By Josh Duboff
As the teaching assistant strike comes to a close today after five days of tactical rallies and picket lines, the work stoppage by the Graduate Employees and Students Organization has drawn a decidedly mixed reaction from many Yale professors.
Among the faculty, pockets of professors have spoken strongly in favor of the existence of a graduate student union. Last week, faculty members from the Sociology Department wrote a letter to Yale President Richard Levin urging him to recognize a graduate student union. But a number of professors interviewed by the News last week said that even though they quietly support the idea of a union, they think GESO’s tactics this week have not advanced their cause. Others opposed unionization, while several said this strike has been a non-issue and rarely discussed.
History professor Mary Habeck said that while she thinks GESO has every right to express themselves through a strike and should not feel any sort of fear or disapproval from the faculty, a strike may not be the best means of expression.
“The [strikes] haven’t accomplished much in the past,” she said. “And I don’t see why they would necessarily accomplish something now.”
Economics professor Karl-Heinz Storchmann said he does not think GESO’s tactic of periodic strikes is effective in gaining recognition. But he said he is not against their cause.
“There’s nothing wrong with having a union,” he said. “I’m confident that they’ll get a union at some point.”
William Summers, a biology professor who has been at Yale since 1968, also noted the ineffective nature of past strikes.
“They work so hard, and nothing comes of the strikes,” he said. “They have gotten weaker as time goes on … 15 years ago, a lot more people sympathized with their causes, as there really was a disparity in salary across departments. Now, TAs make the same amount of money per hour as full-time faculty do.”
The majority of more than a dozen faculty members interviewed by the News said they consider teaching assistants colleagues rather than employees or lower-ranked teachers. Some professors said they sometimes learn as much from talking with the teaching assistants as the teaching assistants learn from the professors.
English professor Amy Hungerford said that she emphasizes with the graduate student cause.
“It’s a very hard issue, but I do sympathize with grad students at big universities,” she said. “There are definitely places where there is room for improvement. The difficulty of [graduate students] having children while they’re in school is a really important issue. Even as a faculty member, caring for children seems to be a problem.”
While many professors expressed only tepid feelings for or against GESO, a few took stronger positions.
“We believe that when graduate teaching and research assistants vote to exercise collective bargaining rights, they deserve our recognition and support,” the letter from the 16 sociology professors to Levin read.
African-American Studies professor Hazel Carby said that she believes strongly in the value of graduate students and their cause. She characterized the strike as “very successful” in raising a number of graduate student life issues to the surface.
“I’m supportive of their attempt to bring public attention to what they do,” she said. “Too many people at this University take them for granted.”
Carby, who said she thinks the strike has been “very successful” thus far, thinks GESO is a helpful construct for graduate students. Carby is married to American Studies professor Michael Denning, who spoke to strikers at a teach-in Tuesday.
History professor Matthew Jacobson said that he believes GESO raises some important questions that deserve the attention of the entire Yale community, especially the faculty.
“[Recent trend look] to me like a certain slide toward the post-tenure university, which of course would be the death of academic freedom as we have known it, especially in the current political climate,” he said. “I am kind of amazed that more faculty members aren’t with GESO on this, even if they are not fond of GESO’s tactics.”
But history professor Paul Kennedy emphatically disagrees with GESO’s platform and existence. Kennedy got into a public squabble with GESO four years ago when he proposed shelving the issue of graduate student unionization altogether. He wrote in an e-mail last week from the University of Cambridge, where he is on leave, that he does not understand GESO’s central motivation.
“I regard GESO as a busted flush,” Kennedy wrote. “They have no valid argument left. The graduate students associated with ISS and [Studies in] Grand Strategy enjoy a 92 percent placement rate as new professors. What could GESO do to beat that?”
Surprisingly, considering the national coverage and campus-wide buzz the strike have precipitated, most professors interviewed said that the strike is not a much-discussed issue among faculty.
“I’ve never had a discussion about it with another faculty member,” Habeck said. “Many faculty members have strong opinions, and I think people just want to avoid confrontational discussions with their colleagues.”
Hungerford, who arrived at Yale in 1999, said she has noticed that faculty have to be careful what they say about GESO, claiming professors have been targeted for making certain comments during past strikes.
“I don’t talk about [GESO and the strike] very much with members of the community,” she said. “I have anxiety about how I’m allowed to speak about this.”
By Josh Duboff