July 26, 2003

Collective Action?

I think my testimony before the labor board meant something different to administrators at NYU than it did to me. As you said, for me it was a political path. It's something I felt I needed to do, the intellectual expression of my ideas and research in education. For people like us, we're connecting our intellectual life to public events.

I think I naively assumed that the Dean of the School of Education would see it the same way. I didn’t even know at the time that I testified that she was testifying on behalf of the university against the graduate students in the trial. But when I found out, it didn’t bother me in the least—I mean of course she would, she's an administrator and she represents the university administration’s interests. I don't even know what her personal views are on unionization. But I just assumed, you know, of course we all accept the principles of academic freedom and the right to express one’s ideas means that, sometimes, we're going to disagree.

-- Marc Bousquet, A Victory for All of Us: A Conversation with Joel Westheimer

As some readers may already know, Joel Westheimer was denied tenure at NYU after coming out in support of graduate student unionization and testifying before the National Labor Relations Board in favor of their right to organize. After an inquiry by the National Labor Relations Board determined that, in Westheimer's words, "there was probable cause that NYU denied me tenure in retaliation for my activities in testifying for the graduate students," the university "settled the case by paying me a financial settlement and by withdrawing the denial of tenure." He now teaches at the University of Ottawa. In the latest edition of workplace: a journal for academic labor Westheimer discusses his case with Marc Bousquet.

I'd like to raise a few points in response to their exchange.

First, Westheimer's case highlights the lack of academic freedom for those without tenure, which is currently the topic of discussion at this thread. One possible inference that might be drawn: this case demonstrates the vital necessity of the tenure system. Since university administrators will attempt to retaliate against views and actions that they find threatening, faculty must have a safeguard that protects them against arbritrary dismissal. Of course, this doesn't really address the problem of the lack of such protection for the pre-tenured (not to mention the untenurable contingent faculty). The most common response to this objection is to concede the lack of academic freedom for the untenured, but to argue that with tenure, at least some faculty enjoy security, whereas without tenure, no faculty would enjoy any security whatsoever.

Another possible inference that might be drawn: a case like Westheimer's demonstrates a very basic and a very serious flaw with the tenure system. The system places a good deal of power in the hands of tenured faculty and administrators, and raises the career stakes to a life-or-death situation. Obviously, outside of the academy, people are fired or not promoted all the time and for all kinds of reasons, some of them arbitrary and unjust. What is peculiar to the academy, however, is that tenure raises the stakes to all-or-nothing, which is precisely the reason that tenured faculty and administrators have so much power over the untenured. In fact, Westheimer basically survived the attack: he fought the decision, won a settlement, and found academic employment at another institution. But in many cases, a failed tenure bid amounts to a career killer.

Another obvious question raised by Westheimer's case: to what extent are faculty peculiarly vulnerable to reprisals in areas that have to do not with scholarship but with challenges to institutional structures and policies (e.g., in the matter of labor relations)? Of course, Westheimer himself would probably refuse to recognize such a distinction, for he views his testimony on behalf of the NYU graduate students as an extension of his intellectual work. But let's take the case of Assistant Professor X, a tenure-track Shakespearean scholar whose scholarly work challenges the dominant understanding of Elizabethan drama. It is extremely unlikely that Assistant Professor X's unorthodox approach to early modern English drama will even cross the radar screen of the university administration, though of course it will certainly be scrutinized and evaluated by other faculty members. But imagine that Assistant Professor X takes a public stand in support of unionization on campus, a position that has little or nothing to do with Shakespearean scholarship. Now, in addition to the pressures of peer review by faculty, Assistant Professor X has come under notice by administrators opposed to unionization, and is very likely subject to reprisals. It's worth noting that Westheimer was the only non-tenured NYU faculty member to testify before the National Labor Relations Board on behalf of graduate student unionization. Though it's possible, I think it highly unlikely that Westheimer was the only non-tenured faculty member at NYU who held views in support of unionization. But just as involvement in a unionization campaign in a non-academic workplace is a very risky business for employees who face reprisals, so too is it a risky business within the academy.

The pessimistic conclusion: the push for change has to come from those who are (at least currently, or in the short term) the least interested in change: i.e., from tenured faculty. The position of the untenured is simply too vulnerable. Yes, there will be the occasional Westheimer, the tenure-track faculty member who risks his or her own career for the sake of some larger goal or ideal. But then, Westheimer himself admits that he was naive, that he didn't realize the extent and magnitude of the risk he took when he testified on behalf of the graduate students. Indeed, he states quite bluntly that he "would never advise anyone to do something like this based on the idea that it is going to turn out right because things don't always turn out right in the end."

In response to Bousquet's question, "What are the consequences of cases like your own for organizing and for the experiences of junior faculty throughout the academy?," Westheimer provides both an optimistic and a pessimistic answer:

J: I have an optimistic answer and a pessimistic answer. Let me give my pessimistic answer first. The pessimistic one is that, sure, it has chilling effects when someone isretaliated against. It makes junior faculty members—regular faculty members as well—think twice before expressing their views on a particular issue in fear of retaliation.

My optimistic answer, which I would like to put more stock in, is that the amount of support that I got and the degree of success we had in the case, would, I hope, encourage junior and senior faculty members to stand their ground on issues that they feel are important. At least in the end—sometimes—justice is done.

Frankly, I would have to put more stock in the pessimistic answer.

When the conversation moves from Westheimer's particular case to some of the broader implications of his experience, I am reminded of the main reason for my scepticism concerning academic collective action. Westheimer argues that:

The tenure track faculty need to recognize that their future is inextricably bound up in the future of adjunct laborers, graduate students and part-time faculty and non-tenure-track full-time faculty, which is a hugely growing sector of academic labor.

I think we all need to realize that our collective work lives, our professional lives at the university are all bound together. The circumstances of adjunct and graduate students relate to the circumstances of the tenured faculty: senior faculty get to teach lower level work loads and to teach only the courses that they want to; they can go on sabbatical and be replaced by an adjunct professor—who is making $2,000 a course.

It can also be turned around. Once it's clear that a senior faculty member can easily be replaced by a temporary part-time laborer or an adjunct or a graduate student making a fraction of their salary, it's clear that the teaching that the senior faculty does is devalued. With the financial incentive to replace their teaching by a much cheaper employee, their scholarship is also less valued in the university.

I basically agree with the above, and indeed have pushed this point perhaps ad nauseam on this weblog. At the same time, I have to say that I disagree with Westheimer's solution, which solution involves a particular form of collective action.

My problem with the strategies of the workplace people is that they link reform of academic employment practices with a very specific, and specifically lefty, politics. Given widespread indifference and complacency on the part of faculty, I almost hesitate to criticize their approach: after all, at least they are actively engaged in a real attempt at reform. But though I personally happen to share many of their political views, I think this lefty approach is doomed to failure. I am firmly convinced that many (perhaps most) faculty are simply not going to sign on for the following:

[Westheimer] One thing that is going to be needed is a culture change and a more holistic approach to our work, where what we write about is also what we practice and strive to experience in our daily lives. This means increased civic engagement and political participation in working to improve society.

To be perfectly honest, I have grave reservations about such an academic culture change, and my politics are (at least by American standards) definitely left of center.* And I'm fairly certain that many academics will not engage in a form of collective action which links campus reform to the reform of all of society. Those who are interested in such a movement are -- and will likely remain for the forseeable future -- a distinct minority. If change and reform can only be effected by lefty activists, then I fear the case is hopeless and we really are sunk.

I suspect the only real hope lies in a concerted effort on the part of faculty and professional organizations to make a new bargain with the university: but this they simply will not do as a left-oriented labor movement campaign, it would have to be done under the banner of "re-professionalization" (see this entry for a discussion of the question "What is a Profession?")

*This gets us into the very tricky area of the campus culture wars, which I'll save for another entry.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at July 26, 2003 12:17 PM

A very detailed and thoughtful discussion. I disagree with your separation of societal reform and campus reform, however. I admit that I was unable to follow the logic of Bosquet's argument about the non-existent job market, but I agree with what IA describes as the larger workplace ethos.

Stanley Fish's various pronouncements on the total separation of professional academic work from "civic engagement" (in digest form here) seem a good place to start. Chomsky has also noted in several places that the university must not become politicized, as the dangers would far outweigh any potential benefits. I agree with this to an extent. (Fish's arguments smack, as always, of a type of cynical and sophistic self-justification.) The classroom should not be used to indoctrinate, but we also as teachers must realize that we cannot eliminate our own political biases from syllabus selection, classroom discussion, and unconscious preferences. We can work towards this type of self-knowledge, recognize and identify our biases, and present them in a clear manner to our students, however. And the best way to achieve this type of political self-awareness is by engaging in political activity.

Presenting yourself as objective, unbiased, and fair unequivocally states the opposite in the classroom. You are not, and you cannot be. This does not give you license to engage in wanton prejudices, such as failing a student for making an argument against a political position you agree with, but it's your responsibility to let the student know beforehand how you feel. And again, there's no better way than community activism to learn just what you believe.

Posted by: Chun the Unavoidable at July 26, 2003 04:54 PM

Jesus flippin Christ. Fish has little to do with this; ditto for Chomsky. Thanks for your obscurantism, Chun.

We're talking about labor conditions. Believe it or not, some people in academia are holding a discussion about this stuff, and think it's important. Here's a second try, IA; I don't know if you'll pay attention to the PDF links this time either.

After Wyoming. (PDF 548K)

Posted by: Mike at July 27, 2003 03:25 AM


If you review what IA wrote (penultimate paragraph, particularly) and what I responded to, you'll note that a subject of discussion was the relationship between academic labor reform and larger social reform. I don't believe the two things can be separated, and I attempted to explain why.

Posted by: Chun the Unavoidable at July 27, 2003 04:34 AM

We know all too well that the fact that a tenured or tenure-track faculty member can be easily and adequately replaced by an adjunct (or VAP) -- earning a tiny fraction of what the full-time faculty earns for the same work -- demonstrates the devaluing and deprofessionalizing effects of adjunctification. In my opinion, one aspect of this process of devaluation that needs to framed more prominently is how adjunctification functions as a kind of absolute limit or firewall against t-t faculty efforts to increase their wages. The statistical evidence supports this view; t-t faculty salaries have stagnated significantly over the last thirty years. Short of a wholesale elimination of tenure, I believe that one step toward meaningful change of both this situation and the structure of academic labor in general is the linkage between the plight of adjuncts and the declining wages of t-t faculty. In other words, in order to garner more wide-spread support from standing faculty, the nascent adjunct unionization movement should appeal to t-t faculty self-interest: to support us (adjuncts) is to support yourselves.

Posted by: Chris at July 27, 2003 11:11 AM


If you'll wipe your glasses, you'll note that "left of center" hardly equals Fish's sophisms, and that discussions of academic labor can be had without resort to yank-your-chain political straw-man arguments. As always, thanks for the myopic discussion-thread trolling.

Posted by: Mike at July 27, 2003 12:15 PM

I can't help but laugh a bit at the notion that the university must not _become_ politicized. Not to sound like a hey-seed, but isn't it already politicized through and through? Or have I been missing something?

(p.s. does Chomsky really advocate protecting the university from politicization? That seems like an odd position for him to take, but then maybe someone of his stature ignores the adjunctification issue)

Posted by: Chris at July 27, 2003 01:10 PM


I honestly don't know what you're talking about. I thought about it a bit, and I suppose that you didn't notice the part of the original post discussing workplace's attitudes towards the relationship between larger social action and academic labor action. There's really no need for the random insults, however.


Chomsky was referring to the politicized classroom, which is different than faculty acting on their own political interests in terms of labor issues AND also in terms of larger social ones. The interrelation of those two is the point I wanted to address.

Posted by: Chun the Unavoidable at July 27, 2003 02:10 PM

Mike, I have downloaded that document and will read it when I get a chance.

My post does address the tendency of the workplace crowd to link academic employment issues with broader concerns over democracy and social justice. And I'm not saying that there aren't important connections between what happens within and what happens outside the academy.

My concern is that, pragmatically, a tight association between lefty politics and academic employment reform dooms the movement to marginalization and to the possibility of only marginal success. To put it another way, if it really isn't possible to stop the erosion of tenure-track positions and the overreliance on part-time teachers without taking on broader societal reform, then I believe the case is pretty much hopeless.

Despite the popular conception of the "tenured radical," I'm pretty firmly convinced that most tenured faculty simply do not care about the employment issues at their own workplaces (much less about broad societal reform), and that the only way to get them to care is to make an appeal to their own self-interest and to their commitment (such as it is) to the longer-term status of the profession. No easy task, especially since their immediate self-interest often lies in at least tacit support for adjunctification. Tenured faculty have yet to sign on for the campus collective action as social justice model, and I am firmly convinced that they will not do so in my lifetime, if ever. Now, perhaps this is the only model that would work. But if so, then my personal and pessimistic view is that the cause is sunk.

I realize that this is hardly a noble vision. But it's my sceptical perspective on the issue, and unlike that of Bousquet, Nelson et. al. (whose work, I hasten to add, I do respect and admire), it is a view from the margins.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at July 27, 2003 02:37 PM

I apologize, Chun; they weren't "random insults", but suggestions -- via lack of vision references -- that, contrary to your "maybe you didn't notice" comments, I did indeed notice and read closely, and thought your references to Fish and Chomsky irrelevant, and wished that perhaps you might read more closely.

I will cop to the ad hominem of the "trolling" accusation, however, since I was drawing an apparently mistaken conclusion from the ethos you've built in your previous posts urging elimination of various disciplines. My apologies, to you and to IA; I realize and acknowledge that there's no place for such stuff here.

Posted by: Mike at July 27, 2003 02:53 PM

I agree with IA's assessment, but I think we should also consider that issues of basic social survival are at stake in the larger realm and that there's more awareness of them among the population than at perhaps any point in history. Once we agree that political awareness of the sort necessary to cause changes in academic labor practices is most certainly not the sole province of enligthtened academics (who in fact have intense pressure on them to conform) and that it is spreading, there may be hope that it will broach the shells of unenlightened self-interest among tenured faculty and administrators.

I'm not offering this as a strategy or as a reason not to pursue more direct policies, but it does seem to me to be the case.

Posted by: Chun the Unavoidable at July 27, 2003 03:04 PM


Those other posts you spoke of were an attempt on my part to follow the reasoning of another poster to what I supposed was a self-evidently absurd conclusion. The use of irony, intending something different than what is written, is different than trolling, which is insincerity not meant to be detected.

If one were going to troll here, it seems that the following three character types would suggest themselves:

  • Contemptuous tenured faculty or administrator
  • Content adjunct
  • Pragmatic businessperson

Posted by: Chun the Unavoidable at July 27, 2003 03:12 PM

In my (admittedly limited) understanding of the wider social implications of the adjunctification trend in academia, the most immediately apparent corollary is the increasing trend toward casualization in hi-tech fields. Andrew Ross gets into this in an essay called "The Mental Labor Problem" (Social Text, 18, 2, 2000). The link, however, at least in my view, is tenuous if only because hi-tech workers are still paid substantially better than adjuncts. But it is tenuous as well for a reason that Ross and others seem to avoid entirely; namely, an increasingly casualized work situation -- and environemnt -- is a feature that many workers in the work-force have sought for. Ross, and other semi-marxists seem to elide this point. The most they seem to say on the issue is that these workers are mis-guided in their desire for casualized working conditions, and in their belief that it is to their economic advantage. (one can hear the marxist bath water draining away, and the baby crying)

Whether there is a substantial and material link between adjunct academics and these other casualized workers is not my concern. And since I am not an academic marxist writing essays that contribute to my academic career, while changing the conditions of the world at the same time, (gag) I am not (as Ross, Bousquet et. al) particuarly neeedful to establish one. And if, for a brief moment, I kind of try to play their game, the links between casualized labor and adjuncts seem to me to be strained because of the utter disparity in renumeration and benefits received by each.

If adjunct salaries reflected the full percentage of whatever they teach, and were also given full health and retirement coverage for the lengths of their employment, then I might be willing to look beyond my narrow sphere of interest and take on the world.

(sorry if this became a rant)

Posted by: Chris at July 27, 2003 04:00 PM


Tech workers are not as well off as you think. People who were making $60,000/year in 1998 doing elementary web design are generally unemployed, making less doing something else, or making far less doing the same thing.

I particularly enjoy seeing the libertarianism so prominent among that demographic tested in the H1B crucible. Yet another example of the "free market" being great for everyone else but not so fun for you principle.

My original point about political activism was not that certain forms of scholarship are more political than others, but rather that non-professional political engagement is ultimately necessary to change academic labor practices.

Posted by: Chun the Unavoidable at July 27, 2003 05:03 PM

Just to clarify: I'm not saying that academics should not be concerned with the plight of casualized workers. I'm saying that they probably aren't going to be so concerned, at least not in numbers significant enough to make a difference.

Part of this stems from my experience with a living wage campaign for cleaning and support staff at my graduate institution. The university was engaged in outsourcing: replacing full-time janitorial and cleaning positions with part-time positions at substandard pay rates and with no benefits. A lot of self-styled lefty and feminist academics simply refused to participate in the campaign or even to sign the petitions: they just did not care about the underpaid workers in their own midst. Nor did it seem to bother them that the workers who cleaned up after them were exploited and underpaid. I believe there is a connection here between the casualization of cleaning staff and the casualization of teaching staff. But again, I don't think tenured faculty care enough about either to want to do something about it. Hence my suspicion that an appeal to self-interest is probably the only way to go.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at July 27, 2003 06:57 PM

A lot of self-styled lefty and feminist academics simply refused to participate in the campaign or even to sign the petitions: they just did not care about the underpaid workers in their own midst.

IA, I'm curious if any used Marxism in the classroom? also, can you give a guesstimate of the number of women who made up the janitorial staff?

Posted by: Anna at July 27, 2003 10:40 PM

"IA, I'm curious if any used Marxism in the classroom? also, can you give a guesstimate of the number of women who made up the janitorial staff?"

I said cleaning and janitorial, but I should have said low-wage service and support staff, which included janitorial, laundry, housekeeping, food services, and many other services. Yes, some of these workers were men. Many were women. But are you implying that affluent, upper-middle class feminists needn't concern themselves with the exploitation (subpoverty wages and no health insurance) of male workers at their own institutions?

As for Marxism in the classroom: I said "lefty," not "Marxist." Unlike, say, anti-left conservatives, I don't equate "left" with "Marxist."

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at July 28, 2003 12:16 AM

IA, I wasn't equating Marxism with lefty or implying that affluent upper-middle class feminists should not be concerned with exploitation of male and female workers. Better to lurk rather than to add any more thoughts or comments here.

Thank you!

Posted by: Anna at July 28, 2003 10:32 AM

"Better to lurk rather than to add any more thoughts or comments here."

Or you could explain what you meant by your questions, since apparently I misunderstood.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at July 28, 2003 11:02 AM


Thanks for the clarification. I was using high tech workers as a generic category to refer in general to a/the set of workers for which casualization has been a benefit. I should have been both more careful and more precise.

Can you explain what "H1B" refers to? Sorry to be a dolt, but I've not heard of that before.

Posted by: Chris at July 28, 2003 11:34 AM

Or you could explain what you meant by your questions, since apparently I misunderstood.

Based on my own observations, it seems a few in academe will champion causes, yet they will not for example speak up about the plight of adjuncts or about the need to increase the wages for janitorial staff for example. It is troublesome that a person who lectures students about (fill in the blank with whatever cause) would choose not to lead by example. So, the underlying assumption on my part is that while a few believe in "X Y Z" these same individuals won't stick their neck out for "X Y Z" even when they are in a position to do so.

I don't wish to offend anyone here and don't know if this is any clearer.

Posted by: Anna at July 28, 2003 02:38 PM

Anna, I think that you're noticing that it's easier to preach than to practice. And it's hardest to practice when it brings one into conflict with those who have power over oneself. For example, publicly speaking out for better working conditions for migrant farm laborers is less problematic than speaking out for better working conditions for university employees. This is because the second causes a direct conflict with the university administration.

Posted by: Barry at July 29, 2003 10:10 AM

Many many years ago (I heard this story as an undergraduate, so it would have been pre-1975) I was told that the faculty in Sociology (?)at Simon Fraser U. in British Columbia did try to put their ideals of equality of labor into practice, and included all workers in the deparmental meetings and decision making. With the result that the department was disbanded by the administration....
But this may have been just a rumor/misunderstanding--I heard this on the US east coast...

But if one were a very "vulgar marxist" wouldn't one say that tenured faculty are expressing true class consciousness when they resist collaboration with hourly workers? If the faculty actually believe in "faculty governance" of the institution, they become not workers but the owners of the means of production, and thus do not share a common cause with hourly workers...

Posted by: sappho at July 29, 2003 02:33 PM

"But if one were a very 'vulgar marxist' wouldn't one say that tenured faculty are expressing true class consciousness when they resist collaboration with hourly workers?"

Perhaps. But then, shouldn't their class consciousness lead them to resist the use of hourly wage workers to perform the same jobs in the first place? Reliance on low-wage workers undercuts salaries, degrades status, and undermines bargaining power.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at July 29, 2003 04:00 PM

So wait a second. Why does my nodding yes to Sappho's point make me into a "very vulgar marxist"?

Posted by: Chris at July 29, 2003 05:03 PM

(H1Bs are a particular kind of work visa. Tech employers pushed very hard to increase the number of H1Bs during the boom, on the grounds that there weren't enough US workers in those jobs. (Or, possibly, to reduce labor costs; the terms of H1B employment may or may not make it hard for the employee to get the going rate.)

Personally, I thought it was shortsighted of the country as a whole to suck in skilled workers but only temporarily - with the slowdown, recession, banana, whatever we're having, the kinds of tech work that H1Bs used to do is increasingly moved offshore - it's easy! the H1Bs who went back know exactly how to deal with US companies! On the other hand, this is plausibly a net increase in world happiness despite any suffering in the States.

On the third hand, if I were a foreign gov't and thought I could arrange backdoor control into - oh - any machine running a driver written for company A and an app written for rival company B - I'd be awfully tempted to ask my loyal citizens to do it. Maybe that's just me.)

Posted by: clew at July 30, 2003 03:31 PM