Guilt by association

Should faculty members be organized as unions?


The past couple of weeks I’ve been doing one of the few things I really hate about being a university professor — going to union meetings.

For the record, I want to begin by pointing out that, as far as I can tell, faculty unions are a necessity. Without a binding collective agreement, which ultimately defines the terms under which the university functions, faculty really have no power over what goes on. So they are necessary. But they are a necessary evil.

For one thing, unions help confirm administrators’ worst ideas about professors: that they are employees. If they are employees, then their voices are not really that important. If they are just employees, they have no special function at the university. And if the ones who teach and do research have no special place at a university, then teaching and research have no special place. This means administrators can get on with their discussions of quality assurance, efficiencies, partnerships, branding, and keeping up on their corporate buzzwords.

But worse than that, unions tend to make university professors turn their backs on ideals they otherwise cherish. Right now my union is negotiating a new collective agreement with the “employer” and right up until the end, the script for such meetings are predictable:

(Curtain rises on a large classroom filled with grown men and women dressed like teenagers.)

UNION BOSS: Here are the 10 very reasonable, modest, and low-cost proposals that we have made.

UNION MEMBERS: (nodding) Hmmm….yes… right…

UNION BOSS: But the employer responded by saying that they hate reason, that arithmetic is nonsense, and that each of you, individually, are jerks.

UNION MEMBERS: (aghast) What?! Outrageous! Booo!

UNION BOSS: Now, we did promise to bring back to you what they offered instead so that you could make an informed decision, so here are the six insane proposals by which they intend to screw you out of your livelihood and your children out of a good future!

UNION MEMBERS: Booo! We love our children! Strike! Strike!


Okay, so this is a bit of an exaggeration, but you get the point. The union always represents its proposals as what is only fair, and always represents the other side as inequitable and irrational. Now, before you condemn me for being a hypocrite (see my attack on administrators above), my problem with the highest echelon is that too many of them don’t care about the central missions of higher education. I think they are misguided and narrow-minded, but I don’t think they are psychotic. In fact, I know personally some of the members of the bargaining team, and some of them are actually among the most reasonable people I know.

The nature of collective bargaining, however, is that one must be on a side. And one’s side can only be represented by one’s team. There is no chance to hear from the other side, so there is no chance to be critical. Our side is obviously biased, but there is no way to reject such bias since the union is the only option. Here again, they are not bad people; in fact, our head negotiator is one of our best teachers and top researchers. Yet all the things that he and I are supposed to be teaching our students — to be open-minded, to be skeptical — are things that are ruled out in this most important process.

Necessary. Evil. Curtain.

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Guilt by association

  1. You know, what interests me most about this depiction is your brush off of administrators moreso that your concerns about union leadership. I’ve always been greatly amused by the common suggestion that professors are somehow the unchallengeable standard-bearers of higher principles in education. It’s on that basis that it’s generally argued that only “real” academics can run universities (with appropriate horror when anyone else is appointed, say, President) but then at the same time administrators are routinely dismissed as the bad guys who just don’t get it anymore.

    I don’t know. If professors immediately lose their perspective on becoming administrators, and immediately lose their perspective on becoming union leaders, then maybe the academic code as it were isn’t so deeply ingrained in the professorial DNA as some would have us believe. It isn’t that I disapprove of the academy as a whole. I just find the common suggestion that only professors get it to be obnoxious, and the frequent add on that professors automatically get it to be ludicrous.

  2. Well in an ideal world the university would be run more like a democratic community than in a management / workers dynamic, but it seems unlikely in the direction things are doing.

  3. Yet university administrations *are* often ridiculously out of touch and arrogate themselves a level of authority which is often not taken well but large groups of PhD’s. I have witnessed on more than one occasion a university president mislead and outright lie to the university senate, or else ignoring it completely. At least one major part of the problem is the typical university governance structure – a Senate putatively responsible for all “academic” matters and a Board of Governors which controls all the finances and, effectively, can veto any substantive initiative from the Senate. As ever, whoever controls the money holds the power, and – even worse – the President and Vice-Chancellor is only ever formally responsible to the Board, rather than the Senate.

    This sets up a predictable adversarial relationship which impedes good governance. If the administration became properly responsible to faculty, students, alumni, and other stakeholders jointly, this situation would be improved. As far as I know, UofT is the only example without a separate Senate and Board – perhaps someone could comment on how well the Governing Council arrangement works.

  4. Well, let me say one more time: as far as I can tell, most university administrators are very nice people. But once academics get put into the role of administrator, they very often start playing that part more and more. And before you know it, they are more interested in research funding than in research, more interested in quality assurance than actual quality, more interested in selling the place than they are about making a place that’s worth selling. A few administrators (especially if they maintain close contact with faculty as some deans do) manage to keep grounded, but the pull is strong.

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