Friday, February 24, 2017

Consequences of the Growing Divide Between the Ideal of the University and its Reality: Thoughts on the Unionization of Student Labor (Graduate Students and Athletes) in this Age of the Learning Factory

(Pix © Larry Catá Backer 2017)

There is a sort of culture war that is entering into a decisive stage within the American University. That culture war is most clearly exposed in the contrasting narratives about the character of the university. The culture war is marked by a great contest over the master narrative that defines the way in which people understand the university within our culture.

On one side stands the narrative of the traditional ideal of the university, painstakingly fashioned over the course of the last century.  It is an ideology nurtured on the notion of the university as a place where knowledge is produced and disseminated  by and under the supervision of an autonomous  professional faculty in accordance with the inherent logic of the academic disciplines within which knowledge production is organized.  Within this narrative of the ideal university, students acquire experience through supervised teaching and research under the direction of faculty. Within this narrative, individuals are seen as students (e.g., here).  On the other stands the narrative of the university as its emerging operational reality--a corporatized institution for the production of candidates for efficient insertion into global or local labor markets at the least possible expense, and one in which the university's stakeholders are increasingly understood as factors in the production of product (the employees) and funds (alumni contributions after insertion and tuition on the promise of insertion into targeted labor markets. Within this functionally framed institutional narrative, students are seen as service workers, contributing to a reduction in the cost of disseminating and producing knowledge for the market.  Within this narrative, individuals are seen as workers (e.g., here).

The conflicts between universities and their graduate students are shaped by these two quite distinct narratives. 
Caroline A. Adelman, a spokeswoman for Columbia, said that “Columbia — along with many of our peer institutions — disagrees with this outcome because we believe the academic relationship students have with faculty members and departments as part of their studies is not the same as between employer and employee.” (here).
And universities have been aggressive in seeking to quash the unionization effort (see, e.g., here). Graduate students tend to take a different view.  At Columbia they note:
“What we’re fundamentally concerned about isn’t really money,” said Paul R. Katz, one of the Columbia graduate students involved in the organizing efforts. “It’s a question of power and democracy in a space in the academy that’s increasingly corporatized, hierarchical. That’s what we’re most concerned about.” (here).
At Penn State they note something similar in recent efforts to begin the process of unionization, where the focus is on engagement and working conditions, especially those touching on benefits (see, e.g., here). At the University of Pittsburgh graduate students and faculty have moved forward in parallel efforts (see, e.g., here). The narrative focuses on the corporate model of labor exploitation in the learning factory.
Speakers at the news conference, including some individuals hoping to join the bargaining units, cited issues including fairness, job security, transparency and workplace justice as key themes of the effort. “We deserve to be recognized for our indispensable roles,” said Hillary Lazar, 37, a graduate student employee and a teaching fellow in sociology. “The University continues to profit off our labor.” (here).

Similar disjunctions in narrative have produced efforts to unionize athletics as well (see, e.g., here), in which student athletes increasingly see themselves as factors in the production of university wealth while universities seek to cling to the ideal of the student athlete-scholar (e.g., here). The tensions has produced efforts to recognize the student aspects of their role but also the nature of their contribution to the "life" of the university (see, e.g., here).

This post reflects on the inevitability of these moves and their wider ramifications for the academy.  Starting with students and athletes, it is clear that the pattern is symptomatic of a larger change in the structures and logic of the academic enterprise that will likely produce some transformative changes,.  These are considered below.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

What is the University?: De-Centering Education in an Age of Risk and Regulatory Management

(Pix © Larry Catá Backer 2017)

People constantly ask variations of the question--What is the University? --usually as a rhetorical throat clearing to put forward some sort of ideological position that advances a particular agenda in the service of quite specific objectives.  That is to be expected, of course. But it is not the subject of this post.

Rather, the more interesting answer to this question ought to start with a more fundamental set of questions: (1) what are the objectives of regulatory society? and (2) how has the university changed to resemble and amplify greater society.  Asked in this way, the answer becomes much more interesting than the ideology-by-other-means discussion that tends to put off everyone but their advocates. 

The answer to these questions might be gleaned by the resources that universities increasingly devote--not to knowledge production and dissemination--but to the regulatory control of their stakeholder populations (students, faculty, staff and others that affect the university and its operations) either  for its own account or as a pass through institution administering privatizing regulatory demands of superior public institutions (usually state and federal governments). A recent communication from the President of Penn State University perhaps nicely illustrates the trend--not because it stands out but for precisely the opposite reason, for the way in which it reflects standard practice among universities, for the way it applies consensus within higher education about the regulatory role of the university. Indeed one might expect this to serve as a standard generic letter of its kind issued in some variation by many similarly situated high officials. It is for that reason that the communication is most interesting.

This post considers the larger societal consequences of the changes suggested, as a general matter and in common with other universities, by that communication.  The object is neither to condemn or praise the tend--but rather to notice them and consider what they might say about the character and function of the university generally in early 21st century America. The communication is reproduced below and is followed by some brief thoughts.