In today's Academic Minute, Denise Dearing, a professor of biology at the University of Utah, explains her research on pikas -- rabbit-like mammals -- as a way to study the impact of climate change. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.
In the Ivory Tower, labor organizing is no easy task. Teaching assistants, who have recently unionized at New York University and the University of Connecticut, don’t have factory floors where collective bonds can be readily formed. We’re scattered throughout classrooms spread over vast campuses, each grading for different professors and advisers, with different and often incommensurable working conditions. We don’t stand before an assembly line with parts of metal and plastic – we work face-to-face with students, who are sometimes apathetic and bemused by our decision to prolong our schooling, but sometimes enthusiastic and insightful enough to remind us why we thought a life of teaching and research could be worthwhile.
When I started graduate school at the University of California at Santa Cruz, I proudly signed a union card the first day of orientation. The unprecedented contractagreement reached this year between the University of California and my union, United Auto Workers Local 2865, which represents graduate teaching assistants at all UC campuses, reflects our strategy for dealing with these challenges.
Since teaching assistants are also students, we have to insist on our work being taken seriously as work, not just a step on the way to a future career. In order to win higher wages, our union wrote a report (“Towards Mediocrity: Administrative Mismanagement and the Decline of UC Education”) demonstrating that the viability of the university depends on whether it provides livable conditions for its student-workers. Over half of our most qualified applicants currently choose to attend other institutions, which offer better compensation. We were only able to settle our contract when the UC – after a long, drawn-out struggle – agreed to close a third of this gap between pay at our university and other institutions.
What’s more, many graduate students are supporting families, and enticing as the prospect of a future tenure-track income may be, it doesn’t put dinner on the table tonight. So our new contract also includes increased child-care subsidies, as well as expanded parental leaves and guaranteed access to workplace lactation stations.
We think that we were able to win these demands because we responded to the specificity of our workplace, and expanded the boundaries of union activity. In this contract campaign, expanding the boundaries meant raising three issues alongside wages, and refusing to allow management to dismiss them: class sizes, opportunities for undocumented students, and rights for transgender students.
For teaching assistants, working conditions are a question of quality of education for undergraduates. Class sizes are perhaps the clearest point at which these two interests intersect: every additional paper we have to grade means less time to sit with students in our offices and less time grading the papers of other students. Every extra seat filled in our discussion sections means a reduced opportunity for quieter students to speak up – and they’re usually the ones who will benefit the most from asking questions. The impact that class size has on our workload is mirrored by its impact on the ability of the institution to serve its constituents. Unless educators like us play a role in determining what class size is appropriate, students will be left to flounder instead of thrive.
We’ve also tried to show that universities are one of the places where civil rights issues can be seen as labor issues. One of our most pressing concerns is the availability of funding for students who are undocumented immigrants. About 500 graduate students at the UC are undocumented, and face incredible challenges to completing their degrees. Without the opportunity to work as teaching assistants, undocumented students lead precarious lives, and they’re unable to gain the teaching experience they need to build their careers.
Another issue has been discrimination in the most personal of settings. Once upon a time, when women began to enter male-dominated academic departments, it wasn’t uncommon for them to discover that there were no bathrooms for them in their buildings. We realized that while our society is coming to recognize that transgender people need the safety of gender-neutral bathrooms – indeed, Governor Jerry Brown signed a California law dictating that public schools should provide these facilities last summer – this issue needs to be addressed in labor contracts, since it bears directly on conditions for trans workers.
The contract we’ve agreed on breaks new ground on each of these issues. After months of insisting that TA-to-student ratios were not a “mandatory subject of bargaining,” the UC has agreed to form joint labor-management workload committees in which class sizes can be discussed. The UC has also agreed to form an "instructional opportunities" committee, which will be directed toward providing equal academic and professional opportunities for undocumented students. Finally, we’ve successfully bargained for language in our contract that guarantees access to gender-neutral bathrooms as a “right,” setting a precedent for us to directly address other anti-discrimination demands in the future.
As graduate students, undergraduates, adjuncts, and others grapple with increasingly precarious conditions, unions will become a major force in shaping the future of the university. This is not always clearly understood; successfully waging our contract campaign required us, at times, to go on strike against unfair labor practices that interfered with our ability to bargain. Armed with the UC precedent, frustrated graduate students across the country can think creatively about how to meet their needs as educators. Instead of arguing about ballooning class sizes at interminable department meetings, they might take their demands to the picket line.
Asad Haider is Ph.D. student in history of consciousness at the University of California at Santa Cruz, and a member of the Executive Board of UAW 2865.
Like our fellow Americans, we planned to spend the July 4 holiday weekend with our families and friends. Instead, on the late afternoon of Independence Day, we found our email inboxes near to bursting with reports that the president of the University of Texas at Austin, Bill Powers, had received an ultimatum -- resign, or be fired this week -- from the chancellor of the University of Texas System, Francisco Cigarroa. The timing of this alarming news regarding our president, and the short timeline, seem very odd. Chancellor Cigarroa had announced earlier this year that he will be stepping down to return to his prior career in academic medicine. In addition, many faculty feel it cannot be a coincidence that this announcement came during a national holiday in the summer session when the population of the university community is at its lowest.
While relationships are often strained among UT Austin, its parent organization UT System, and the Board of Regents that provides oversight of multiple campuses and health science centers across the state, we were completely blindsided by this "July 4 Coup." We first learned about events through the media, and we are still waiting to learn the basis for the chancellor's decision. In this age of ever-increasing rules and mandates from the Board of Regents to improve transparency and accountability, we call upon Chancellor Cigarroa to explain his actions, to allow the faculty and other stakeholders at UT-Austin to have a voice, and to listen to what we have to say.
Certainly, any decision to terminate Bill Powers's presidency is independent of his exceptional competence as a leader and visionary in higher education. President Powers has demonstrated an irrefutable ability to successfully lead a university of over 50,000 students and faculty members in good times and bad. Indeed, as chair of the Association of American Universities, he is a "president among presidents" in higher education.
As the 2013, 2014, and 2015 chairs elected to lead UT Austin's Faculty Council, we have worked closely with Bill Powers since he took the helm in 2006. From Hillary Hart, current chair: "In my years on the UT-Austin Faculty Council, and 27 years as a faculty member at the university, I have never seen a president so devoted to students and faculty and so open to innovative ways to deliver high-quality higher education. It seems extremely shortsighted to eject Bill Powers before he can finish the initiatives he has championed in partnership with the very UT System that is now threatening his presidency: programs to increase the four-year graduation rate, to empower faculty to develop innovative courses -- efforts that embody UT Austin's motto of ‘what starts here changes the world.’ ”
These are volatile times for higher education in Texas, and the country needs to pay close attention to events as they unfold. A similar, albeit not identical, situation happened at the University of Virginia in June 2012, when President Teresa Sullivan was forced to resign by that university’s Board of Visitors. Events at Virginia turned into a public relations nightmare, with several prominent faculty members talking about leaving, a loss of donations from alumni (until Sullivan was reinstated), and scorn from the entire country. Interestingly and importantly, it was ultimately the backlash from the faculty that seems to have made the greatest difference in U.Va.'s reappointing Sullivan as president. Among the similarities between the U.Va. and the UT situation, it is interesting that faculty at U.Va. learned of Sullivan's forced resignation on a hot summer Sunday.
Like our counterparts at U.Va., UT Austin faculty members, while famed for independent-minded behavior, are fiercely protective and proud of our university and the president who leads us. Although we have not been heard -- yet -- our voices will be loud, unambiguous, and unanimous in moving forward.
The forced resignation or firing of President Powers, if it happens, will irreparably damage UT Austin's reputation across the state and country, and around the world. His firing would destabilize an exceptionally productive and internationally respected institute of higher learning and research, resulting in a loss of productivity and ultimately, a decline in the quality of education for our students. We cannot believe this is a desirable outcome to leaders at UT System.
A case in point is the new Dell Medical School under development on the Austin campus. The university is in the critical early stages of establishing roots in the medical community, hiring a top-notch faculty, and attracting the country's best students. This will prove exceedingly difficult to achieve in an environment that may, to external appearances, appear hostile. We believe that Chancellor Cigarroa, a talented transplantation surgeon, will understand the consequences of a missed opportunity to build a highly innovative new medical school at the UT System's flagship university.
The July 4 Coup seems to us unmerited, unjustified, and unacceptable.
Andrea C. Gore, Hillary Hart and William Beckner
Andrea C. Gore, who will be chair of the UT Faculty Council in 2015-16, is Gustavus and Louise Pfeiffer Professor of Pharmacology and Toxicology at the University of Texas at Austin.
Hillary Hart, chair of the council during 2013-14, is distinguished senior lecturer in civil, architectural and environmental engineering at the University of Texas at Austin.
William Beckner, the 2014-15 chair of the council, is the Paul V. Montgomery Memorial Centennial Professor of Mathematics at the University of Texas at Austin.
Paul Roof will be back in the classroom in the fall. Charleston Southern University fired Roof in June after his photograph appeared on a beer can for a fund-raiser. His dismissal outraged many students and alumni. The College of Charleston has now hired Roof, who will be an adjunct teaching five courses this fall in the anthropology and sociology department, The Post and Courier reported.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which published a controversial study on attempts to manipulate the emotions of Facebook users, on Thursday expressed concern about whether Facebook users who were studied had been treated fairly. In an editorial, the journal said that Facebook, as a private company, is not required by law to follow the same informed consent procedures as a university would. But the editorial said that informed consent is an important principle, even when not required by law. The editorial called it "a matter of concern that the collection of the data by Facebook may have involved practices that were not fully consistent with the principles of obtaining informed consent and allowing participants to opt out."
Breanne Fahs, associate professor of women and gender studies at Arizona State University, has an unusual way to teaching students about defying gender-specific norms. She offers extra credit to all female students who opt not to shave any body hair below the neck, and to male students who shave all of their body hair below the neck. Students must shave (or not shave) throughout a 10-week period and keep a journal related to their experiences. “There’s no better way to learn about societal norms than to violate them and see how people react,” said Fahs in an Arizona State article about her teaching technique. “There’s really no reason why the choice to shave, or not, should be a big deal. But it is, as the students tend to find out quickly.” Some of the Arizona State students may be seen in the photograph below.
In today's Academic Minute, Jason Kalirai, associate researcher at the Center for Astrophysical Sciences at Johns Hopkins University, discusses the deepest of deep space studies. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.