Tuesday, December 16, 2008

“It's Just a Job” vs. “We're All in This Together”

Okay, I'm a little late to this party, but there's been a fascinating exchange in blogland between Tenured Radical and Dr. Crazy. Both addressed the ways that budget issues are being discussed at their respective colleges. Stipulating upfront that neither was really arguing with the other, and that they're working at two very different kinds of institutions, they really staked out two very distinctive positions.

To oversimplify, TR's position is basically that colleges are communities, and that the members of a community need to share sacrifices in tough times. The idea is that if the community gets a clear sense that the local leadership has a reasonable plan, is sticking to it, is sharing it, is soliciting and listening to input, and isn't pulling any fast ones, then it's fair to include some shared sacrifice in that plan. (Admittedly, that's a long chain of 'ifs,' many of which won't be met in very many cases.) In the case TR outlines, it's reasonable for faculty to accept a pay freeze for a year, given that others are accepting it, too, and that the freeze prevents layoffs. Underlying this perspective, I think, is a nuanced sense of reciprocity as a common obligation. If a single group is singled out for sacrifice, then by all means, resist. But if everybody gives up something, then even a card-carrying lefty could sign on without selling out.

Dr. C's position is less idealistic. She argues that professors are workers, and that workers are entitled to fight for the best deals they can get. She suggests that paeans to 'community' are belied by the weight of her workload, and that given what she already does for her salary, she already (effectively) gave at the office. She seems to suspect that all this 'shared sacrifice' stuff is a sort of surrender by faculty, who are essentially being played for chumps.

There's enough truth to both of these that I don't want to just side with one against the other. (And again, they're writing from very different institutions. It's easier to be idealistic with a 2-2 load and a relatively high salary.) But I think the dichotomy runs far deeper than just the current budget cycle, and has implications that go beyond it.

For example, I'd argue that how one understands tenure will have a great deal to do with which position one takes. I've suggested before that it's reasonable to have tenure or unions, but not both, and this debate helped me crystallize that sentiment. Tenure is a lifetime commitment by the institution. (Since the badly-misguided repeal of a mandatory retirement age, this is literally true.) To suggest that a lifetime commitment somehow doesn't carry with it some sort of reciprocal obligation strikes me as narcissistic, if not laughable. Legally, tenure amounts to ownership of a job. Having tenure and a union amounts to negotiating against yourself, an ethically dubious proposition worthy of an Illinois governor. Being insulated for life against the vagaries of the economy is a privilege, and a rare one; for that privilege to bring with it a certain responsibility for stewardship of the institution is only fair.

On the other side, if you have a union but not tenure, then you're in a clear labor/management situation, and each side knows its role. Yes, there may be times when concessions make long-term strategic sense, but the calculus is still based on cold self-interest. Pay me what I want; where you find the money is your problem. Of course, for labor to represent labor, management has to be able to manage. This model allows for a great deal of recognition of work as work, but it makes things like 'shared governance' look awfully shaky. (To her credit, Dr. C implicitly recognizes this.)

Combining tenure and a union – having your cake and eating it too – reflects a basic unwillingness to come to terms with the nature of academic work. Are full-time professors professionals, or are they line staff? (Adjuncts are pretty clearly line staff, which is why I have no problem with adjunct unions.) If they're professionals, with a stake in the enterprise, then asking them to share in the sacrifice during lean times is entirely kosher. (And yes, I'll accept every single one of the 'ifs' that TR stipulated.) Having an ownership stake in an enterprise necessarily involves feeling some pain during down times. That's what owners do. (Technically, the 'ownership' involved in tenure is of a job, rather than of an institution. However, and this is a key point, the job doesn't exist without the institution.) But far too many faculty cherry-pick, wielding the rhetoric of shared governance when it suits their purposes, but then retreating to union protection when things get tight. “Because they can” is the only justification I can imagine for that, and it's looking a bit threadbare these days. At a certain point, colleges faced with this kind of denial of reality wind up invoking 'fiscal exigency' and rewriting the rules entirely. It's better to avoid that in the first place.

Longtime readers know that I've often taken the position that it's just a job. That's mostly in response to what I think is a really destructive inculcation of values in graduate school, in which people spend years learning that they're unfit to do anything but teach. This set of mental blinders keeps feeding the adjunct numbers, which I don't see as healthy for anybody. If a little demystification can prevent some self-defeating behaviors, great. That said, though, I'll admit that locally, as the budget crunch looms, I find myself doing everything possible to protect every last job. Even if it's just a job, a job is no small thing. And there's something to be said for treating people the way you'd want to be treated.

I've heard that crises are good for clarity. Higher ed has been juggling these two ideals for some time, buying off the conflict rather than coming to terms with the contradiction. Now that the resources for buying off simply aren't to be had, maybe we can finally start to get some clarity.