Friday, April 11, 2014

True rejections and the UIC Faculty Union

Ta-Nehisi Coates reflects on several points in a recent column in The Atlantic. One of those points is Thomas Hobbes's alleged propensity to be overly argumentative, or his "brilliance in controversy."  Quoting another, Coates writes, Hobbes "hated error more than he loved truth, and came to depend overmuch on the stimulus of opposition."  Coates's takeaway from that comment is
....I think the deeper point about "brilliance in controversy" is one for the ages. It's tough to remember that you must never do it for them. It's tough to remember why you came. Why you came was not to be lauded for "destroying," "owning," or otherwise sonning anyone. You must always define the debate and not allow the debate--and all its volume and spectacle--to define you.
That is perhaps a grandiose way for me to introduce this blog post.  I spend a lot of time on these (virtual) pages criticizing the union.  I stand by my criticisms generally, and when I change my mind, I endeavor to state so clearly so people are not misinformed on where I stand.  But the main gist of these posts has been a "kitchen sink and a cloud of dust" attack on the union.  Given (almost) every possible criticism that could be lodged against the union, I have lodged it.

The problem is, it is easy to criticize, to destroy.  Not so easy to build.  So it behooves me here to state what I see as my endgame, to state what it is I support and refrain from adopting only a contrarian view for the sake of contraianism.  Doing so will also better disclose my biases, so people can know what ulterior motives I may have in my criticisms of the union.  In the process, I can even see a role for a union.

One, there are indeed problems of poor working conditions, especially for some contingent faculty.  I see these problems as ones partially of pay, partially of large class sizes, and partially of little support from the UIC administration.

There is a tension between any given student's short-term interest in a good grade and the same student's and university's longer term interests in maintaining higher standards.  In short, the instructor sometimes needs support from somewhere when he or she has to discipline a student for plagiarism, or when he or she assigns a low grade then contested by the student.  And even the best administration cannot be reflexively supportive of the instructor because it needs to be fair to the student.  A union might be good for this role, as the advocate for the instructor.  However, this role of instructor advocacy is one that's difficult to sell to students, and I have not heard anyone make that argument on behalf of the union.

Two, race and gender discrimination is probably a real problem.  In an earlier post, I criticized one union member's speech that seemed to suggest blatant racial discrimination as the explanation for pay disparities between UIC and Urbana.  I personally believe that he was addressing what might be a real problem.  But in my view the problem is more systematic and structural, and not one of a small cabal of administrators seeking to pay people less.  I believe that racial and gender discrimination exist, but that they operate much more subtly than what that union member was describing.  And if I may say so, union representation might be one tool to combat it. 

Three, it is my belief that the system of tenure as it currently functions stifles creativity, denies opportunities to newer scholars, and makes it impossibly difficult to discipline the (admittedly very small number of) professors who irresponsibly shirk their teaching duties.  I also believe the tenure system should be radically revised or perhaps even abolished.  I would urge a gradual phasing out of the system, so that all who currently enjoy the protections of tenure would continue to through the rest of their career.  In such a situation, scholars would need protection to ensure their freedom of speech and their freedom to pursue their disciplines.  To ensure that protection, a union might very well be vital.

My position, which I don't seriously expect most others to support but which I do believe in, represents something of a paradox.  A union might be more necessary or justifiable if faculty lack the protections of tenure.  Yet recognizing the current union makes my "radical revision" less possible because it gives the union a strong institutional base.  And yet again, it would be hard enough to convince people to adopt any "radical revision" of tenure, and even harder if there is not already a union in place.

Four, I believe that faculty governance, especially at the department level, is implicated in the difficult situation facing non-tenure-track faculty today.  I suspect that part of the reason the university needs adjuncts is professors' obligation to devote so much time to research and publication.  And this obligation requires departments to rely on adjuncts and TA's, and in order for the reliance to make sense, those employees have to be paid a low wage.  Of course, this is also an opportunity for those same adjuncts and TA's to get teaching jobs and experience that they wouldn't otherwise have.

I do not think faculty governance is wholly at fault, and the requirement for research is not wholly a departmental project.  But I do think that governance has played a part in the UIC's repeated attempts to establish itself as a "Tier I" research institution.  It might succeed in that goal.

But being "Tier I" means, in my opinion, a turning away from the Chicago-area students whom the university allegedly is here to serve.  Re-focusing the university's priorities to, say, undergraduate and perhaps MA programs--instead of the many PHD programs--could if done rightly expand opportunities to the diverse student population UIC claims to serve.  I believe that at least for most of the liberal arts, the U of I system should consider having only one PHD program, and that program should probably be at Urbana.  (For full disclosure:  I received my PHD at UIC, and I realize that it is not entirely proper for me to deny others that which I've received from UIC.  If I had been a PHD student and my department had decided to phase out the PHD program, I would have been upset.)

I think this fourth point underscores one of my true rejections of the UICUF as it is presently constituted and as its demands are presently elucidated.  It would, in my view, ensconce some of the bad state of affairs without a corresponding benefit.

Five, the union as is presently constituted has an inherent conflict of interest.  The tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty may share some interests, but some of their interests are in conflict, with some tenure-track faculty having what amounts to a supervisory position over the non-tenured ones.  When I wrote my letter of February 8, I had believed that the union represented one bargaining unit, although I noted that it also appeared to recognize non-tenure-track faculty as a separate interest, with its own reps, for example.  But it is only with the UIC administration's "best and final offer" to the tenure track faculty that I have learned that two contract negotiations are taking place.  The union may have been upfront about this distinction from the beginning, but the distinction itself has not been obvious from my (admittedly casual, cursory, and selective) reading of their official website.

I do think I understand why the union has not emphasized this point.  It wants both kinds of faculty to work together on those areas where they share interests, with the hope the one could strengthen the other.  And I believe these goals were sincere.  But I also think more acknowledgment could have been given upfront about this distinction.  (And again, maybe it was.  My reading of the union's public announcements has been cursory at best.   And I frankly never raised the question to a union rep, who might have answered it quickly and honestly.)

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