At the end of February, the University of California-Santa Cruz fired 54 of the graduate workers engaged in a months-long wildcat strike, meaning the strike took place without the authorization of their union, United Auto Workers. The strike calling for a cost-of-living adjustment, or COLA, spread to UC-Davis and UC-Santa Barbara. Grad students at UC-San Diego started a grading strike on March 9. UC-Berkeley students voted to begin their own grading strike. Now that a number of universities have transitioned to remote teaching as a precaution against the spread of coronavirus, the UC-Santa Cruz students are still organizing and calling for a “digital picket line.” That means as finals begin, the striking students are not submitting grades and asking professors to do the same.
The UC COLA movement is part of a larger trend at universities across the country. Grad workers at public and private universities are organizing and walking out over their work conditions In the UC system, student instructors and graders receive around $2,400, pre-tax, a month for nine months out of the year. One of the strikers, Zia Puig, said they spend half of their monthly paycheck on rent. Santa Cruz is among the least affordable small metro areas in the U.S.
In addition to asking students to work for pay that barely covers the rent, other universities have tried to cut the subsidized health care grad workers rely on and refused to respond to demands for protection against sexual harrassment and discrimination.
There is one group of people that graduate workers’ labor hugely benefits, and whose personal employment would likely be unaffected by a union fight: tenured professors. So, why aren’t more on the picket lines?
In solidarity with the teaching assistants fired at UC-Santa Cruz, 559 grad students have refused to accept those now-vacant teaching assistant positions. Students joined with COLA strikers, showing their support on the picket line and online. But there is one group of people that graduate workers’ labor hugely benefits, and whose personal employment would likely be unaffected by a union fight: tenured professors. So, why aren’t more on the picket lines?
In many departments, professors whose work is steeped in Marxist literature say they support the efforts of graduate workers. Nick Mitchell, a professor in UCSC’s Critical Race and Ethnic Studies Program, refused an award from the university, citing the administration’s response to graduate workers’ COLA campaign. He wrote, the university’s actions, “raise[d] grave concerns as to the way UC Santa Cruz values diversity.” In fact, UCSC’s own website describes the university as the “original authority on questioning authority.” At UCSD, 131 faculty members signed a letter of support for COLA strikers, promising not to punish those who took part in it. Letters of support and promises to not retaliate against striking grad students are helpful. COLA strikers regularly mention faculty as part of their base of support, and faculty dressed in their academic robes are a fixture on the Santa Cruz picket line. Grad student strikes in the past five years at Brown, Columbia, Harvard, University of Chicago, also garnered letters of support from faculty at each institution — but given how much is on the line for these precarious workers, a letter seems the least their colleagues with tenure could offer.
Unlike most workplaces, tenured professors have a near-ironclad degree of job protection. It is worth asking what it would really cost them to not cross the picket line. A tenured position is an indefinite position where universities are unable to terminate the contract except “for cause or under extraordinary circumstances,” like if an entire program at a university is closed.The American Association of University Professors argues that tenure is necessary in protecting professors from “[losing] their positions because of their speech, publications, or research findings.” Faculty may seem a cohesive bloc, but within the teaching cohort are adjuncts, lecturers, tenure-track professors, who, finally, after a review process, can become tenured professors.
Tenured professors could show support by canceling classes, holding them off-campus, or agreeing to not submit grades for the classes they teach. In the days of coronavirus, professors’ solidarity can still easily include not sending in grades or teaching the strike via Zoom. Instead, at UCSD, the Executive Vice Chancellor Elizabeth Simmons and Dean of the Graduate Division James Antony, both tenure recipients, released a letter detailing their general support of grad students, not the strike. The letter also included a list of perks UCSD grad students receive and argued the university is unable to renegotiate contracts on a campus-by-campus basis.
Yulia Gilichinskaya is a graduate student at UCSC and one of the COLA organizers. As an international student, she risks losing her residency by striking. She praised faculty, students, and teacher strikes around the country for supporting the Santa Cruz graduate students. But, when it came to the specific faculty joining the strikers, she said that “junior faculty and lecturers, who barely have job security themselves, have been at the frontline.” She expressed surprise at how few tenured professors were using their privilege to either join the picket line, teach the strike, or withhold grades.
Professors with tenure have job protection from universities that most Ph.Ds now could never hope for.
All grad students also have to worry about health care costs. At UCSC, they are automatically enrolled in the school’s health care program, which costs $1,619 per quarter. If they are employed at the university as TAs or lecturers, those costs are covered. The fired graduate students will be automatically billed for the university’s health care unless they can show they purchased a comparable plan in the new quarter. International students, again, have an additional challenge — they are limited to certain workplaces by their visas, and the university is one of the easier places to gain employment. Understandable, then, that Gilichinskaya may be surprised at tenured professors' lack of action in the face of comparatively few dangers.
Professors with tenure have job protection from universities that most Ph.Ds now could never hope for. Universities have steeply reduced awarding tenure; as of 2018, almost three-quarters of all faculty are non-tenure track, according to the American Association of University Professors. Untenured professors on fellowships and short-term contracts are in tenuous bargaining positions, same as graduate workers. Most adjuncts will likely never move into a tenureship. Despite this, many overworked, stressed young professors hoping their own contracts will be renewed fail to fully join forces with striking students. Tenured professors, who can barely be temporarily suspended after sexually harassing graduate students, are nearly absent.
It doesn’t have to be this way. In 2005, more than 500 New York University professors agreed to teach off-campus in solidarity with their own striking graduate students. Professors chose to honor the picket line in a real, material sense. They had no problem with continuing to educate students but not on the university’s terms. The strike ended in 2006 without a contract in place. NYU grad students continued organizing and eventually won recognition in 2013.
By 2017, when I was a unit representative for NYU’s Graduate Student Organizing Committee, our solidarity-building was focused more on reaching out to unionized service workers on campus than the professors. In less than ten years, professors seemed to recede from our organizing efforts, other than offering a letter of support. In the current UC system strike, some professors are dressing in full academic regalia and putting themselves between the police on campus and grad students. According to Gilichinskaya, professors’ presence at the picket line has meant “protecting [strikers] with their bodies.” She said their dress and position make the police less likely to get violent. At UCSC, there are lecturers, non-tenured, and tenured professors among the faculty supporters. But, as Gilinchiskaya also expressed, it’s a shame more of these allies are not from the more protected ranks of the tenured. At Santa Cruz, there are 615 tenure-track professors, this does not include those who already passed their tenure reviews and have additional protections. Some days on the picket line, Gilinchinskaya said a group of up to 70 tenured professors would show up, but it was the junior faculty and lecturers who were there every day.
Less than 40 percent of classes are taught by tenured or tenure-track professors, nationwide. It stands to reason graduate students are doing quite a bit of work. Tenured professors are allowed to focus more on research and writing, and this makes them complicit in the labor conditions of those teaching. Charmaine Chua, a tenure-track professor of global studies at UC Santa Barbara, described the relationship as “parasitic.” Chua is an active participant in the Faculty Organizing Group, which supports the strikers. She said that within the group they try to be aware of the different employment precarities of faculty members. She spoke to me as an individual professor, rather than as a representative of the organizing group. However, the group is an outlier in the larger conversation about striking grad students due to its active participation in solidarity actions. “When I entered the tenure-track market, the first thing that was said to me was, ‘be quiet, keep your head down’ by tenured faculty and junior faculty.” She said that “there is a story that circulates” about how faculty are supposed to behave if they want job security.
“Those within the academy with more stability have the responsibility to do things that other more vulnerable people don’t feel able to do.”
In addition to the messaging of not rocking the boat, Chua pointed to the way academia rewards individualism. Search committees at universities are looking for faculty members with published articles and experience chatting up other scholars on the conference circuit. Chua said there is, at times, a “mismatch between being a political, radical scholar and actually being a radical on the ground.” If this hesitancy to wade into campus politics continues even after receiving tenure, it may explain why some professors’ involvement is limited to a letter of support.
Camille Cole was a Ph.D student and member of Yale’s graduate union in 2017 when she participated in a hunger strike following the university’s refusal to recognize the union. Cole praised the faculty at Yale who came down to the picket line and signed a letter of support, calling it an “important step” in cross-positional solidarity. The hunger strike happened to take place after the semester’s end, so there was less institutional work to disrupt. The administration refused to recognize the students’ union, Local 33, and still does.
“Those within the academy with more stability have the responsibility to do things that other more vulnerable people don’t feel able to do,” Cole said. It is not as simple as tenured professors and everyone else, but when it comes to the most stable, there’s no question it is those with tenure.
Of course, the real problems are with university administrations, how outrageously expensive education has gotten, and an academic job market that no longer guarantees job security to Ph.Ds. Still, it is especially galling when self-styled radical professors train their students to engage in critiques of oppressive structures while failing to see, or care, what is happening all around them.