Last week in a roundup of some things I'd been noticing about how "leverage: is at play, I used an open letter from faculty at the University of North Carolina addressed to undergraduate students as one of my examples. Some graduate students at UNC disagreed with my analysis. I invited them to use this space to respond to me and make their own case. Their guest post is below. - JW
UNC's Tenured Faculty Can Stop the University from Risking Lives.
By: The Anti-Racist Grad Worker Collective at UNC
The University of North Carolina is failing us. By holding in-person classes and housing thousands of students on-campus in a deadly pandemic, it is sacrificing an untold number of lives. People who are BIPOC, low income, disabled, or otherwise marginalized will suffer the most.
For a week, the UNC Chapel Hill administration withheld from the public and its own faculty the county health department’s recommendation not to re-open campus, announcing instead that it has chosen to defy this recommendation. Unlike peer institutions, UNC refuses to outline the conditions under which it would return to remote instruction. It removed its daily COVID-19 case tracker from public view and planned the semester without input from recognized campus advisory bodies, including the Office of Diversity and Inclusion. As other peer institutions move online entirely, the question facing us is not whether we can trust UNC to protect us, but how we can resist.
A recent letter addressed to undergraduate students by a group of faculty at UNC urged undergraduate students not to return to campus. Yet the letter omits what they (faculty) can do beyond writing letters and teaching online. Individual professors making decisions for their own classrooms is an insufficient response to deadly working conditions. Tenured faculty—the most financially, professionally, and socially secure workers on campus—must take collective action and refuse to teach under these conditions.
We call on white tenured faculty to lead a teaching strike. As the majority in most institutions (as of 2018, 78% of tenured faculty at UNC are white), white tenured faculty alone are sufficient in number to make an impact. Furthermore, Black, Indigenous and other faculty of color (regardless of tenure status) already shoulder a disproportionate burden of “diversity and inclusion” work; many of them have been directly or indirectly penalized for this work. White tenured faculty should take the initiative to disrupt the university’s “business as usual,” which functions by exploiting BIPOC faculty, all graduate and campus workers, and undergraduate students.
In his analysis of the faculty letter, John Warner writes that he is “impressed by the choice to speak directly to students themselves, rather than petitioning the administration...a tacit admission of the lack of leverage that faculty have in this scenario.” We respectfully disagree: Faculty may lack the direct authority to decide if UNC will go online, but they hold the collective power and leverage to force it to do so. Without faculty labor, the university does not function.
Moreover, the public prestige and media interest garnered by faculty at a flagship university are powerful privileges that few others have. Groundskeepers, housekeepers, and graduate and undergraduate students have put forth countless op-eds, petitions, interviews, and protests demanding that UNC declare a default remote semester. We have heard nothing from the administration and struggled to maintain local media attention. Campus worker pay has already been reduced. Yet a letter written by UNC’s faculty almost immediately drew national attention from Inside Higher Ed, Newsweek, and NPR. Warner claims that the letter addressed students because that is where “they may actually have the most influence, with students.” But tenured faculty actually lose credibility amongst students when they do not use the privileges of tenure to advocate for student safety and well-being. What is the job security, academic freedom, and prestige of tenure for, if not to be used as a platform for uplifting student concerns?
Students are much less powerful and much harder to mobilize as a bloc, particularly when administrators are withholding critical pandemic-related information from them in order to gain their consent. The faculty letter individualizes what must be collective opposition to administrative decisions. When individual students do make decisions to ensure their own health during the pandemic, UNC takes credit in order to deflect their own responsibility. Already, 34% of students have voted with their feet by cancelling their student housing contracts, which the administration then claimed was part of their own efforts to “de-densify” student housing. History has consistently shown UNC’s willingness to dismiss student opinion: just last year, it chose to appease neo-Confederates angered by the removal of UNC’s Confederate monument with millions of dollars instead of heeding the objections of donors and students. Before and after students toppled the Confederate statue in August 2018, UNC surveilled students, encouraged police to violently suppress student activism, and ceded power at every turn to hate groups and the right-wing Board of Governors.
Individual dissenters are also much easier to punish than collectively organized tenured faculty. A University of Pittsburgh graduate student reports, for example, that their university has threatened to cut email access to students who do not sign their Covid-19 risk acknowledgement. Tenured faculty are not immune to being held so hostage, but only collective action can adequately oppose this blackmail. Additionally, for many students, particularly those who are housing- and food-insecure, a significant amount of personal risk is already involved in the decision of whether to come to campus. While the faculty letter acknowledges that some students may have to live on campus “for financial or personal reasons,” it does not address that particular groups of students are more likely to face this hardship along lines of race, class, gender, sexuality, immigration status, and ability. International students, for example, may risk their status. Some international graduate students are already being furloughed should they return to their home countries. There is no just “choice” for students facing the manufactured dilemma of either being exposed to infection or losing their housing or visas.
The implication of Warner’s analysis, and of the faculty letter, is that tuition-paying students must act on behalf of us all. But this is a concession to the business model of higher education that has so effectively hollowed out the public institution. The letter kicks responsibility down the line, preserving faculty's comfort by absolving them of their responsibility to pressure their bosses (the deans, provosts, president, and chancellor). This strategy parallels how university administrators place blame on students by holding them to impossible social distancing protocols on a campus near full capacity during a pandemic.
Yet as those in power shift blame down rather than up the chain of command, it remains undeniable that classes can only be held if someone teaches them. We therefore call on white tenured faculty at UNC and other institutions that are opening in-person to claim their power by organizing teaching strikes. Without withholding labor, faculty petitions, pleas to students, and even meetings with the Chancellor will continue to be easily ignored. Faculty can organize strikes within universities, unions, or across campuses through professional academic organizations, which already weigh in on issues of human rights and Covid-19 in higher ed and could build nationwide solidarity based on their alleged disciplinary values.
Graduate students —who have far less financial and job security than faculty—strike all of the time to make universities more just and equitable workplaces. UNC teaching assistants went on strike in 2018 without any institutional or union support. We, along with campus workers, have already risked our livelihoods on behalf of the UNC community. We hold no illusion regarding our job security under an administration that has already decided that our lives and paychecks are disposable. But in the eyes of national media, university public relations, and often students themselves, tenured faculty are much less disposable. How many lives would a faculty strike save by forcing institutions to be accountable to their students, workers, and communities, rather than to their bottom lines?
We value accessible public education and thus call for the administration to act on its own stated values. But white tenured faculty must lead the only action that can hold the administration accountable. Many faculty members are in departments that have declared their commitment to equity and racial justice, all while the pandemic intensifies inequities, spiking the rates of premature death among poor, racialized, and marginalized populations. If such conditions can’t move white tenured faculty to actualize their own power, then what can?