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Democratizing The Academy

We can produce a radically new organization of the University if we can just generate for ourselves a responsible democratic vision.
Eric V. Chandler

Issue #4, February 1993

(AUTHOR'S NOTE: This essay was originally presented at the Modern Language Association conference in San Francisco in December of 1991. A version of it was published in two parts in the November and December 1992 issues of the MLA's Graduate Student Caucus Newsletter. I think it is not only still relevant in view of the recent dramatic events of our strike, but ironically so.)

In spite of its subtitle, this is not an article simply about unionization. Yes, I will talk about efforts to unionize graduate student employees at the University of California at Berkeley, but my thesis is importantly broader than a narrow urging of this unionization: university administrative structures at all levels need to open up to and institutionalize democratic graduate student participation that can be but does not have to be through graduate student unions. Here I will discuss graduate student organizational efforts at two levels, the central university and the departmental.

There are now movements afoot at several universities to unionize graduate student employees. These movements are responses to local deteriorations in graduate student working conditions, and these deteriorations are simple and indisputable facts. At Berkeley, for example, according to union calculations, over a ten-year period ending in the fall of 1989, Teaching Assistants were to have lost 31% and Research Assistants 35% of their real incomes to inflation and increases in university fees. These fees are an important factor in calculating Berkeley's graduate student employee income because we have to pay tuition for the privilege of supporting ourselves through teaching even if we have finished our course work and are working independently on our dissertations. In 1989, these fees worked out to be approximately a fifth of our income, a month's pay per semester.

In the spring of 1989, Berkeley's Association of Graduate Student Employees (District 65 of the United Auto Workers) was able to organize a two-day strike that shut down the vast majority of university classes. The strike clearly scared the university administration, and its response was to enter for the first time into negotiations with us on possible solutions to a wide range of grievances. One immediate result of these negotiations was free health insurance for graduate student employees. Negotiations between union representatives and university officials continued, and these meetings produced, among other things, an exemption from a recent major fee hike for graduate student employees.

The negotiations, the free health insurance, and the fee-hike exemption are indeed real gains. And graduate student employees, often finding themselves financially strapped in their efforts to balance the demands of a graduate education with the necessity of finding ways to support themselves, certainly appreciate them. But they are not primarily what the unionization movement is about. We need to remember that in spite of the past negotiations, Berkeley's administration still refuses to recognize that Teaching and Research Assistants are employees who are entitled to the protection of California State Labor Laws and who have the right to unionize and collectively bargain. Graduate students need to organize not simply for more money, not simply to protect what is left of their real incomes, and not simply to formalize limits on their work-loads. They need to organize for proper and effective institutionally-ensured democratic representation at all levels of university administration: departmental, college, and central university.

The issue becomes apparent when we understand why working conditions at Berkeley deteriorated in the first place. When budgetary push came to budgetary shove, graduate students lost out because their interests were never properly represented (and empowered) in the administration. No matter what financial gains we achieve, without real political and institutional reform, these are mere acts of "noblesse oblige" and can easily be taken away in the future. Also, even though administrators can point virtuously to the fact that they are now listening to graduate student employee concerns and are trying to help, we need to remember that it was a strike that caught their attention and that for ten years of worsening working conditions they did little if not nothing. Given the national recession and the financial squeeze educational institutions are now generally experiencing, administrators are looking for ways to cut their budgets, and they will often take the path of least resistance: that is, they will cut things that will affect those who are relatively powerless to defend their interests. This is not to say that graduate student employees should escape shouldering part of the recessionary burden. But we need to make sure that the distribution of the burden is, in fact, fair and equitable. We can do so by insisting on active participation in the process that will determine that distribution.

In my discussions with departmental administrators at the time of the 1989 strike, I discovered that as much as they were often willing to acknowledge the legitimacy of most of our grievances, and even the need to take action on them, they were horrified by our ultimate remedy — unionization — because it fundamentally meant a sharing of power that never before existed. University decisions are made even now without any real representation of the graduate student constituency. We are, you see, truly disenfranchised. There is a Graduate Assembly from which we can launch various expressions of protest. But it is the central administration's option to listen and act upon these expressions.

Unionization means a radical reorganization (and perhaps complication) of the university decision-making apparatus. It would guarantee a sharing of administrative power. And administrators are prepared to give away much before they will submit to this. I sense that their implicit strategy now is to satisfy some of our lesser demands in the hopes that, with materially happier graduate students, support for the union will diminish. We should thus view these concessions without any real political and institutional reform with suspicion — as possible attempts to deflate the unionization movement. I am not suggesting that we reject such concessions. But I am urging us never to lose sight of what should be our ultimate goal: democratically-oriented reform.

Thus far, my argument has focused on how our lack of real representation in the central administration has hurt us. Now I wish to shift gears a bit and focus more generally on the problems of student organizational work particularly on the departmental level. Student political organizations, undergraduate or graduate, are fundamentally weak because they are crisis-oriented. In other words, when there is a crisis, they flourish, and when the crisis goes away, they fade until the next one. If the crisis lasts beyond an academic year, then the summer break often brings organizational devitalization — leadership and membership graduating or dispersing for vacation. These sorts of organizations are, of course, replete with inefficiency that cynical academic administrations can and do bank on. These organizations cannot directly and forcefully respond to crises because the first thing they have to do for each crisis and each year is organizationally rebuild and reconstitute themselves.

Berkeley's English Graduate Association is a case in point. By the spring of 1987, it barely existed as anything other than just a name. A new faculty coordinator for freshman composition was at this time instituting changes in course format that seemed to mean more work without additional pay for English Department T.A.'s. One graduate student, Jo-Ellen Green, who saw before anyone else the implications of these changes, single-handedly revived the near-dead organization, became its president, and directed its efforts, which included an elaborate survey of selected English graduate programs from around the country and their working conditions for graduate students. The activity that Ms. Green generated in opposition to the freshman composition course changes dismayed the faculty coordinator, and perhaps rightly so. In defending the changes, he explained that not only had some graduate students participated in all the discussions and work that led up to the changes, but records of these discussions and this work had been distributed in the form of memos to all English graduate students through their department mailboxes. He wanted to know why we had waited until then to respond.

There are three simple reasons. First, graduate students in the English Department really had no genuine forum of their own to discuss and analyze the information that the faculty coordinator and his assistants were so diligently providing; as I mentioned before, the departmental graduate student organization was all but defunct at the time of the preliminary discussions and work on the changes. Second, the graduate students who were working with him had no representative status — that is, their opinions were their own; they represented no graduate organization or constituency. Finally, there were no obvious institutional avenues for a collective graduate student response. Ms. Green had to explore, discover, and in some cases invent institutional possibilities not only for constituting a collective graduate student voice but for getting it heard and taken seriously.

Perhaps we graduate students are to blame for being so organizationally fickle. We seem to be active only when we have a complaint, which administrators often find ill-informed and belated, and we seem to be doggedly silent and detached when things are apparently going well. But we need to see also that the environments of our programs promote this sort of fickleness. The understanding of organizational work that often circulates in our departments and on our campuses is that it is extracurricular and possibly detrimental to a successful graduate career by taking energy and time away from research.

But if a graduate program is to train us to be professors, and if being professors means not only being researchers and administrators, then organizational participation seems an essential element of a balanced graduate program that administrators and faculty should, if anything, promote. If this promotion is lacking, then we graduate students should question the professional vision such programs represent. We do not want to trade bureaucrats for researchers and teachers, but a certain amount of bureaucracy and organizational work must exist to support research and teaching. Professors and graduate students should not simply exist in departments and be acted upon by the academic infrastructure; they need to function actively within it and, yes, sometimes against it.

Besides this issue of professional vision, the fact remains that departmental, college and university administrations make decisions that directly affect us. And too often we are unhappy with these decisions because they are clearly made without any consideration or appreciation of collective graduate student perspectives. I acknowledge that graduate students are often members of various campus committees, but how often is this participation merely tokenism? Until relatively recently, faculty members in Berkeley's English Department who needed graduate students on their committees simply asked individuals they happened to know. There was no expectation that these graduate student committee members had to represent anyone. There was no thought that perhaps they should be chosen by their peers and that they should report to these peers. This situation has changed through the insistence of the graduate organization that Ms. Green had revived. But there are still committees, such as hiring and tenure, that have definite impacts on graduate student life and have no graduate student representation at all.

Institutionalization of real democratic graduate participation in academic administration will not only help train us to be better professors, but ensure fairer administrative decisions. What we need, as Noam Chomsky has observed about dissident movements in general, is staying power and institutional structure. And these will come when we can get administrators, faculty and our fellow students to embrace the notion and practice that responsible academic government and administration is a sharing of power and a maintenance of institutional structure that enhances equal and fair participation of all sectors of the campus community: true democracy.

In conclusion, let me just say that, yes, unionization does have its dangers. At Berkeley, because our legal battles with the university are so expensive, we have affiliated with the United Auto Workers, which now provides us with desperately needed funds. It also provides us with an advisor. This advisor, who is very talented and dedicated, is around from semester to semester and year to year as graduate student leaders come and go. By necessity and default, she, who is not a graduate student, provides us with our organizational coherence. Her agenda, though, is the agenda of the national union, the recent record of which is certainly not all that glorious. For unionization to work, it cannot be imposed by a national centralized organization. It must be invented in response to understandings and critiques of local conditions and institutions. Old unionization won't do. And it is our responsibility to discover the new. We can avoid the dangers, inspire each other, and produce a radically new organization of the University if we can just generate for ourselves a responsible democratic vision, and a practical plan of action through which to realize that vision.

Eric Chandler is completing his doctoral work in English at UC Berkeley.

Copyright © 1993 by Eric V. Chandler. All rights reserved.