I am a member of GESO for two reasons: because I believe that teachers and researchers need a loud voice to ensure that universities live up to their promise, and because I believe that universities need to engage with the communities that support them in a spirit of partnership and respect rather than one of charity and indifference.
For a long time in this country, teachers have not been receiving the respect they deserve. Our educational system has suffered as a result. Now, as a scientist, I see the same thing happening to researchers.
Today, the voices of teachers and researchers carry less weight than ever before. The last 30 years have seen an explosion in university enrollments. These years also witnessed a rapid expansion in scientific research. The National Institutes of Health alone have seen their research budgets climb from $2.5 billion in 1955 to $76.6 billion in 1999.
In order to meet these demands, university administrators have increasingly turned to hiring a variety of temporary staff. More and more, adjunct professors and graduate students carry the burden of teaching, undermining the creation of a strong intellectual community and threatening meaningful academic freedom.
Similarly, the American scientific establishment increasingly finds itself relying upon the cheap labor of post-doctoral fellows to meet the demands of their research agenda. This trend has also spread to industry. In the last 20 years, the number of post-docs working for universities, the government and industry has grown by 125 percent, 421 percent and 652 percent, respectively.
Both of these trends have occurred at a time when the numbers of tenured and junior faculty at American universities have dropped. Between 1975 and 1995, tenure-track faculty positions nationwide fell by 10 percent. Yale has not been immune to these trends. In my field, the life sciences, while the period between 1982 and 1999 saw the number of senior faculty grow by 13, the number of junior faculty shrank by 21.
At the same time, the smaller number of permanent faculty at American universities find themselves with less and less of a voice with which to address all of these changes. In part, this has happened because most professors working at private universities like Yale do not have the right to unionize. In 1980, the law firm of Proskauer & Rose — the same firm that our administration has now hired to prevent GESO from winning recognition — represented the Yeshiva University administration in stopping an attempt by the faculty to unionize.
Proskauer convinced the U.S. Supreme Court that faculty were in fact managers and therefore could not organize under American law. In a dissenting opinion, Justice William Brennan warned that removing the possibility of faculty organizing “threatens to eliminate much of the administration’s incentive to resolve its disputes — through open discussion and mutual agreement — [and] removes whatever deterrent value [labor law] may offer against unreasonable administrative conduct.”
So we have ended up with the academy that we have — an academy that few researchers and teachers would have designed. Here at Yale, few humanities professors would have chosen to build a shelving facility in Hamden rather than new library space on campus.
Scientists who devote their lives to developing life-saving medicines would hardly have created a system in which AIDS drugs like Zerit were prevented from getting to the people who need them.
Undergraduates, teaching assistants and faculty would hardly have decided to have discussion sections with 20 people in them when every study ever undertaken here has revealed a consensus that 12 to 15 students is the optimum size.
I see the Graduate Employees and Students Organization as an important step toward teachers and researchers everywhere winning that voice. Already, the past actions of GESO members led the federal government to extend to graduate students at multiple schools the right to organize. At New York University, adjuncts and faculty are following suit.
Here at Yale, faculty and undergraduates should support us in our efforts to win recognition from the administration. In the end, we are fighting to create the space for all of us to have a voice.
And we are doing so as part of a coalition with the members of locals 34 and 35 and the workers at our teaching hospital. Our alliance represents a vision of a democratic university which respects all of the people who work here at Yale, as well as community members who support our institution.
Fundamentally, I believe that democratic institutions are better than non-democratic ones. In a meeting last year with graduate students, Graduate School Dean Susan Hockfield stated that “Yale is better than a democracy.”
A democratic Yale will better fulfill its mission as an institution of teaching and research in the interest of the community. GESO is a part of building that university.
Maris Zivarts is a fifth-year graduate student in the Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology.