Graduate students at New York University -- on strike for months in hopes of saving their union -- got support Thursday from the outgoing and incoming presidents of the American Association of University Professors, who were arrested for disorderly conduct for blocking a street in front of NYU.
Cary Nelson, the incoming president  and a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said in an interview before his arrest (and that of Jane Buck, the departing president) that he saw Thursday's actions as a "ramping up of resistance" to NYU. More than 50 others were also arrested, most of them NYU graduate students, plus a few graduate students from other institutions.
While many leaders of faculty groups have backed the NYU grad students with resolutions and statements, Nelson said it was important to go beyond that. "We're here to put our bodies where our words have been -- to signal to our membership that this is a cause worthy of the long, honorable tradition of civil disobedience, that this is a fundamental issue of employee rights, and in truth this is the watershed academic labor crisis of our generation," he added.
Nelson said that he was planning a "personal boycott" of NYU and that he would soon be encouraging other faculty members nationally to consider steps similar to those he will take, such as refusing to serve on NYU tenure review or publication review committees, refusing to speak on the campus, advising students against enrolling at graduate school or seeking employment there, and generally having "no active relationship" with the university. He said that the graduate students' work stoppage alone -- which is now rather modest  as many of the students have returned to work -- will not win the strike, but that a more unified effort could do so.
"People need to start making moral decisions about what to do," said Nelson.
The conflict at NYU is over the right of graduate students at private institutions to unionize. Until last year, NYU was the only private institution to recognize a union, and it did so based on a National Labor Relations Board ruling that graduate students at private universities were entitled to engage in collective bargaining. But the NLRB reversed itself, giving NYU the legal right to stop dealing with the union. Officials of the university, which greatly expanded pay and benefits for TA's under the union contract and after ending the university's relationship with the union, said that collective bargaining ran counter to the university's educational mission.
The NYU battle has been closely watched by graduate students elsewhere. At NYU and other private institutions, administrations have responded to the push to unionize with better stipends and benefits -- and while university officials say that they are committed to keeping such improvements, some students are skeptical and scoff at the idea that collective bargaining touches on academic issues.
Leaders of other private universities were generally upset with NYU for dealing with the union -- an affiliate of the United Automobile Workers -- in the first place, and have been hoping that the defeat of the strike would quash the union movement among graduate students. (Unions for teaching assistants at public institutions are governed by state labor laws, and in states like New York, Michigan and California, such representation is common and is not affected by NLRB rulings.)
John Beckman, an NYU spokesman, said that Thursday's arrests would have no impact on the university's position. He stressed that "all but a tiny percentage" of teaching assistants are working and that the semester's classes are "going forward as usual."
He also defended the general principles under which the university decided to stop dealing with the UAW. "Today's efforts by the union seek to challenge core academic principles -- such as the university's right to choose who will be in front of a class of students, or how long a course of study should take," Beckman said. "No university would permit such matters to be taken out of the hands of itself and its faculty. In this regard we stand with every private university in the United States. We will not compromise our principles because of staged arrests."
Asked about Nelson's suggestion that professors everywhere consider boycotts of NYU, Beckman wondered whether Nelson and others would apply any boycotts to all private universities, since they share NYU's position on graduate student unions. (Nelson said in an interview after he was released by authorities that NYU was "the center of the struggle" and was an appropriate focus because its graduate students had voted for a union.)
Beckman added, however: "What's really striking to me is that every tactic the union and its supporters embrace seems to share two characteristics -- they're not effective and they are very anti-undergraduate. It's a strong illustration of why unionization is a bad fit for graduate education."