A story today at insidehighered.com has a hole in it: the faculty is missing. Entitled “So Close,” the piece covers unionization efforts at University of Michigan by graduate research assistants, those efforts recently blocked by state legislation, signed by the governor, preventing the union from happening. The story contains viewpoints from research assistants, union advocates, the Michigan administration, and the Mackinac Center, a think tank in the state, but nothing from professors.
This is a significant absence, and it points to an ambivalence among the faculty that professors prefer to keep obscure. The ambivalence is this: egalitarianism is a central feature of most faculty members’ beliefs. They are uncomfortable with authority, and they deplore inequality, elitism, and hierarchy. But in their professional lives, they insist upon rank, and they occupy one of the most hierarchical professional spaces on earth. We have a long ladder with distinct steps–undergrad, grad student, teaching assistant, adjunct, lecturer, assistant prof, associate prof, full prof, department chair, vice chair, and assistant chair, dean, associate dean, and assistant dean . . . Their politics clash with their workplace.
When RAs and other lower-level functionaries start organizing, the upper-level figures get nervous. We’ve seen it happen at Yale in the late-90s and NYU in the early-00s. I imagine many professors at Michigan don’t want to speak about the situation because of their divided commitments. The thing is, they can’t avoid it, obviously, for research assistants work in close quarters with professors. Professors are the bosses, in a way, the ones most involved, yet they don’t like to consider the relationship an employer-employee one. They prefer the mentor-student model, for reasons ranging from the conscientious to the cynical. If they won’t speak out about labor relations on their own campuses, though, they should ask themselves whether they should opine about labor relations elsewhere.