Power, Part I

There have been a few moments that have floored me recently. And I like to think that I’m rarely floored. My intent is to discuss one at a time until I run out. In trying to figure out if there’s any recurring theme to these moments, I have determined there is. That commonality is “power.” In particular:

Why do faculty believe they have power?

Pandemic chic. I found a dress to match the gloves.

The first instance that made me ask this question involves universities’ decisions regarding telework, hybrid, in-person instruction for the spring (or even this last fall). Admin makes some proclamation, and it’s not popular with a large number of faculty and so many professors, well, profess. I have heard via chats, and seen online in social media, so many instances—not just in math departments—where faculty say “We need to band together” or “I’m going to quit if they make me [return to the classroom/teach hybrid/go online]!” The University of Florida, which has BOTH faculty and students protesting returning in-person in the spring, are being told “No” by the state and by the Board of Trustees. And that’s an instance of faculty working WITH students. UNC Chapel Hill had an op-ed published in the local paper by a small group of faculty (small = around 50-75 professors on a campus that boasts around 4000 faculty members). But I honestly doubt anything will come of that.

Because let’s be real: unless you are in a position to say “I retire” or “I take unpaid leave” you are highly UNLIKELY to go against your university’s decision. Depending upon who you ask, we are at high risk to soon enter a recession or depression. Unless you were applying for jobs in September, and assuming there are even jobs to be had (#budgetcuts), you’re basically saying goodbye to academia. While non-academia would pay more, if you’re currently an academic the learning curve in marketing yourself, in forming a network and connections, in buying a new wardrobe and establishing a new routine…it’s a lot, even without a pandemic. And then many colleagues broadly defined have these things called families, often with dependents called “children.” When you leave a job through retirement or quitting or unpaid leaving, you lose your salary. You often lose your benefits too. If you don’t have a second person in your household who could contribute to those fronts, leaving a job during a pandemic/financial crisis losing both income and health insurance doesn’t seem like the wisest life decision.

And admin knows this. Let’s assume a group of faculty is capable of “banding together” (it rarely happens even at the department level, but we’ll suppose it’s happened for argument’s sake). Admin will, and honestly should, call the faculty bluff. Why? Because there’s a line out the door of younger, cheaper applicants willing, wanting, and waiting to replace these moaners and groaners. And that’s assuming they won’t take faculty leaving as a way to downsize and save more money down the road. Even pre-pandemic, I know that with one of my former jobs with my leaving the line was discontinued.

So suggestions I’ve seen about faculty striking, or faculty teleworking regardless of university policy just make my eyes roll. Go ahead and strike. You know you don’t get paid when you strike, right? Go ahead and don’t teach hybrid/in-person/online like you’re being told to. You know teleworking when your university hasn’t approved it is basically grounds for dismissal?

If you start arguing about your special contribution to your department/college, I’m going to quote Queen Bey: don’t you ever for a second get to thinking you’re irreplaceable. There are great teachers everywhere, if that’s what you think you contribute; someone else could redesign a course, or coach a Putnam team, or whatever it is you do on that front. If you have grant money, it really doesn’t matter how much: does it compare to the amount of money the students, alums, parents, state/federal government, and endowment bring in? Doubtful. While I wasn’t using it as a bargaining chip, I’ve actually seen first-hand with former employers that they really do not care much or at all about the money you bring to their table.

The number of academics who actually have pull is unbelievably small. Chances are, you’re not in that group. Chances are, a collection of faculty who individually aren’t in that group also isn’t equivalent to one in that group.

So, then…if faculty don’t really have power, who does? This shouldn’t be a newsflash, but the answer is:

MONEY

Money has power. Many colleges, even those that were online exclusively in the fall, are saying in-person in the spring…or at the very least, bring the students back to dorms. There’s a very simple reason for that: money. Colleges that didn’t have students in the dorms and using meal plans and shopping at the student union were hemorrhaging funds. And if prior to this many schools were in financial trouble this certainly didn’t help. The average board and room (not tuition) costs $\$8000$a year for community colleges,$\$10,500$ at public colleges, and $\$12,000$at private colleges. Multiply that by even 1000 students and you’re talking upwards of$\$12$ MILLION—and that’s really low-balling at a lot of colleges because that only estimated 1000 living on campus. Does your grant give the college $\$12\$ million or more? Then add to this a fear/reality of dropping enrollments, the volatility of the market causing losses in endowments, the lack of college sports and fans throwing money at the school, the at-wits’-end feeling of the general public that craves a return to “normalcy”, the fact that you leaving because you’re unhappy about your working conditions means either closing an expensive line or getting someone cheaper to take your place.

Dare ya.

My recommendations? Either keep your mouth shut and buy some PPE or learn to use the technology you have, because the complaining makes you look intolerable, or go where the money is. Forget about “banding together” with other faculty or even with current students: get the president of the alumni association on your side. Get a trustee on your side. THEN tell admin what to do, where to go, and what you want.

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8 Responses to Power, Part I

1. Dave Kung says:

Where to start….

Go back and read this whole post, replacing the given context with the civil rights movement. The argument you’re making is for complacency and acquiescence over organizing and collective action. It’s an argument routed in conservatism and privilege – and a complete dismissal of the long history of successful collective action.

Disagree.

2. Everett Howe says:

I think this is reflecting what ethicist and theologian Sharon Welch calls “middle-class despair” (not just for the middle class!), which is “the inability to persist in resistance when the problems are seen in their full magnitude.” Our profession does have serious problems, and as Kenan İnce pointed out on Twitter in response to this blog post, capitalism is one of them. But our response to serious problems cannot be “keep your mouth shut and but some PPE” if we ever want change to happen. Maybe the actions we take will have a very low probability of creating the change we hope for — but “low” is usually greater than “zero,” and sometimes the results of our actions will put us in a better place in ways we did not even expect.

3. Michael Mueller says:

Just because an *individual* worker has little power doesn’t mean that we don’t hold collective power together! You say that “there’s a line out the door of younger, cheaper applicants willing, wanting, and waiting to replace these moaners and groaners” — building solidarity means banding together to resist these attempts by bosses to play workers against each other. Successful union organizing and strikes by those you call “moaners and groaners” brought about the benefits many workers have today (weekends, improved wages, etc). A worker can be replaced, but workers together are completely irreplaceable.

Here at the University of Michigan, our administration refused to budge on an unsafe and unjust fall reopening plan. Rather than throwing our hands up and “buying some PPE,” grad workers and RAs went on strike, and now we have an improved plan for next semester — though while we received meaningful and crucial support from trades workers, lecturers, staff, community members, and some faculty, a disappointing number of tenured faculty (those with the *most* job security!) stood against us by replacing our labor during the strike. Meaningful change is always achievable through collective action; a defeatist perspective like this only impedes such efforts.

Join a union, organize, link up with those on your campus who are building change. At the very least, stop using this attitude as an excuse to put down and sabotage organizing efforts by those more vulnerable than you, because this privileged behavior from too many faculty is *really* tiring.

4. Tyler Kelly says:

Reading this while I have a ballot from my University Union regarding strike actions in order to safeguard staff from the pandemic. I feel fairly galvanised on which option I’m choosing.

And yes, I’ve participated in a strike action in the last twelve months. And took time without pay for those dates. The unwillingness to do so is privilege and complacency. I’ve done your dare.

On the other hand, I dare you to stand up to positions of power. The collective whole can work together.

5. Heidi Goodson says:

I’m all for taking a look at where the power lies in academia, but the author of the original post has overlooked what is possible. Faculty, staff, and students DO have power when they work together. I am grateful to be a part of a union (PSC, Local 2334 of the American Federation of Teachers,) that works to improve conditions for faculty (including adjuncts and graduate students) and some staff, as well as for teachers at high schools that are affiliated with the City University of New York. Many of our staff are represented by DC 37, one of the largest unions representing city employees in NYC. Many of my family members are/have been represented by unions, and they strongly believe in the power of collective bargaining.

Even without the backing of a union, faculty, staff, and students can work together to pressure college admin to provide safe working conditions and to provide appropriate support when our modes of instruction are as upended as they have been the past 9 months. I have heard that AAUP chapters can be helpful in providing structure to on campus organizing: www.aaup.org. I would love to hear about how faculty are working together to ensure safe working conditions for all of their colleagues and their students.

The great thing about collective bargaining is that it pushes for improvements for everyone, and not just those who attend meetings or who are willing/able to have their names visible on an op-ed or a blogpost. If we’re talking about power, then let’s acknowledge that it is not balanced among faculty and staff, and that our colleagues who are untenured, not tenure-track, staff, people of color, LGBTQ+, women, and/or people with disabilities are much more vulnerable to repercussions when speaking out.

When I read this post I also notice a lack of compassion for all that we have gone through during the pandemic. I can’t bring myself to list everything we are collectively going through, but maybe it suffices to say we are all struggling. Many of us are becoming more aware of the importance of our health and the health of everyone in our communities, and we should not have to put our work above that. The pandemic has exposed how interdependent we are and how much we rely on each other.

• Priscilla Bremser says:

Thank you, Heidi Goodson, for mentioning the AAUP. Last spring, when administrators at my institution started making educational policy decisions that should have been made by faculty vote, I joined the newly-revived local AAUP chapter (https://sites.middlebury.edu/aaup/). A fringe benefit of my membership has been the opportunity to learn from colleagues in other departments. From sociologists, I’ve gotten a better understanding of the history of labor movements in education. Thanks to economists, I know understand that the “5% rule” I keep hearing about that supposedly limits the annual draw on our (substantial) endowment is not a rule at all, and yet it determines the definition of “deficit.” (Check out this great app that they made in June: https://middleburyaaup.shinyapps.io/EndowmentApp/ .)

To be fair, my institution does better than many in the “shared governance” department (though that’s also used as a shield to keep individual faculty members from, say, getting a trustee on our side). Faculty were able to choose whether to teach remotely or in person. (The staff situation is more complicated, of course, and the AAUP made a conscious choice to invite staff members to join. Interdependence indeed.)

We are also extremely fortunate to be in Vermont right now, and our students did a fabulous job of following the protocols in the fall. My heart goes out to colleagues at institutions in states that are competing for the worst-pandemic-management award. My recommendation? Don’t worry about whether you “look intolerable” (whatever that means). Look to colleagues in other departments and on other campuses to figure out what collective action might mean for you, whether it’s within or beyond faculty governance structures at your institution.

6. Eva Curry says:

Most Canadian universities held classes fully online this past fall. There were a few universities, such as my own, who were in a position to welcome students to campus relatively safely. In our case, faculty were given final say on whether their courses would be fully online, hybrid, or fully in person; classroom capacity was decreased and systems were set up to ensure that students maintained physical distancing while in class and in moving between classes; hand sanitizer dispensers were set up at every door and at regular intervals throughout all buildings, resources were added to support staff to enable sanitizing in classrooms in between classes, and everyone was given a free (university-branded, of course) reusable cloth face mask. My university has also taken at least some steps to mitigate the inequitable impacts the pandemic has had on different sub-populations within the faculty. All of these details were negotiated with our faculty union. This has similarly been the case at many other Canadian universities; notably, faculty unionization is more the norm here in Canada.

Striking is only one of many options for collective action. Faculty could collectively agree to teach their classes remotely, or only hold classes outside. Working to rule would be a significant impediment to the well-functioning of most universities. Faculty could enact the equivalent of bus driver fare strikes: in such a strike, bus drivers drive their regular routes, but refuse to collect transit fares; faculty could teach classes but set up a coordinated evaluation scheme that gives every student an A. There are many other creative options beyond these few examples. Strikes can also be quite effective, of course. Striking does mean that you don’t get paid by your employer for the duration of the strike, yes. This is part of why unions build strike funds, and coordinate with other union chapters (eg., in academia, through CAUT in Canada or the AAUP in the US) to make donations between chapters as needed.

In all of this, recall that we, as faculty, also do the majority of the work in hiring new colleagues. Replacing an individual faculty member on short notice is relatively easy for universities in urban centers (not so much for rural colleges and universities such as my own), so individual faculty power can be quite minimal, yes. Yet it would be infeasible for just the deans and other upper administration at any mid-size or larger school to hire an entirely new faculty on short notice to replace a more-or-less complete faculty body that has gone on strike. For colleges and universities that base their marketing to students in part on prestige, the lack of time to adequately interview and vet prospective replacements for a significant proportion of their faculty so as to maintain their perceived prestige level, as well as the loss of grant income should PIs on external grants be fired, are additional challenges to such a potential employer response.

Getting the alumni association, current students, or trustees on your side are indeed also good strategies. These are not mutually exclusive options. A purely “I got mine, you get yours” approach tends to bring overall working conditions and compensation down for everyone, however. And, in what should also be one of our primary concerns, tends to exacerbate existing inequities – especially now, during a pandemic that itself has generated very unequal health outcomes based on race and economic class, and that has significantly worsened economic inequality in the US.

Looking at the history of collective organizing, workers are often most active and have won some of the most important gains during periods of greater overall economic distress. I see no reason to think that this shouldn’t apply to university faculty, or to the present historical moment.

7. Anon says:

This is a parody post. Yes? No? Designed for Twitter masses flying around looking for a fight to swarm in with self-righteous zeal.

The first reply made sense to me. Point noted and appreciated. Can’t say the same for the other posts defending specific unions well known to be problematic.