Imagine this scenario: professor X calls his graduate student into his office, closes the door, and says, “I think the two of us get along well together. I think you should come out to dinner and a movie with me next weekend.” Most people — and indeed University policy — recognize that the professor has erred. Because of the inherently coercive nature of the professor-student relationship, such a come-on is forbidden.
Now imagine this scenario: professor Y calls her graduate student into her office, closes the door, and says, “I think that graduate student unionization is a very bad idea. I think you should absolutely not join GESO.” Professor Y’s statement is just as coercive as professor X’s.
Yet the Yale administration wants to protect professor Y’s “right” to coerce her student even as it disciplines professor X for attempting to coerce his.
In all the talk about a union-administration neutrality agreement, it has been largely ignored that there is already a University policy that recognizes that faculty free speech is not always sacrosanct. Professors cannot proposition their students, because the relationship between students and teachers is inherently coercive.
Yale’s sexual harassment policy is a useful precedent for neutrality, because it deals with the same issue: whether a professor may use the power differential that comes with his or her position to encourage a student to do something. A professor cannot ask a student to enter into a sexual relationship because of the “special trust and the inequality of status inherent in the teacher-student relationship,” in the words of the Faculty Handbook.
For the same reason, a professor should not be able to tell a student not to join a union.
Opponents of a neutrality agreement suggest that all the protection from coercion that union members need comes from the National Labor Relations Act. Yet when it comes to sexual harassment, students need not rely solely on federal sex discrimination laws. The University recognizes that sexual harassment is particularly “antithetical to academic values and to a work environment free from the fact or appearance of coercion” (again, the words of the Faculty Handbook). For that reason, the University has established grievance boards in its various schools and does not simply rely on the courts.
After about a dozen years on the Yale College sexual harassment grievance board, physics professor Peter Parker understands something about the coercive possibilities of the faculty-student relationship. He knows how to recognize coercion: “It’s [about] decency and common sense,” he told me when I stopped by his office last week to talk about Yale’s sexual harassment code.
In his role as the convener of the grievance board, Parker has no problem telling a professor that he needs to change what he says so that a student will feel comfortable sexually: “The faculty member has to be told — this is how you’re perceived.”
Our sexual harassment policy recognizes that professors have power over their students which may be abused, and it limits the rights of professors to speak in ways that may be seen as coercive. “Anything that a faculty member — is doing that makes a student uncomfortable is inappropriate,” Parker said.
Why not extend that argument to coercion over unionization?
Faculty members must acknowledge that telling students not to join the union can be coercive. At New York University, many faculty — even those who opposed unionization — understood just that and pledged to be neutral. They recognized that their power over students could potentially prevent the students from making their own, free, democratic choices.
“Surely you can imagine the impact on students when the entire faculty of their department declares its opposition to GSOC [the NYU graduate employee union]. Who would not be cowed?” wrote Andrew Ross, the director of the American Studies Program there. NYU sociologist Jeff Goodwin concurred: “These students certainly feel that the anti-union views of prominent faculty members have had a chilling effect among graduate students. Is anyone really surprised by this?”
For the most part, Yale professors understand that when it comes to sexual harassment, it is appropriate for their freedom of speech to be curtailed because of the coercive nature of their relationship with students.
Professors and the administration need to understand that the same coercive power exists in discussions about unionization. No one denies that there should be free and open debate about graduate employee unionization. At a Trumbull College Master’s Tea on Monday, Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International union President John Wilhelm ’67 agreed that debate was necessary, especially on a university campus.
But as with sexual harassment, a line must be drawn somewhere.
Jacob Remes is a senior in Saybrook College. His columns appear on alternate Wednesdays.