When you grow up as a professor’s kid, you learn a thing or two about the dark underbelly of the American university before you ever become a part of it yourself. One of the first things I figured out as I listened to my dad talk about his bosses was that university administrations are fundamentally no different from other large corporate enterprises. They may have been once. Certainly the ideals of the liberal education and the community of scholars have a golden-age myth lurking in the background. But somewhere along the line, someone sensible realized that the university’s work is much too important to leave it entirely to the professors. And so was born the centralized academic administration, a self-perpetuating bureaucracy with its own interests, invested with the power of the purse.
Think of the search process for a new dean. Yale College Dean Peter Salovey was chosen after considerable consultation with students and faculty, but the decision was ultimately President Richard Levin’s alone. Since the administration controls its own succession process, it is no more required to listen to student or faculty opinion on administrative hiring than was George III to hear from the colonists. Some schools simply don’t bother to consult.
Another thing you learn as a professor’s kid is that graduate students are mostly impoverished and overworked. When my dad would invite a few over for dinner, they’d all joke that this was the only decent meal they’d see all week. Over that rapidly disappearing dinner, I’d hear about their own research, which always sounded fascinating. But just as often, I’d hear about the work they were doing for others, both research and teaching, for which they might not receive any credit, except perhaps on the letters of recommendation that would make or break their careers.
They needed the best letters they could get. Since there were so many more of them graduating than there were tenure-track jobs available, they might well find that they’d worked constantly for seven or eight years and gained nothing in return. Without a good letter, they’d have had neither a decent living while in grad school, nor any prospect of secure, fulfilling work afterwards.
There are, no doubt, many worse lots than the graduate student’s, even among knowledge workers in the non-profit sector. But Yale, unlike most non-profits, has billions in endowment funds and ready access to political power. That is to say, it represents capital. And if I can believe all the graduate student talk I heard over dinner about doing lots of work for little pay, those students sound suspiciously like labor. This, as I see it, is the fundamental insight behind GESO’s organizing. Graduate students become workers as well insofar as the system treats them like labor. And if they are workers, they have a right to organize, and to use their unions for the betterment of the academy. That, I think, is why a sound majority of TAs in all but that greatest bastion of professorial power, the hard sciences, have signed union cards.
I didn’t always share that insight. When I first heard of a graduate student union my freshman year here, the idea sounded preposterous. Unions, in my mind, were either part of that confusing period of U.S. history between the big wars, like the Haymarket riots, or else fat men in ugly suits posing with Mayor Daley and getting indicted for corruption. I forgot the common sense I knew — that administrators are more powerful than anyone, and that graduate students are poor and powerless — and put my faith in the media’s image of bad unions.
So I believed the stories I heard about GESO harassing and intimidating people into signing union cards. I never asked why no names were ever attached to those accusations, because I sort of assumed that anyone who questioned the union would get a visit from the mob. The idea of some Ph.D. student in Renaissance Studies beating up Marlon Brando on the docks sounded ridiculous when I actually verbalized it. But faculty and administrators who want to discourage union participation have very real threats at their disposal. GESO members have reported such intimidation on the record, especially in the hard sciences.
Those threats should chill to the bone anyone considering grad school. Even if you don’t believe graduate students should unionize, such threats have far more power to disrupt the student-teacher relationship than any union drive, simply because they’re backed up by executive force. When teachers are willing to kill their students’ careers to preserve their own power, that’s abuse. It stains the school I love. And even if we want to question both sides’ abuse claims, my Christianity still compels me to the side of the powerless, which will almost never be the side of capital.
What I learned over the dinner table, frankly, was that American graduate education is broken in some respects. Not in all — that’s why I still think grad school sounds like a good idea — but in some. GESO is working to fix these by creating another power center in the academy, one that could set some limits to the presently unchecked power of administrators. It’s not the plan I would have come up with. But who else is even trying?
Christopher Ashley is a senior in Silliman College. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.