Who’s In Charge in Academia?

A couple of weeks ago, my institution, the University of Chicago, made a bit of news for a letter that Jay Ellison, the Dean of Students in the College, sent to incoming freshman. This letter informed students of UofC’s commitment to both “freedom of inquiry and expression” and civility. The more controversial part of the letter states, “Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”

Much of the discussion of this letter that I have seen has focused on the issues of trigger warnings and safe spaces. As a PhD candidate at UofC, I want to offer a somewhat different perspective, not because those issues are not important, but because I think it’s worthwhile to look at this letter within the context of UofC as an institution and what happens with teaching here. I also want to connect it to another communication, this one sent to graduate students by President Zimmer in the wake of the National Labor Relations Board’s ruling that graduate students at private institutions may unionize.

My basic point is this: Dean Ellison’s letter is not a distillation of actual pedagogical policy. That may seem like an odd thing to say since the quote above sounds exactly like that. However, the phrasing in relation to trigger warnings and safe spaces is tellingly negative and passive: “we do not support,” “we do not cancel,” and “we do not condone.” There is no substantive indication in the letter that the university would take steps from keeping any one of its constitutive members with the proper authority from doing any of those things. To do so would be to undermine the high degree of autonomy which even lowly graduate students like myself enjoy in academic activities.

I’ll offer two examples from my own experience. First, in 2014-15 I coordinated a workshop which involved inviting outside speakers to campus. While this fortunately never happened, had an attendee raised concerns about one of the scheduled speakers, then the decision to revoke our invitation would have been at my discretion. Second, last year I went through the university’s mandatory training for new graduate student teachers. At no time did I hear anything about an anti-trigger warning/safe space agenda. Nor did graduate student instructors receive this email from Dean Ellison. If Dean Ellison’s email constitutes official pedagogical policy, then UofC has curiously failed to even mention it to graduate student instructors, who would be the easiest population of teachers on campus to get to implement said policy.

So what was Dean Ellison’s letter really doing? And what does it have to do with graduate student unionization? In effect, the letter was not so much saying that students will never encounter trigger warnings or the like at UofC but that professors will do what they want when it comes to teaching and some portion of them do not want to use trigger warnings. This is not to say that the administration is not philosophically opposed to them, but that is of only secondary relevance compared to the almost inviolable sovereignty which tenured faculty in particular enjoy within the classroom.

This brings us, then, to President Zimmer’s email to graduate students, which in no uncertain terms conveys his hope that we will not ultimately decide to pursue unionization. His main argument was that the presence of a union would erode the sanctity of the adviser-advisee relationship. He writes:

Students follow their own unique paths at the University in coordination with their faculty advisors…Unionization by its very nature will mean that a labor union, which may be unfamiliar with what is involved in developing outstanding scholars, will come between students and faculty to make crucial decisions on behalf of students…Ceding the power to bargain over some or all of these decisions to a union, which by design focuses on the collective interests of members while they are in the union in the short-term, could make it more difficult for students to reach their individual educational goals.

President Zimmer is certainly correct in identifying a student’s relationship with his/her adviser as being of the utmost importance. Having a constructive relationship with one’s adviser may well be the most important key to success in graduate school. However, President Zimmer’s letter wrongly implies that the entirety of the graduate school experience should be worked out directly between advisers and their students. Or, given the asymmetrical power dynamic in this relationship, that professors should be able to dictate full terms to their graduate students.

If this were the case, then professors and students should directly negotiate issues like compensation for being a teaching or research assistant, the maximum number of hours that students should be able to work in such positions, the benefits (like health insurance and childcare subsidies) that should accrue to student employees, etc. In fact, these decisions – which are precisely the sorts of issues that a union would be most likely to include in collective bargaining – are not made by individual professors. Somehow, though, President Zimmer does not consider this to be a grave threat to adviser-advisee relationships.

I apologize for the cynical tone in this post. In fact, I feel positively about its core theme: on balance I think it is good for tenured faculty to wield considerable power within the academy. The erosion of this power through administrative expansion and the growing proportion of academic positions filled by scholars without the protections of tenure (or even basic economic security) is troubling. It makes me question the commitment of American society and government(s) to higher education and whether there will be a place for me and my peers after we graduate.

But acknowledging the value of affording faculty members considerable intellectual and pedagogical leeway can only be a first step in the conversation. Unfortunately, part of graduate school is hearing about a variety of ways in which professors use their positions of power in ways that are detrimental to colleagues. (I am immensely fortunate to have advisers who have really taken care of me.) We also need to address factors within academia that prevent more tenured positions from going to women and minorities (and the sad reality that some attempted remedies might deepen inequalities). It’s important to be open with students about instructors’ freedom in the classroom and not bury it beneath administrative-speak that only builds walls between students and teachers out of presuppositions. And graduate students need to be wary of discourse that deploys faculty-student relationships as an abstract and flimsy excuse to avoid substantive consideration of important issues like unionization.

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