Saturday, March 5, 2011

Professors Don't Care?

I really loved our rally in support of public workers in Wisconsin and everywhere across the country. One thing, however, bothered me and keeps doing so today. Aside from me, there was only one faculty member from our university. We are a public university, and are being constantly threatened with losing our health care benefits. The institution of tenure is being eroded constantly. We had all our funding frozen last year because the state wasn't giving us our money. The situation is very precarious for all of us.

David Ruccio has the following to say about the current state of affairs in higher education:

It looks like public universities that can (like Madison) are becoming more like private universities. Meanwhile, well-endowed private institutions may be the only universities where the idea of the university is being safeguarded. Combined, the two tendencies—the privatization of public universities and the privatization of the idea of the university—represent a bridge to the end of the public university system as we have known it in the United States. That leaves us nowhere.
The last sentence of this comment is literally true for those of us who work for public universities.  If (when) public universities fall apart, we will have nowhere to go. Of course, those of us who have been publishing like crazy this entire time, can expect to be picked up by private schools. The rest, however, will be left behind. Why, then, are professors so unwilling to join the struggle for the rights of employees?

Part of it, I believe, is snobbery. What do we have in common with all those carpenters, steel workers, and teamsters? We are still middle-class while they have been displaced from it. We forget, however, that when these intelligent, politically active workers cannot afford to send their kids to our university any more, we end up with the student body that is impoverished intellectually.

Another reason why professors don't care is their belief that this will not touch them. Even though we keep hearing news about tenured faculty being fired all over the country, many of my colleagues like to pretend that this will never happen to them. I can't tell you how many times I heard senior colleagues say, "Of course, this will not touch me. I'm tenured." Have the SUNY Albany, the U of Southern Mississippi and other places never happened, I always wonder when I hear that?">

Of course, I will be told that I'm exaggerating. People are just too busy, I will be told. I don't buy that, though. If a huge crowd of our faculty members had come to the rally, this would have sent a really important message to our administrators. And that would have benefited us a lot more than any silly committee and any useless meeting.


profacero said...

I think you're right.

Rimi said...

I don't know if you were an academic in the Ukraine too, Clarissa, but could you compare attitudes between your home-country and here? I ask because I find this "snobbish" indifference rather strange -- in my country teachers and professors have very strong unions, so much so that political parties are always trying to curry favour with them, and no elections can be won without their grassroots support. That system has its own downfalls, but this idea that unions are for 'blue collar' workers, I find rather strange.

Clarissa said...

I was a student when I left Ukraine, Rimi. My people in general are very cynical and disillusioned about anything that has to do with politics. For the obvious reasons, the word "union" is viewed with suspicion and dislike by everybody, academics or not. It will take a while until the current connotations of the word "union" get erased.

NancyP said...

Fear of reprisal?

In some states, public employees are not allowed to campaign for parties or candidates. Issues may be another matter.

It takes some courage, and contact with someone who is experienced at protest, to get some people to feel comfortable appearing in public.

Tom Carter said...

Clarissa, you need to differentiate between public sector and private sector unions. Those carpenters, steel workers, and teamsters you referred to are in private sector unions, if they're in unions at all. The real problem, in Wisconsin and many other places, is public sector unions.

The difference is fundamental. Private sector unions (about 7 percent of workers) negotiate with owners and managers of businesses -- in effect, on the distribution of profits.

Public sector unions (about 36 percent of workers), on the other hand, negotiate with government managers who don't have much motivation to stand up to them -- it's not their money, after all. The people paying the freight are the taxpayers, and they aren't involved in the negotiations. And, when public sector unions then make massive contributions to politicians, they're using money that came from the taxpayers to influence politicians who will help them get more money from the taxpayers. It's not much different from run-of-the-mill money laundering.

profacero said...

It is false that you make more in the public sector than in the private one. There are some benefits -- like, when our janitors were still public employees, they could have state pensions and health insurance, which they need on their salaries. Now they're more like McDonald's workers. But then, I'm *for* universal health care, social security, and so on, don't begrudge my tax money to that, wish public employees in my state could qualify for social security (we don't, and I don't think they do in IL, either).

profacero said...

@Nancy P - maybe so. You're kind. I'm afraid though that it's just, these people identify with "management" and/or are so scared that contact with someone experienced in protest won't help.

Iris said...

Hi Clarissa
I'm not sure why people in this country are so anti union. I have acquaintances who - like Tom - think their tax dollars need not go to providing people with a middle class wage and benefits. My acquaintances justify this attitude by saying: "Why should union members get more benefits than I do?" Um - because they are presenting a solid block? Because they know standing together and wanting decent wages for all raises the standard of living for all of us? Because corporations and government bureaucracies have a vested interest in finding cheap labor so they can use the excess money to promote their own agendas?
Where I live, large corporations (defined by a certain number of workers)are given tax incentives - either nominal or no tax on their land and/or personal property. This could also be construed as using taxpayers' money to promote their own agenda.
I do see this union busting as a war on workers in this country. It seems many workers are falling for the polarization of politics and class - dividing and conquering themselves.
It's a democracy - if the majority of people want to be left to stand alone when it comes to wage and benefit negotiations - so it shall be. But I don't get it.
Always a delight to read your blog - whether I agree or not!