Risk and Reason/The Wrong Side of History: On the Yale University Unionization Efforts

By Sarah BrouilletteAnnie McClanahan,  and Snehal Shingavi

In the following two essays, writers Sarah Brouillette, Annie McClanahan, and Snehal Shingavi address the Yale unionization efforts and hunger strike, in response to Amy Hungerford’s recent piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education.


Risk and Reason

By Sarah Brouillette

Last week, Amy Hungerford, an English professor and Dean at Yale, claimed that a hunger strike there in support of unionization was not warranted because the situation was not one of exploitation and oppression but rather of “disagreement among members of a privileged community.” Tapping into a recently popular take on the unreasoned voice and overzealous tactics of the student protestor, she lamented their “disregard for the value of disagreement, reason, research, evidence, debate, and persuasion” — an argument that implies that the university is a level playing field, a bourgeois public sphere free of bias and automatic positional advantage, where people meet to debate rationally from equally valued and valid standpoints, and all that determines the rightness of a stance is neutral rational assessment. The university is already a space of relative freedom from the coercive force of power, wealth, and status, right? Nothing worth fighting for with too much vigor. Questioning the ethics of using a tactic that other far more oppressed groups have used, Hungerford stated that “each doctoral student receives full tuition funding, health-care coverage, and an annual stipend that, in 2017-18, will exceed $30,000.” In a crude pun, Hungerford said that what the hunger strikers are really starving is not their own lucky bodies but “the commitment to principled disagreement in a community dedicated to education.”

A community dedicated to education? What community is that? Let’s consider.

Doctoral students at Yale might be able to expect to live decently for a few years — indeed, that promise of a respite from uncertainty may be why they are pursuing graduate degrees — and they may not personally carry massive debt loads. But they belong to the most indebted and the least securely employed generation of students there has ever been. Indebtedness and economic precarity are part of a massive transfer of wealth to creditors that has taken place over the last 30 years. To comment on what is happening at Yale without considering the context of this broader history — a context to which the students involved themselves draw attention — is to miss both how it links up with a struggle which goes well beyond Yale, and why that struggle is unlikely to cease any time soon.

Melinda Cooper’s recent account of this history is instructive. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, when the US economy was dynamic and the Fordist wage was dominant, President Lyndon B. Johnson presided over “the most dramatic expansion in higher education in the nation’s history.” The Higher Education Act of 1965 “pumped federal aid into impoverished black colleges, oversaw the creation of student recruitment programs and bridging courses for disadvantaged students, increased the number of grants available to low-income students, and created a program of guaranteed student loans to the subsidized by the federal government.” These reforms, combined with others like the offering of Pell grants to low-income students, had the effect of allowing “unprecedented numbers of low-income, black, Latino/a, and women students” to attend university. For once, students whose parents had little money saved and virtually no estates were able “to access an institution that had once been a major conduit of class reproduction.”

But as the dynamism of the economy stalled, and wages stagnated, and the Fordist system started to disintegrate, arguments against public deficit spending on education came to prevail. Robust public expenditures on education gave way to the system-wide disinvestment in education with which we are now so familiar. A ready remedy was the liberalization of credit, with the assumption that offering credit would allow universities to raise tuition; discipline responsible participants in a market economy; and constrain revolutionary activity on campuses. According to Cooper, in the 1960s Milton Friedman would caricature student protestors as “middle-class rentiers living off the taxes of the decent hardworking poor”; this is not too far from Hungerford’s complaint, except here it is Yale’s largess that the students are said to disregard so blithely. Friedman believed public spending on universities was partly to blame for campus unrest. It made universities accessible to the unruly masses, and because they weren’t paying much, and weren’t dependent on their parents, they were naturally disrespectful and anti-authoritarian.

Thank god that all ended, right? At least until recently, when students have gotten oddly unruly again. With the onset of the era of fiscal discipline — of neoliberalism, of financialization (many labels apply) — loans came to be prioritized over grants, and grants lost spending power. Higher education continued to be available at all due primarily to the newly expanding availability of credit. As Cooper points out, borrowing limits were raised; eligibility criteria were relaxed; and “new, high-risk lending solutions” were created for students who had exhausted all other options” (243). Included among these were the PLUS loans, which parents took out on a student’s behalf, thus making debt burdens an intergenerational affair.

This account of the history of university funding reform provides ample evidence for Peter Fleming’s argument that the story of human capital theory is a history of “divesting in people.” Human capital theory is generally read as attempting to grasp the role that investment in education and training plays in determining a person’s level of employment and pay. This is highly limited, of course; Gary Becker’s work is instead exactly in support of the divestment that Fleming describes. Becker thought people were wise to go into debt to earn degrees because they would be “investing in themselves” and would later reap the rewards. With benefits accruing mainly to themselves and their families, there was no reason to turn to the public purse to support higher education! In other words, as Cooper’s book ably clarifies, human capital theory helped justify the policies of a government bent on appeasing its own creditors – appeasing them by restricting spending on universities and forcing individuals to go into debt to purchase access instead. The results have been rather significant: “The total outstanding balance on student debt almost tripled between 2004 and 2012, climbing from $364 billion to $966 billion in less than a decade” (216), Cooper writes.

Yes, Yale is not a public university, and the student body is wealthier in general than other student bodies. Indebtedness and future uncertainty nevertheless plague members of the Yale community, which is not an island separated from the rest of the US university system. The conditions are general, and they are bad. Student debt is priced more highly for people who do not already come from wealth, of course. Because they need more and bigger loans to begin with, and are likely to need more time repaying them, the price a low-income student pays “is much higher than the student who starts with family wealth,” even as average earnings for women and minorities continue to lag behind the white-male dominant wage (247). Hence, as Cooper writes, “the generalization of student loans acts as a form of regressive taxation, placing a proportionately higher burden on lower-income students while paying lip service to the ideals of democratic inclusion” (248-9).

A pressing crisis in futurity, a lack of hope about a livable future — this is the result of higher education for many students. What will they do after graduate school? Join the adjunct army? If that is their fate, how will they pay back their student loans? Will they need to rely on family to help? The crisis in futurity delimits options and urges caution. It makes you risk-averse, while you are also resentful of the ways you are forced to be risk-averse. Sometimes it makes you enter into arrangements you might not otherwise choose — a job you despise, another loan, putting off having kids, or getting into a marriage or monogamous coupledom, for instance, because that basis of stability is more appealing to future creditors and makes day-to-day survival easier and less lonely. It means a delimitation of how we imagine what’s possible.

Cooper calls student debt “a family affair” of “mutual obligation and dependence.” She describes a “debt-based temporal bind that radically reaffirms the economic function of the private family” (217). In her account, the indebted are driven into traditional family arrangements even as the force of the normative has been subject to thorough critique. We’re post-normative in theory, except we can’t really afford to live that way. Julia Powers, one of the participants in the hunger strike, makes the point plainly when she argues that given limited academic job prospects, and lack of union protection, she feels utterly trapped in traditional deference to her professors, and is unwilling to complain about sexual harassment for fear that it might hurt her employment prospects. People who are so intensely afraid of risk and are forced to shoulder the burden of it largely alone are unlikely to report being assaulted.

Do we then blame students for the strength of their attachment to the ideal of union membership? The tremendous force of the ideal of some sort of collective help is instead all too obvious. In the context of a general lack of possibility for social insurance, and only the most minimal protection from risk and harm, a union to negotiate and mediate work done on campus seems like the most obvious of desires and the easiest to get behind. In anything, the measures that are currently being taken to bring it into existence seem quite muted.

The people on hunger strike are hardly just “privileged student[s] at Yale.” They are responding to a general situation of unprecedented indebtedness and uncertainty — and make no mistake, students’ debts are part of a massive transfer of wealth to already wealthy creditors, and a means of attempting to keep goods flowing, keep the economy moving, when little else is doing much to make that happen. The students’ debts are in other words in service to a broader effort to ensure the continued viability of a failing economy. These debts are disproportionately difficult for already disadvantaged students to face, so they are racialized debts and gendered debts and debts that can make people retreat into risk-averse conventionality especially because any prospect of secure and relatively permanent future employment isn’t there for them.

Students doing anything in this context — I mean, in the absence of social supports, of insurances and assurances, and given tremendous political, social cultural pressure to turn only to traditional sources of support like one’s parents — are not to be scoffed at for their “privilege.” Hungerford derides the hunger strikers as “graduate students wishing to improve the terms on which they are supported while pursuing a Ph.D.” It’s a withering view. Why not see them instead as students seeking some form of collectivity, on campus and across campuses, because they have been exposed to the truth of what the American university is? It is the lowest of low priorities for any sort of public spending; it is an engine for production of human capital that will struggle to find any fit task in the economy (it is certainly not destined to flourish in the flailing academic sector!); and it is an occasion for creation of debts that are a powerful normative force on people’s lives and that benefit wealthy creditors and cascade disadvantages on the already disadvantaged in turn.



The Wrong Side of History

By Annie McClanahan and Snehal Shingavi

In a recent article for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Amy Hungerford — Professor of English and Dean of Arts and Humanities at Yale University — criticizes Yale graduate students who are currently in week three of a hunger strike designed to pressure the university to recognize and negotiate with the union. Hungerford defends “the value of disagreement, reason, research, evidence, debate, and persuasion” and insists on the importance of institutional and legal “process.” “[W]hen the processes of law are working,” Hungerford argues, the tactic deployed by the Yale protestors amounts to nothing less than disrespect of “the millions on whose behalf Mohandas Gandhi, Cesar Chavez, and others sacrificed their bodies to hunger.” This framing echoes a nearly identical response to the hunger strikers by Yale President Peter Salovey in an email to the campus on May 3rd, where he criticizes the tactic of hunger striking as “having no place in rational debate when an established dispute resolution process still exists.”

What troubles the Yale administration, it seems, is not only the use of a particular tactic that they perceive as “out of proportion” to the circumstances, but the idea that the graduate student workers would resort to something as manifestly interested and combative as “tactics” in the first place. Tactics, they imply, are the inverse of civil debate and institutional or legal process: tools (or weapons) to be deployed only when ostensibly non-tactical — civil, institutional, legal, consensus-based — means have been exhausted.

And yet debate can also be a tactic, a fact that is nowhere more apparent than in the language the Yale administration itself deploys. Hungerford’s apparent reluctance to take a position on whether graduate student instructors are workers is belied by her description of them as “apprentices” who are “training for careers as professors.” The implication that all, or even most, Yale PhDs are on the way to cushy employment resembling the careers of those who train them is disingenuous. A 2015 report on English PhDs found that “[O]ver the last 35 years, less than half … have gotten tenure-track academic jobs upon graduation.” Even among the top 8% of graduate programs (like Yale), the number is only slightly higher than 50%. Many of those who aren’t able to get a tenure- track academic job go on to work as non-tenure-track “contingent” faculty, a category that makes up nearly 70% of all academic appointments nationwide and 38% of Yale’s own faculty. The circumstances PhDs are most likely to find themselves in when they conclude their training, in other words, are hardly privileged: non-tenure-track faculty receive lower wages, fewer (or no) benefits, and minimal job security. Nor, again, is this any different at Yale itself: a recent Yale Daily News report describes the university’s non-tenure track faculty anxiously waiting in advance of each semester to find out whether they even have a job for the coming term.

Moreover, if we understand “tactic” as the administration does — as a means to leverage power; as something that comes at the expense of “process”; as a tool with its own embedded history — the language of “apprenticeship” is itself a tactic. Anti-union administrators and faculty have been arguing — in opinion pieces and internal memos but also in the courts — that graduate student teachers are not workers but “apprentices” since the early days of the mass movement to unionize grad students in the 1960s. University of California grad student employees had to fight a multi-year court battle to gain recognition as employees rather than “apprentices.” (Once again, and as we should all be embarrassed to have to keep reminding one another, the facts are not on the side of this argument: graduate students contribute a significant portion of the teaching labor to US campuses and, according to one recent report, do a better job teaching introductory courses than tenure-track faculty in equivalent classes, suggesting that if anything, the apprentice relation might be more beneficial if it ran in the other direction.) Yale’s claim that graduate student workers are “first and foremost students, not employees,” is precisely the kind of rhetorical tactic universities have long used in order to deny graduate student workers the right to basic employment protections.

What, then, of the argument that because graduate instructors make $30,000 a year, their claims to deserve such protections are somehow suspect, emerging from a place of “privilege”? For one thing, many of Yale’s graduate instructors report that the mind-boggling “reverse seniority” system means they are likely to end their graduate teaching careers getting paid approximately half that.  One also wonders what the appropriate level of compensation for protesting one’s work conditions might be. Should a nurse or a teacher or a custodian earning $30,000 a year not fight by any means necessary for union recognition and protection? Most of all, however, this argument patently misrepresents the many aspects of work (not just salary) that are protected when workers are legally recognized as employees, and especially when collective bargaining and union representation ensures those employees legal redress and a protected grievance process.

Indeed, Yale’s own reporting suggests that the institution is in desperate need of an autonomous workplace grievance process for graduate students. The collaboration between graduate student workers and their supervisors — the “teacher student relationship” administrators like Salovey have been telling us for decades would be ruined by unionization, despite all evidence to the contrary — is apparently not working all that well at Yale. In 2015, Yale released a report stating that 53.9% of graduate and professional school students had experienced some form of sexual harassment at the institution and noting that most graduate students don’t report harassment because of “fear of negative repercussions on [their] career[s].”

What then of the other method repeatedly opposed to the violence of “tactics,” namely due process? Salovey describes Yale as merely “awaiting” a ruling from NLRB and urges graduate student protestors not to “short circuit” the legal process. This description of the situation is laughable. In fact, in August 2016 the NLRB reversed its 2004 decision that graduate student workers were not employees. The victory was both urgent, long-awaited, and decisive, and it was celebrated nationally not only because the decision would effect graduate student workers at dozens of private institutions where they had been fighting for unionization for decades, but also because the language of the decision offered the very recognition that student workers had long been denied: as the language of the decision put it, “the traditional model of relations between university and student assistants is insufficiently responsive to student assistants’ needs.”

The “process” the Yale administration evokes has thus already occurred, and its implications — and its justice — could not be clearer. What the administration declines to describe, however, is what Yale did next. Refusing to accept the NLRB’s decision, Yale hired a high-powered, union-busting law firm, tying up graduate student workers in hours of courtroom time and claiming that graduate student instructors “have no subject matter expertise” and thus ought not be considered real instructors: this argument, countermanding both the letter and the spirit of the NLRB decision, suggests a much broader and more far-reaching objection to the NLRB decision than Salovey’s (narrower but equally unfounded) displeasure with the particular way the union vote was held. Yale’s intention seems to be to draw out the process through appeals until a new board is appointed by President Trump, assuming — as was the case with previous Republican-appointed boards — that the newly constituted NLRB would hold up Yale’s anti-union position on appeal, a decision that would have far-reaching consequences well beyond Yale.

This, then, is what disinterested, non-“tactical” debate looks like, and what due process means to this institution. In a way, however, it almost seems unnecessary to note Yale’s hypocrisy in this context. Because when those in positions of power invoke the names of the hallowed champions of civil disobedience — Gandhi, King, Mandela, Chavez (always forgetting that civil disobedience was initially a tactic developed by women) — one always knows that there is likely something rotten at work.  Almost always those who use this rhetoric seem not only to have forgotten the actual histories that motivated people to engage in protest, but also forgotten that they are themselves following a well-worn script that has long been used by those in power to obfuscate their complicity in prolonging injustice.

Hungerford would have us believe that graduate student instructors at Yale besmirch the tactic of hunger striking, that they are “privileged citizens.” The Yale administration is in good company here, since this is how Winston Churchill described Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi in 1930: “It is alarming and also nauseating to see Mr. Gandhi, a seditious Middle [Inner] Temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir of a type well known in the East, striding half-naked up the steps of the Viceregal palace, while he is still organizing and conducting a defiant campaign of civil disobedience, to parley on equal terms with the representative of the King-Emperor.” Like Churchill, the Yale administration cannot see the demand for justice through what they perceived as the political theater of tactics. The contradiction in Churchill’s thought persists: Yale graduate students cannot both be privileged and repeatedly patronized into remembering that they do not deserve a seat at the table. Likewise, Salovey would claim that the union elections undertaken in eight departments at Yale only represented a minority of graduate students and therefore were undemocratic, all the while forgetting that this was also a conscious rhetorical strategy of the British to perpetuate Indian rule: maintaining that the Indian National Congress did not represent all Indians, that there was no Indian nation, that there were divisions of religion and caste and language, the crown claimed there was no way that the demand for independence could be a just or democratic demand.

The Yale administration presents its own rhetoric as no more than open-minded debate and urges graduate student workers to be confident in the “established dispute resolution process.” In fact, the administration’s framing of its “concern” for the personal and pastoral “relationship” between instructors and their supervisors is both tactical and false, and it has done everything imaginable to turn a clear and just legal decision into a protracted and vicious battle at the expense of both graduate student instructors and the students they teach. It is precisely in this context — it is precisely when persuasion and process have been corrupted or controlled by the powerful themselves — that tactics like hunger striking and the occupation of campus space emerge as the only means left for graduate student workers deprived of other forms of representation, protection, and collective power. The Yale administration argues that a hunger strike is a form of coercion that interrupting the deliberative, educational process in which disagreements can be resolved, and for which more time is required.  But if we are invoking the authority of past movements, let’s recall Martin Luther King, Jr.: “’Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’” While the hunger strikers at Yale indicate the transformative power of civil disobedience, the Yale administration can do nothing more than write emails and op-eds from the wrong side of history.


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