a world organized into paranoid hierarchies, any reservations in a letter are immediately seized upon as evidence of "the truth." Praise is considered suspect or formulaic; criticism is obviously heartfelt, honest, sincere, and unfailingly insightful. The one point of criticism in a single letter may carry more weight than a stack of superlatives. Outside evaluators who insert a criticism or two to make their letters balanced have obviously not learned how the game is being played.
All this makes the departmental vetting of potential referees increasingly difficult and increasingly necessary. Publishers have long known that a manuscript should be evaluated by someone sympathetic to the kind of work being done who can then decide whether the work is done well. Anything else is a waste of time and potentially unfair. You do not send a feminist scholar's book to a Taliban cleric to evaluate it, because you know what to expect from such a reader.
Of course that is essentially exactly what happened to many feminist scholars in the 1970s, when it was widely assumed anyone really knowledgeable would be biased in favor of the work. Scholars working in new or marginal areas are still subjected to the same disabling ideology and outside letter writers are sought out who are either ignorant or antagonistic. But the reverse can be equally risky. If an aggressively traditional scholar may be a bad bet to review innovative work, a scholar deeply committed to recovering, say, forgotten gay poetry may not be a wise choice to review someone writing about Catholicism in modern literature.
A reasonable match between the research expertise of candidate and evaluator is the best bet. Unless, of course, the candidate seeks to overturn the dominant values in a particular field. One of us recently encountered exactly that problem with a brilliant candidate who received problematic letters and was denied tenure as a result, despite a unanimous positive vote by a department convinced he was the best untenured person in the field. What all this suggests, at the very least, is that the character and quality of the referee should trump such considerations as where he or she teaches.
"Character" can be understood in both professional and personal terms as well. It is crucial to the enterprise that reviewers not only be accomplished intellectuals but also rational, fair-minded human beings. Does the person step back and judge work on its own terms? Or does the person tend to say what sort of book or essay he or she would have written and criticize the candidate for failing to do so? There are no certainties in these matters, but running the names of possible referees by a knowledgeable colleague in the field can eliminate notoriously destructive scholars.
Such considerations should also trump academic rank. It should be clear that accomplished associate professors are fully capable of judging -- and in some cases better able to judge -- certain kinds of scholarship than are many full professors. A generation ago, associate professors regularly served as outside referees. Now the standards have been "raised;" at our institutions and others they are virtually prohibited.
Then there is the recurring nightmare for department chairs, as one of us happens to be: trying to find authors for the number of letters required. This year Indiana's English department set out to assemble papers for one assistant and four associate professors. At Indiana each case requires 8 letters. That figure, happily, is down from a previous requirement of 10 -- all the extra two letters did was increase the chance of bagging a cranky letter writer and throwing the case into crisis.
To reach the total of 40 letters required for this year's 5 candidates, nearly 80 faculty were contacted. Eighty names vetted and researched, submitted, and approached. Many didn't even bother to respond to an initial e-mail request, apparently deciding even that amount of labor was more than they were willing to exert. Many more politely declined. Several responded rudely. Others mimicked their undergraduates, dreaming up reasons to say no. Fortunately, this year no one's grandmother passed away suddenly.
Not surprisingly, in such a climate department chairs call on their brother and sister chairs, souls sympathetic to the dilemma. Old debts are called in. At times, a kind of quid pro quo system develops; you help me this year, I'll help you next. Anxiety, abjection, occasional despair of ever completing the task -- all these are byproducts of the process for both chairs and candidates.
A few years ago in "The Random Insanity of Letters of Recommendation" ( The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 1, 2002), Deirdre McCloskey called the use of outside letters "a scandalous failure of common sense. It is corrupt, dishonest, unscientific." Since then, matters have only become worse. McCloskey urged "the responsible body to read the candidate's work and discuss its intellectual quality with immediate colleagues in a context of believably disinterested assessments from outside."
Some departments would be capable of holding such discussions, though the paranoid ratcheting up of standards makes any admissions of weaknesses in a candidate very dangerous indeed. But few college or campus level committees are any longer competent to serve this role.
Deans should be willing to invest resources in both internal committees and external referees. Given the increased risk that the single disciplinary representative on a multidisciplinary committee may be an assassin or a fool, it may be necessary to assemble separate committees to assess candidates in the sciences, social sciences, humanities, and fine arts. Members of these committees might be compensated by a released course to give them time to conduct thoughtful reviews.
External reviewers who are expected to read a substantial amount of work and write detailed letters of evaluation should be compensated financially, as the Modern Language Association recommends. At present, humanities reviewers read much and write detailed letters. Scientists read much less and often write a perfunctory paragraph or two of confirmation.
Our own departments pay about a $100 for an evaluation -- far better than not paying, which is unfortunately the option most colleges choose, but still far less than adequate. The University of Minnesota pays $300 and makes it clear that it expects a thorough, detailed report. The University of Notre Dame provides $200 and expects the same.
While still far less than one would typically be paid for giving a single guest lecture at a university, Minnesota's practice is at the high end of the scale; it represents dignified compensation and generates more complete, thoughtful, and reliable letters. If other institutions did the same, the process would be improved over all.
Limiting the number of letters required also makes sense, especially since many faculty members receive several such requests every year. It is not unusual for referees writing numerous letters to spend a full week or two reading materials and composing reports. Two weeks of uncompensated labor can make anyone grumpy and less careful.
The aim is not to guarantee positive letters, but rather to assure every candidate a measure of justice and dignity. If hiring committees have done their jobs well and carefully chosen new faculty whose talents meet the needs, expectations, and ambitions of the department, then most probationary faculty members should earn tenure.
Worst of all is a set of problematic letters for a candidate whose teaching and research the department genuinely admires. As the standard for letters becomes increasingly higher and the price to be paid for one negative letter becomes ever more commonly catastrophic, the process risks becoming arbitrary and insane.
Campus review committees determined to raise standards can, in turn, become suspicious of departments that consistently assemble positive letters for their strong candidates, as if it were somehow a setup. On the other hand, when a department believes in a candidate but cannot gather appropriate letters the campus considers the department incapable of making sound judgments on its own. Negative views always trump positive ones. It is a high stakes game in which the best interests of the institution -- retaining quality faculty -- can too easily be set aside.
At the very least, some distinctions between tenure decisions and promotion to full professor need to be enforced. We would not grant the latter casually or for time served in rank. But an associate professor who has clearly met the standards for publication should be promoted in rank. Such promotions should always entail increased compensation. And campus review committees should overlook minor weaknesses in those cases.
There should be an institutional commitment to collegiality and to creating a positive workplace, both aims that are undermined when people who already have lifetime tenure are humiliated and degraded. A more exacting standard may be warranted when the decision to grant lifetime tenure is at stake, but even then sanity demands that the preponderance of the evidence be the standard. When committees ignore the preponderance of the evidence and focus on minority opinion they inflict wounds that even survivors of the process can carry for years.
Our experience suggests the tenure process now occasionally goes crazy, but it is not impossible to see how the system can be improved.
Cary Nelson and Stephen Watt
Cary Nelson is Jubilee Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences and professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Stephen Watt is professor of English and chair of the department at Indiana University. They are co-authors of Academic Keywords: A Devil's Dictionary for Higher Education and, most recently, of Office Hours: Activism and Change in the Academy, both published by Routledge.
Nothing generates academic interest like a conversation about pay. Much faculty salary discussion focuses on why someone else makes more money. Often the contemplation of salary differences takes as its premise that the disparity must come from favoritism or some other illegitimate source rather than being a reflection of merit or that surrogate for merit, the market.
These conversations tend to be one-sided since the initiative comes primarily from the colleagues who feel underpaid. “Overpaid” colleagues rarely participate in this discussion. Thus, it is always good to see a systematic, data driven discussion of the subject of faculty salary differentials such as the recent much-quoted item from Ehrenberg, et al. at Cornell University.
Their study shows not only significant salary differences between disciplines on average (economists being paid more than English professors) but significant variation in that difference among institutions. This, they say, is because high quality departments pay more than low quality departments in the same discipline. If English is a weak department and economics is a strong department in one university, the difference in average salaries will be greater than if, in another university, both departments have the same quality.
These results validate in a systematic, statistical and aggregate way what individual participants in the academic market place have known and practiced for years. We who hire faculty or seek employment know that desirable scarcity drives up the market price of faculty. High quality, defined almost entirely by research success, is scarce, so the university has to pay for it. Medium quality is common so salary levels are less. The "outside offer" that comes to the faculty member whose local salary is significantly below the market resets that individual’s salary to meet the national market, whether through a counteroffer or a change in institution.
This process, however, has many complexities not easily reflected in the aggregate data. Faculty have a local salary, the amount paid by their current institution. At the time of first hire, the local salary and the market salary are the same, because the hiring university must pay the market rate for the faculty member. This market rate reflects the faculty member’s current and expected value and includes any special premiums that might apply. However, the local salary diverges from the market the day after the faculty member begins work.
Changes in the local salary depend not on the market, but on local circumstances. Across-the-board and merit increases negotiated by unions or established by administrations adjust the local salary to local concerns. Faculty who publish and get grants, and therefore are connected to the external market, tend to increase their local salaries faster than faculty who teach and perform a variety of service roles for the institution. Even so, the rate at which the local salary rises is somewhat to significantly independent of the national salary market place, although most institutions attempt to keep local salaries above the level of initial hires in the same field at the same rank.
Promotion increases, which reward achievement as defined locally, also increase local salaries, but again at rates relatively independent of the market. In these local markets, politics and personality can intervene to slow or increase the rate of salary improvement. Other circumstances such as major budget crises in public institutions for example can hold back salary increases. On unionized campuses, the union’s principal effect is to raise the floor for all faculty, and in some places regulate the rates of increase.
The market salary for a faculty member is not always higher than the local salary. The market may not pay more than the faculty member currently earns. This is often the case for faculty who have been in rank for a number of years, who do good work, but who have no particular distinction that the external marketplace cares to reward. This is the case for a majority of the faculty at most institutions. Simply put, the marketplace is not much interested in hiring midlevel faculty with good if not distinguished capabilities because an institution gains little by doing so.
The hiring institution will have its own cadre of embedded faculty who are also good and experienced, but not spectacular. They rarely need to buy more of this kind of talent. The marketplace is available for those relatively few faculty members whose value is substantially above their local salary. These people can enter the market and receive an offer from a competing institution. This will set a new salary level for them because either their current institution will match the offer or they will leave and take the new, higher salary offer at the competing institution.
Special circumstances complicate this marketplace. For example, senior minority or women faculty of significant scholarly distinction often carry a premium over equivalent individuals without the special characteristics. Faculty with the potential for leadership at a new institution but no leadership opportunities at their current institution can often command a premium because the new institution needs that leadership more than the current institution. Faculty with expertise of value in external commercial marketplaces command a premium over faculty of equivalent quality who have no commercial market value.
Many other circumstances discourage faculty entry into the national marketplace to attempt to improve their salaries. Faculty with a marketplace value may not enter the market because they do not want to pay the relocation costs, because they have an employed spouse in their current location, or because they have a life style that would require substantial change. Other faculty have retirement plans and options that they would lose if they enter the market and take another position elsewhere.
These conditions help explain faculty behavior in their local environments. Because only a few actually access the external marketplace in any one year, and for most faculty the opportunity to take advantage of the external marketplace will happen only once or at most twice in their 30 year careers, most faculty salary effort is locally focused. This increases the politics around local salary policies. It also encourages faculty to develop strategies that manipulate and usually reduce their workload as an alternative to increasing direct compensation.
The inaccessibility of the national market for most faculty encourages the local proliferation of quasi-administrative roles such as program chairs, faculty governance leadership, micro departmental organizations, and other structures that provide a rationale for a salary supplement for administrative service. Faculty pursue major administrative appointments that offer salary increases unavailable to them in the academic marketplace. They take on consulting, publish textbooks, create start-up companies, and supplement their salaries with summer grant funding. Unions and tenure ensure that the institution cannot force faculty members into the marketplace where they might have to accept a lower, market-determined salary. Unions also usually ensure that whatever happens in the marketplace, the salary levels of continuing employees will keep rising.
Faculty salaries also capture the value of security. Compared to many outside professionals of equivalent education and sophistication, faculty salaries appear low. When we account for the fact that faculty, once tenured, have a lifetime employment with compensation and benefits guaranteed, we recognize that part of the lower dollar payment reflects the much lower employment risk for tenured faculty compared to their professional counterparts in the commercial marketplace. College coaching salaries offer a clear demonstration of this. They often appear very high to many observers but actually capture two high-risk circumstances: coaches must win or be fired, and their compensation frequently depends on the amount of revenue their teams earn.
Universities in search of high quality research faculty, defined in the national competition for grants, awards, publications, and the like, will always pay a premium for the individuals who fit their expectations. As the Cornell study shows, if an institution has a particular disciplinary focus for its quality aspirations, it will pay more for the faculty in that field than it will for faculty in fields where its aspirations are less.
At the top rank of public and private universities, almost every field is expected to be at the top level of quality, and in those universities, the salaries of all faculty will most closely reflect the national marketplace for their subdisciplines, including the built-in differentials between English and economics. The farther from the top rank a university is, the more its salaries will diverge from the marketplace level set by the top performers and the more its salary system and interests will focus on local concerns.
To understand the faculty salary game, it helps to know the whole system.
Submitted by Jeff Rice on February 24, 2006 - 4:00am
New York City’s academic community has experienced more than a semester of labor turbulence. In September, after a summer of eschewing all formal contract negotiations, the City University of New York’s faculty union, the Professional Staff Congress, convened a mass meeting to rally support for a strike. Six weeks later, New York University graduate students walked off the job, demanding recognition of a graduate student union, the GSOC.
These strategies do not seem to have paid dividends. The PSC’s plan fizzled amidst widespread faculty ambivalence about (or even opposition to) defying New York State law, which prohibits strikes by public employee unions; a settlement on terms well short of the union’s “non-negotiable” demands appears imminent. At NYU, President John Sexton recently stated that striking graduate students would not receive 2006 teaching assignments; some of those who started off on picket lines have returned to their jobs. In retrospect, PSC and GSOC leaders probably erred in their hard-line rhetoric and actions. But the two organizations also illustrate -- if in an exaggerated fashion -- some of the pitfalls associated with academic unionization.
Supporters of the PSC and GSOC attribute the unions’ difficulties to broader political, societal, and economic forces. The union movement has found George W. Bush an implacable foe. Organized labor is divided -- as seen in the departure of SEIU and related unions from the AFL-CIO -- and has struggled to organize new workers. Pressures from globalization have rendered obsolete the types of union contracts common in the 1950s or early 1960s.
Yet the nature of the university -- a non-profit institution in which an overwhelmingly pro-labor faculty shares the task of campus governance -- buffers academic unions from many of these national trends. It is for this reason, as supporters have noted, that academic unions have functioned at many public universities without significant controversy, if not for the overall educational good.
Campus organizations, however, also suffer from problems rare in the labor movement nationally. Since few academics enter the profession to become labor activists, those who gravitate toward union service are more likely to fall on the fringes of a professoriate that already is ideologically one-sided. They therefore become particularly susceptible to what Emory University’s Mark Bauerlein has termed the academy’s “ groupthink,” adopting extreme positions that weaken their standing with legislators, alumni, or parents.
Bauerlein contends that one aspect of groupthink occurs when “the members of a group reach a consensus and rarely encounter those who dispute it, [so] they tend to believe that everybody thinks the same way.” The GSOC has discovered how this “false consensus effect” can inadvertently alienate constituencies critical to the union’s success. For instance, the New York Sun reported that as part of its campaign to move classes off campus, the GSOC paid to hold classes in -- of all places -- the U.S. Communist Party’s headquarters. (It is doubtful that this move will help convince any neutral trustees that the union’s views represent a mainstream perspective.) Meanwhile, a pro-strike group of more than 200 professors, Faculty Democracy, threatened to withhold undergraduates’ fall-term grades unless Sexton assigned the strikers to spring-term teaching positions, from which they could then continue to refuse to work. (It seems unlikely that parents of NYU seniors will sympathize with the faculty’s casual willingness to disadvantage their children’s candidacies for admission to professional schools.)
The PSC, meanwhile, has demonstrated another component of groupthink. Cass Sunstein, a law professor at the University of Chicago, has described the " law of group polarization" as a pattern in which deliberation moves ideologically one-sided groups “toward a more extreme point in the direction indicated by their own predeliberation judgments.” Group polarization helps explain a PSC record that has limited the union’s influence by casting the organization as a caricature of out-of-touch tenured radicals. At a meeting of the American Federation of Teachers executive council five weeks after the attacks on the World Trade Center, PSC President Barbara Bowen cast the sole vote against a resolution supporting the U.S. military campaign against the Taliban.In 2004, the PSC’s delegate assembly (unanimously) approved a protest at Colombia's United Nations consulate, bizarrely contending that attacks on Colombian educators were “really designed to crush teachers’ resistance to the same conservative agenda against public education we are fighting in New York.”
As these experiences suggest, academic unions’ difficulties are in many ways self-inflicted. GSOC and PSC members have noticed: Inside Higher Ed recently revealed that the GSOC, whose ranks already excluded most science students, has seen participation in the strike by math students cease, while the latest U.S. Department of Labor figures show that an extraordinary 16.6 percent of the PSC’s bargaining unit has opted out of the union entirely despite a requirement to pay agency fees.
But if campus labor organizations do not always get their way, does higher education suffer as a result? An internal ideological contradiction leads academic unions to impose a structure ill-suited for the academy, one that can even enforce mediocrity. On the one hand, groups like GSOC and PSC have committed themselves to resisting what they term the “corporate university.” (On December 15, the PSC delegate assembly -- unanimously -- approved a resolution hailing the GSOC strike as “the cutting edge of labor solidarity in the face of academic corporatization.”) On the other, the PSC and GSOC have embraced a basic element of the corporate system -- a labor/management model in which a union can represent all workers in particular jobs.
Though appropriate to an assembly line, this vision of the academy suggests that the “work” of all graduate students or professors is essentially comparable -- standing in front of a classroom for a certain number of hours each week, regardless of the quality of the performance or the content of the lecture, and (for professors) engaging in service. This level of expectation, unfortunately, often applies to adjuncts. But it is badly misplaced for graduate students or professors. In such an academy, a union member who focuses on legal philosophy would be as competent to TA a course in aesthetics as a non-union Ph.D. student who specialized in the topic, as the GSOC claims. A professor with 30 years of service but an insignificant publication and teaching record would deserve the same salary as a colleague with similar seniority but multiple prize-winning books and a record of distinguished teaching, as the PSC insists.
The corporate model of a labor/management divide also makes unions like the PSC and GSOC at best imperfect vehicles to protect academic freedom -- and at worst, facilitators of the internal threats to free thought from which the contemporary academy suffers.
A jarring reminder of campus administrations violating academic freedom occurred in 2004 at the University of Southern Mississippi. But most corrupted personnel processes (I speak, in part, from personal experience here) involve primarily the actions of senior faculty members, with “management” only ratifying decisions that “labor” already made.
Such cases produce an inherent conflict of interest, by forcing the union to contest the record of other union members -- often campus leaders or colleagues with longstanding personal or professional relationships with key union members. At CUNY, for instance, the faculty and union leaderships are interchangeable. The chair of CUNY’s Faculty Senate, Susan O’Malley, sits on the PSC’s executive committee; many PSC leaders are in the Senate. Likewise, it’s hard to imagine a certified GSOC aggressively representing a graduate student who filed a grievance against a member of Faculty Democracy.
Even setting aside the ideological or bureaucratic temptation to uphold the campus majorities upon which unions rely for their support, the corporate model can handicap protecting untenured faculty rights. Almost all faculty contracts resolve personnel disputes through arbitration. Unlike lawyers, union grievance counselors must balance an aggressive representation of the individual faculty member against the need to maintain long-term working relationships with the administration’s legal staff. Arbitration systems, moreover, generally are weighted in favor of the employer. While it remains difficult to win a tenure lawsuit, over the last 10 years, courts (perhaps showing less deference to academic self-governance after speech code cases revealed the shortcomings of university legal processes) have increased their involvement in college personnel matters.
Not all academic unions, of course, are as ideologically extreme as the PSC or the GSOC. And the motives behind unionization movements are understandable. Compared to the public universities of two generations ago, faculty workload has increased, even though salaries have risen at a much slower rate than in most private sector jobs. Moreover, outside pressures to cut costs and demonstrate tangible achievements have led some administrations to behave in a more unilateral fashion.
Yet it is dubious that more powerful faculty unions or newly created graduate student unions will correct these problems. As Senator Lamar Alexander informed the Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education, the “absence of true diversity of opinion” on most campuses -- a status quo to which unions contribute -- represents “the greatest threat to broader public support and funding for higher education.” And, as we’ve seen most recently at the University of Colorado following the Ward Churchill affair, dubious conduct by tenured faculty members -- which unions are committed to defend -- can unintentionally boost the leverage of campus or system administrators. Professors would be better served getting their own house in order and then making the case for higher salaries or more autonomy rather than adopting the corporate model championed by groups like the PSC or GSOC.
At NYU, Sexton deserves credit for putting the integrity of his institution first. And at CUNY, key members of the Board of Trustees have courageously resisted the outlandish demands and frequently bullying tactics of their labor foes. The records of the GSOC and PSC offer textbook examples of how groupthink and the corporate model embraced by academic unions can contradict the basic goals of higher education.
KC Johnson is a professor of history at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center.