An Odd View of Faculty Unions

In Monday’s edition of The Hill, Juan Williams penned a column advocating defunding NPR. There are lots of reasons why such an approach might be a good idea–we’re in very tough budget times; credible allegations of bias have been made against the organization; a far wider array of media outlets exists now than when NPR first was created. Yet Williams justified his recommendation by focusing on one, irrelevant rationale: that House Democrats had cited GOP attempts to defund NPR in a fundraising letter.

 This curious connecting of a significant policy recommendation to a basically unrelated, if high-profile, political development also appeared in Stanley Fish’s Tuesday’s column on the New York Times website, in which Fish announced that he now supported the creation of academic unions. “I recently flipped,” he explained, “and what flipped me, pure and simple, was Wisconsin.” 

Given his plunging poll numbers, Gov. Scott Walker and the Wisconsin GOP may very well be victimized by an electoral backlash—if not in the pending recall elections, then in 2012 and 2014. Citing a GOP governor’s overreach to justify a far-reaching change in the character of universities would seem like an odd leap of logic.

In his essay, Fish seems to concede some of the dangers of academic unionization—that in an academy in which merit supposedly matters, treating everyone as part of the herd in terms of employment rights will allow for the rewarding of the laziest or most incompetent faculty members (at least as long as those faculty members support the basic union agenda). This approach, it would seem, would make it more difficult to maintain public support for education spending—yet Fish posits the reverse: without academic unions, “The erosion of support for public higher education is a part of a larger strategy designed to deprive public employees of a voice and ensure the triumph of conservative/neoliberal policies.” Why rewarding mediocre professors would reverse “the erosion of support for public higher education” Fish doesn’t say.

Regardless, he suggests, academic unions are necessary to ensure that “radical” professors, “teachers with far out, discomforting ideas couldn’t be fired.” This model, erroneously, suggests that the major threat to professors with “discomforting” ideas comes from outside the academy. It’s quite true that occasional instances exist of politicians or powerful alumni demanding dismissal of “radical” professors; the Ward Churchill case is probably the best-known example. But such rare occasions pale in comparison to internal threats to freedom of expression from faculty—for a convenient, and very partial, summary, see Kenneth Westhues’ list of academic “mobbing” victims.

Unlike virtually any other unionized “industry,” in higher education, the workers control almost all the hiring (and firing)—meaning that in grievances on behalf of wrongly terminated or disciplined employees, unions effectively must argue against other union members, an inherent conflict of interest. Moreover, higher-ed unions have a self-interest in arguing for uniform wage scales, with seniority rather than accomplishments providing the key determinant of pay. Fish sees little problem in this, contending, “Once we accept as a baseline the average hardworking instructor or the completely vulnerable adjunct the case for unionization, at least on the level of professional self-interest, seems compelling.”

I’m not sure that “accept[ing]” a status of “average” is beneficial to the quality of higher education. But I do agree with Fish that such acceptance is at the heart of higher-ed unionization.


  • KC Johnson

    KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America's Universities.

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