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A blue silhouette drawing of a group of people holding up protest signs, engaging in activism, many with their arms raised.

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The extent and momentum of union organizing among student workers at colleges and universities is intensifying. I have been fortunate to be involved with undergraduates who have been working to form a union at Kenyon College since spring 2020. Based on these experiences, along with my teaching at Kenyon from 1981 to 2021, and what I have read about student worker union organizing, I suggest that these efforts are driven by immediate concerns but have broader significance.

The short-term trigger was arguably the application of austerity measures to address financial challenges faced by colleges and universities during the pandemic. In this sense, unions are means of opposing cuts to essential student services and needed incomes, reductions that are especially threatening to the well-being of student workers during a period of high inflation.

The issues surrounding student worker unionizing, and attempts to stymie those efforts, however, expose very different definitions of what institutions of higher learning are and what constitutes the greater good, common good and public good at them. Student workers, to be sure, are fighting for much-needed economic relief and health care. It is worth considering what more is at stake in these contests.

The Greater Good

The idea of the greater good, with its roots in Utilitarian philosophy, generally holds that decisions should be made that maximize benefits to, or minimize the sufferings of, a group.

“Greater” implies that there are several options for how to act in a given situation. It is up to the decision-maker to choose the alternative that yields the most benefits to the largest numbers. As even the best choices have negative consequences that will be borne by some of a group’s members, the goal is to keep those unwanted outcomes to a minimum.

This approach to decision-making presupposes that choices are made by a few who see themselves as uniquely qualified to define what is “good” for an organization. That good, in turn, is often equated with preserving an institution’s integrity.

Leaders of institutions frequently cast themselves as apart from and above people (including students) who fill other roles within those entities. The abstract idea of a college or university is thus reified by these few leaders as a thing whose needs differ from, and supersede those of, its members. The needs that are prioritized, especially keeping institutional costs low while increasing revenues, tend to be generic and apply to all manner of corporations, regardless of their distinct cultures. Achieving the greater good, therefore, means safeguarding the institution even if that results in downplaying its distinctive values and causing harm to some of its members.

The Common Good

Those promoting the common good operate from different premises. For them, what participants do together constitutes the institution to which they belong.

A college, therefore, is not reified as a thing apart from its members. Rather, it is instantiated through their regularly recurring interpersonal interactions, which are guided by the principles, norms and values that define the institution. It is through these routines that the institution comes alive in the experiences of its members. It is also through such dealings that the distinct culture of a college takes shape and is perpetuated.

Parsing out the phrase, “good” refers to a desired outcome. “Common” signifies that all those who constitute the institution share in negotiating what that objective is, deciding how it should be accomplished and then acting together to achieve the agreed-upon aim. When disability activists proclaim, “Nothing about us without us,” they succinctly express the culture of an institution acting as a community shaped by its members’ ongoing search for the common good.

A major advantage of this approach is that it requires the sharing of people’s different skills and understandings of the institution in charting its future while solving its current problems. People’s knowledge of institutions is conditioned by the positions they occupy within them. For example, an electrician in the maintenance department sees aspects of a college’s functioning that a trustee does not know about, just as the latter understands elements of the institution about which the electrician is unaware. From the common good viewpoint, neither insight is more important than the other. Each knows something significant about their joint enterprise and has something to teach the other concerning its operation. If you doubt this, consider whom you would call when the lights in your office go out. Consequently, decisions made without significant input from all constituencies at a college or university are, at best, flawed; at worst, they cause harm.

Many academic leaders publicly acknowledge the expertise of the people who comprise their institutions. Nonetheless, they regularly act without meaningful input from those who are most affected by their choices.

Student Worker Unions and the Common Good

The student workers I know at Kenyon College, and those at other institutions about whom I have read, recognize this disconnect between sentiment and action. They also realize that achieving the common good cannot rely solely on convincing trustees and administrators, as well intentioned as many of them are, to be more sensitive to or inclusive in their conversations about student needs. Changing the decision-making process requires transforming the structure in which choices are made. Doing so means sharing power and is predicated on the notion that administrators and trustees will pay attention to the needs of student workers when relationships are negotiated among all parties, and the resulting agreements are codified in contracts.

Unions provide a means of achieving what President Reagan, citing a Russian proverb, said was a precondition for nuclear disarmament: both sides must be able to trust but verify. As it stands, administrators ask for trust in the rightness of their choices, but there is no means of verifying their claims or changing policies that are doing harm. A union can provide the structure to accomplish those twin goals. Most of the power remains with administrators and trustees, as it does with all employers, but they must take those represented by the union seriously, at least more so than they do now. The drive to unionize thereby becomes a legally protected means that gives its members a say—a say that cannot be ignored—in determining what constitutes the common good within their workplaces.

Other ways of achieving this end are not much in evidence. Trustees at Kenyon College have invested vast sums in hiring lawyers from the firm of Jones Day to block not only the rights of Kenyon student workers to form a union but to make the case before the National Labor Relations Board against union recognition for undergraduate student workers in general. This fight is now entering its third year. Administrators at other colleges have also resisted student worker organizing efforts, albeit not to this extent and with so much fervor. Such animosity to student worker organizing suggests that the stakes go beyond the desire of college leaders to dictate the economics of student work. On the one hand, student worker unions directly question the right of trustees and administrators alone to define institutional needs and assert their paramountcy. More indirectly, these unions challenge the ability of administrators and trustees to determine what constitutes a student’s college experience.

Student workers through their unions take responsibility for bringing real-world concerns of fair pay and treatment to colleges that have long been seen as places of quiet reflection but not student-driven action. In doing so, student workers make collegiate life more like the world from which they come and to which they return, a world they have a role in shaping. By breaching the imagined borders that supposedly set colleges apart from the world at large, student workers raise the question of higher education’s public good.

The Public Good

When a few leaders decide what defines the value of their institution to their societies, they risk doing so in terms that make sense to them. Such sense-making is invariably influenced by a trustee or administrator’s experiences, which are not necessarily relevant to those of the varied students attending college today and the staff and faculty who work there. The narrower the decision-making circle, the more likely that the learning and work experiences those trustees and administrators create will be out of step with the needs and expectations of students, staff and faculty and with the real challenges they all face outside the college. Institutions built on principles of the greater good are also resistant to change, as decision-makers are buffered from challenges to the status quo these leaders seek to reify. As Kenyon’s trustees are demonstrating, they have the power and resources to resist threats to their hegemony.

Broadening the conversation to include all participants in an institution’s life greatly enhances the possibility that the college they create together will reflect and relate to the reality in which their constituents live and to which they contribute as members of society. Students, from varied backgrounds, with diverse viewpoints and differing concerns, bring the world to college. In doing so, they stimulate other members of that institution to take their interests seriously and to create learning environments that are relevant to ongoing social, political and economic problems as students experience them through such lenses as race, class, gender, ableness and sexuality. Faculty and staff, in turn, express interests and perspectives drawn from their varied experiences and that are not otherwise represented at the college.

Institutions understood as products of collective decision-making and action are never isolated from the societies in which their members are embedded. They are always relevant to those societies. They are also always open to change.

Serving the public good, therefore, means creating academic institutions structured to achieve the common good. Student worker unions are a part of that crucial process. They are means by which students learn to seek the common good together, to understand that they are vital participants in the institutions to which they contribute, and appreciate that institutional change is always imminent but is never achieved alone—nor can it be dictated by those who serve institutions at the expense of their members. In a world that is on fire, these lessons have never been more important.

Edward Schortman is the J. K. Smail Professor of Anthropology Emeritus at Kenyon College.

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