One of the more heroic acts in the recent annals of American higher education came from NYU president John Sexton, who stood up to the faculty radicals within his midst and (thus far successfully) fought creation of a graduate student “union” on his campus. There are lots of reasons why academic unionization is problematic, but the concept of graduate student unionization is ridiculous. That the movement is often promoted as a fight against the “corporate agenda” in higher education is even stranger, since the idea that graduate students are “laborers” who need to “unionize” reflects a vision of the academy that should repel anyone opposed to the “corporatization” of higher education.
The dangers of graduate student “unionization” are currently on full display at the University of Illinois. Betraying the undergraduates that they teach, Illinois graduate students went out on strike Monday, demanding that the university guarantee tuition waivers for out-of-state students. In a statement that offers a sense of how much the “union” activists value the students they teach, Kerry Pimblott, lead negotiator for the graduate student “union,” proclaimed, “We control this campus; we decide if they have instruction on this campus.”
Why should Illinois taxpayers accommodate the strikers’ demands? Amber Cooper, a leader of the University of Michigan’s graduate student union who joined the strikers, offered an articulate rationale: the university’s position was “freaking ridiculous.”
Any good Ph.D. program will offer tuition waivers—they’re the only way to recruit talented graduate students. But the Illinois administration, for perfectly understandable reasons, has proved reluctant to place what amounts to an academic decision into a contract. Moreover, if the current economic downturn continues, Illinois, like all public universities, will come under increasing pressure to cut costs and raise additional revenue. There’s no particular reason why automatic tuition waivers should be exempt from consideration in such a budget crisis.
Meanwhile, the strikers don’t appear to be experiencing any particular hardship. The Illinois provost sent out a mass e-mail indicating that no current graduate student would see his or her tuition waiver adjusted. And though they walked out on their students, it appears as if the graduate students will not see their stipends reduced for the time they spend on the picket line instead of the classroom.
Undergraduates—as so often is the case on campus political matters—offered the most sensible response. Senior Alisha Janssen, astutely noted, “It’s not really fair that we have to pay for an education, and they are complaining about getting paid for getting an education.” And James Liu told the Chicago Tribune, “It’s not that hard to cross a picket line. I don’t feel guilty about it. I don’t feel like I should sacrifice my credit because this is between the grad students and the university.”
Liu and Janssen, of course, are correct. While the Illinois administration appears ready to cave to the “union” extremists, the university should do more to look after the undergraduates it teaches, and do less to accommodate the demands of graduate student activists.