Townhouse Notes October 2016
A great deal of mystery and deliberate mystification shroud academic labor in public conversation. Summers off, working as few as six hours per week, guaranteed lifetime employment: nice work if you can get it, indeed! Except—no matter what politicians, editorial writers, online commenters, and maybe even your family members say—you can't. Those unicorn jobs don't exist, not even in soaring halls of prestige. No matter our rank, academics have this much in common: work.
We often speak of an academic precariate: contract instructors whose appointments might not be renewed due to a sudden lack of funding, unfavorable course evaluations, or an enrollment shortfall. But given lean state budgets and even questions about whether higher education is worth students incurring debt at all, fewer and fewer academic jobs may truly be considered safe.
Yet faculty want to work. Last month, the administration of Long Island University, Brooklyn, locked out unionized faculty—hundreds of full-timers and adjuncts alike—with the announcement coming just before Labor Day. It soon became clear that work runs a university, and not just on the part of faculty. Supportive students staged a walkout on September 12, shouting, "Let us learn!" The lockout ended on September 14, with both sides agreeing to arbitration.
The LIU Brooklyn administration says that it ordered the lockout to prevent a strike, which has been a pattern with the union. But it seems to me that it's impossible to bargain in good faith under the assumption that a strike (or a lockout) is inevitable; "temporary instructors" were recruited while negotiations were ongoing. The strategy might have been imported from the late 19th century.
For years we have heard students referred to as customers, a position the Obama administration has endorsed with its scorecard metric. We have professed resentment at the implications of this view. But what the LIU Brooklyn battle tells us is that if faculty express solidarity across ranks, at least some students will respond in kind. "Customers" historically have mobilized boycotts and sit-ins in response to being treated unfairly or excluded entirely from getting what they pay for. I would bet that students naturally like having their minds opened and feel loyalty toward people who can guide them along those paths. But opening minds is work, as is the reading and writing we assign students. Encouraging students to see their work in relation to ours, to demonstrate a collectivity of enterprise, will help fortify the shared ecosystem of the university. The lockout at LIU Brooklyn, showing mutual commitment of faculty and students, might well prove prescient.
—Allison Miller, editor
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