Reviews > Culture

University sweatshops?

Culture | Grad students and other auto workers

Issue: "God, Caesar and taxes," April 17, 1999

Clue to understanding contemporary thinkers: While their theories may not accurately describe reality, their theories probably do describe their own behavior. Thus, if a historian claims that history does not consist of objective facts, you can be sure that his version of history will play fast and loose with the facts and will be advancing a political agenda. A scholar who believes there is nothing more to culture than oppressive power, if given a position of authority, can be expected to wield power in an oppressive way. Someone who believes there is no such thing as truth can be expected to lie.

Universities are the last bastion of economic liberalism. In fact, along with Cuba and China, universities are the last bastion of Marxism, with humanities departments continuing to analyze literature and art in terms of the class struggle. While the rest of the country is cashing in on the stock market and many abroad are discovering the wonders of the free market, many university professors are apoplectic about the evils of capitalism. They inveigh against the big corporations who make money on the backs of oppressed workers.

And yet, for all of their economic liberalism, universities are some of the worst offenders when it comes to making money on the backs of oppressed workers. They have even managed to create a class system and a class struggle. And today, as in the 19th-century sweatshops, the exploited workers are trying to organize into unions, despite harsh opposition from the professorial bosses.

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Full-time faculty at major universities enjoy the perks of tenure, miniscule teaching loads, good salaries, and a free rein to pursue any research projects they want. Money in higher education has become tight, so the number of full-time faculty positions has become restricted. Nevertheless, enrollments are surging. This means that universities must offer more classes with fewer faculty. The solution? Hire part-time teachers-from the masses of Ph.D.s unable to find full-time positions-to cover the courses at a subsistence, per-course wage with no benefits. And have them teach the undergraduate introductory courses, so that many full-timers can concentrate on their esoteric specialties in seminars consisting of just a handful of graduate students.

In 1970, 22 percent of college instructors were part-time "adjunct" faculty. In 1980, the number rose to 34 percent. Today, up to 47 percent-nearly half-of the college teachers are rent-a-profs.

Another way of covering the classes, while insulating the full-time faculty from the demands of the classroom, is the use of teaching assistants (TAs). These are graduate students who are given a small stipend and a tuition break to teach classes. Such programs allow students to go to grad school at little expense and provide them valuable teaching experience. Such programs are also very good for the professors, supplying a constant stream of grad students for their esoteric seminars, while manning the less desirable freshman and sophomore courses. And they are very good for the university as a whole-one section with 30 students each paying $300 a credit hour for a three-credit class can bring in $27,000, of which the teacher might be paid $1,200.

They are not necessarily very good, of course, for the freshmen and sophomores who are taking the class, who often must put up with inexperienced and not-yet-qualified teachers. The problem is especially acute in science and math courses. Not many Americans are going into grad school in those subjects, which are considered "too hard" for many casualties of our educational collapse. Instead, slots in graduate programs in the technical fields are being taken by international students. Thus, many undergraduates find that their science and math TAs have difficulty speaking English, compounding the problem of scientific literacy.

But now the academic piece-workers are, quite understandably, feeling exploited. Enter the unions. Last month, after a series of mini-strikes and the university spending $1.8 million to quell union organizing, graduate students at the University of California voted to unionize. TAs at the Los Angeles campus will now be represented by the United Auto Workers (UAW).

The UAW now represents graduate students at the University of Massachusetts and is bidding to be the union for New York University, all in solidarity with their brothers on the Detroit assembly lines. The Communications Workers of America represent campus staffers at the State University of New York. TAs at the University of Iowa, perhaps recognizing the role of the overhead projector and the VCR in college teaching today, are negotiating to join the United Electrical Workers. And the graduate students at Yale, that epitome of America's academic and social aristocracy, have petitioned the National Labor Relations Board that they be recognized as a chapter of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union.

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