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As opportunities to land a tenure-track job have evaporated, those who have risen to the few remaining secure positions in the profession have by and large refused to use their professional privileges to speak out, whether on behalf of their contingent colleagues or to push for broader investment in public higher education, accepting instead that “the system is horrible, unethical, but it works for them.” While some tenured professors simply feel too overworked to participate in political activities, labor struggles, etc., others don’t see any reason why they should in the first place, choosing to identify “as thinkers rather than as workers.” But, as Jennifer Fredette forcefully argues in a group faculty interview for The Chronicle Review, “To have tenure and to stay in your lane is to be complicit with the injustices of the system in which you have secured this privilege.” While addressing the need to defend the most precarious workers on campuses, Naomi Klein put it even more succinctly: “Got your tenure? Make some trouble!”
In 1914, Guido Marx, a Stanford professor of engineering (and my great grandfather), was engaged in discussions at the founding of the American Association of University Professors regarding which faculty members should be included in the association. In a letter to the inimitable John Dewey, who would serve as founding president of the AAUP, Marx wrote, “We will get nowhere without a wholesome group consciousness. Our worst troubles as a profession arise from unwarranted assumptions of superiority on the one hand coupled with a too ready acquiescence on the other.” Over a century later, this “too ready acquiescence” has imperiled fundamental necessities of the profession and of the university itself, from faculty governance to secure employment and academic freedom. However, while many tenure-track faculty remained comfortably complacent in the face of the rise of contingency, the corporatization of their universities, and the hollowing out of any semblance of shared governance, the existential crises of 2020 may have finally pushed them to get off the sidelines.
Genuine change becomes possible when people get engaged and realize it is within their collective power to make it.
Draconian cuts, disproportionately hitting the most vulnerable in campus communities, coupled with unsafe plans for a return to face-to-face instruction have moved faculty, especially tenured and tenure-track faculty, from acquiescence to action. Moreover, amid widespread protests against institutional racism and police brutality, more faculty are joining efforts to resist slashing cuts affecting campus workers of color, and the abandonment of diversity efforts and ethnic-studies programs. But such a political awakening is inevitably accompanied by the realization that faculty who are not unionized and are unaccustomed to acting collectively in their own interest, let alone in the interest of the less powerful in their institutions, have a lot of ground to cover and plenty of professional and legal obstacles to overcome if they want to get organized and mobilize their collective power.
The sad fact of the matter is that relatively few faculty have formal collective-bargaining rights. At private colleges, the Supreme Court’s Yeshiva decision of 1980 designated faculty members part of management, and therefore ineligible for protection under the National Labor Relations Act. However, the persistent problem of a professional culture of faculty acquiescence, as Guido Marx’s words demonstrate, long predated the legal denial of the faculty’s collective-bargaining rights. For tenured and tenure-track professors looking to engage in political struggle, overcoming these institutional and cultural barriers can feel like fighting with both hands tied behind one’s back. But it shouldn’t. Along with countless existing organizations and campaigns that faculty can join, learn from, and help with, there are many stirring historical examples of workers without bargaining rights taking action, from Columbia graduate workers to West Virginia teachers. While some might think of collective bargaining as the highly ritualized and regulated process of employers and unions sitting across the table from each other, negotiating over a narrow set of legally constrained issues, academic workers are demonstrating that collective bargaining is much more than this. When employees organize, take action, and win changes in their working conditions, they, too, are bargaining collectively.
Private colleges can choose on their own to bargain with faculty unions, but they have no legal obligation to do so. Indeed, a few private institutions have longstanding faculty unions, such as Pratt Institute and Adelphi University. Elsewhere, campus AAUP chapters make collective demands and act in concert, essentially ignoring the fact that they are not formally recognized as bargaining agents. The newly resurgent AAUP Chapter at Middlebury College, for example, is demanding collective bargaining for both faculty and staff.
Faculty organizing for a people-first approach to the current fiscal crisis — and for a cautious, safer approach to campus reopening — are building power and bargaining with their administrations on numerous campuses, often outside the confines of a formal collective-bargaining process. Still, whether they are putting together public presentations of university budgets (as faculty at the University of Arizona have done) or circulating petitions, they are acting collectively, and they are, in fact, bargaining — that’s what matters.
While unionized faculty are busy negotiating with their employers over cuts, furloughs, layoffs and safe reopening, and organizing to build power beyond the bargaining table, non-unionized faculty are also on the march. The AAUP reports more than two dozen campuses where chapters have recently been chartered or have applications in process. The AAUP itself functions as both a union and a professional association, and is a valuable umbrella organization for faculty organizing across a range of issues, from concerns about work safety and intellectual property to privatization and the repercussions of a widespread pivot to remote instruction. As more faculty have become sharply aware of their vulnerability to top-down managerial decisions, turning to an AAUP chapter is frequently the first step toward making collective demands.
Even in states where public employees have no formal rights to collective representation, faculty are nonetheless acting collectively. At the University of North Carolina, hundreds of faculty publicly signed a petition demanding the right to opt out of in-person instruction in the fall. At Georgia Tech, faculty and other campus workers demanded that mask-wearing be made mandatory when the campus reopens. At the University of Arizona, where the university’s leadership announced a severe program of furloughs and salary cuts (even for employees who were already barely getting by), employees created a coalition that included faculty, staff, and students. The Coalition for Academic Justice at the University of Arizona (Cajua) embarked on a quick organizing drive, working across existing organizations and governance structures. Already Cajua has forced the university to delay the furlough program while the university’s leadership embarks on “meaningful and transparent discussions” about any cuts that may be needed to help the financial crisis. Under Arizona law, public-university employees have no legal collective-bargaining rights, and yet their organizing has given them the power to frustrate the unilateral decisions of university leadership and to carry out a progressive furlough plan that protects the most vulnerable members of the campus community.
Even the most privileged faculty are beginning to stand up, awakened to the fact that timid individual requests are unlikely to result in broad structural changes. Princeton faculty have developed an extensive list of demands to address anti-Black racism, and racism more broadly, within their university; the signatories include untenured faculty as well as numerous tenured professors with endowed chairs and international reputations. While their petition does not set forth actions that signatories might take if their demands are not met, it represents a first step in organizing — demonstrating that the university runs on the labor of its employees and that these employees will no longer acquiesce to the administration. Even the relatively modest step of signing a public letter can remind scholars of their ability to speak up, act collectively, and demand that their institutions make ethical decisions that serve all members of their communities. Start off small and build from there — active, sustained, increasing engagement is the key. Genuine change becomes possible when people get engaged and realize it is within their collective power to make it.
Collective action by faculty, pushed out of their acquiescence by stark budget cuts, threats to their health and safety, and a national reckoning with structural racism, is on the rise. Whether this action is sustained and whether it leads to unionizing or formal collective bargaining remains to be seen. There’s an old saying in union organizing: “The boss is the best organizer.” These faculty are getting organized in response to the callous decisions of their bosses. Even without officially sanctioned collective bargaining rights, faculty are finally adopting a “wholesome group consciousness” and moving from acquiescence to action, from complacency to collective organizing. They are asserting that, when it comes to universities, faculty are essential workers who can and will bargain collectively, with or without the support of the law.