The Jedi Master Fallacy and Others

by Henry on February 6, 2012

As a follow-up to my “last post”:https://crookedtimber.org/2012/02/03/jennifer-dibbern-and-michigan-student-unionization/, and the comments thread thereon, I thought it would be useful to provide a kind of summary of the various arguments that otherwise-leftwing-academics come up to in order to argue against graduate student unionization. Obviously, the hostility of right wing academics to unionization is easier to explain.

(1) The Jedi Master Fallacy. My very strong impression, which will no doubt be vigorously contested, is that most arguments against TA/RA unionization stem less from a coherent set of arguments, than a semi-inchoate sense that giving organizing rights to Jedi Apprentices will lead to a Great Disturbance in the Force. The obvious rejoinder to this is that professors are not Jedi Masters, and that there is nothing _inherent to the balance of the universe_ that is likely to change if grad students have the right to organize. The obvious counter-rejoinder to this is no, no! we have lots of truly excellent reasons, look see! Dealing with these truly excellent reasons, in no particular order …

(2) The True Life of the Mind. Academics are devoted to the true pursuit of knowledge, and gain immaterial benefits therefrom. This may be disturbed by the intrusion of grubby material considerations such as ‘money’ and ‘working conditions’ into relationships that should surely be subordinated to purely intellectual concerns. There surely is something to the claim that academics, including TAs and RAs, get some benefits from pursuing knowledge – that is why many, perhaps most, of us are in it. But, for most of us well established professors, it is rather easier to pursue this life since we are doing so from a position of relative comfort and stability. Few professors e.g. would be willing to endure genuine material privations to pursue knowledge for its own sake (there are a few virtuosos and saints no doubt, but hardly enough to make the system work). And the numbers of professors who care more about salary raises and parking spaces than disinterested intellectual inquiry is rather higher than one might like. In short – I don’t think that professors can reasonably demand ideals from TAs/RAs that they themselves would have great trouble living up to.

(3) The Laboratory Leviathan. Here, the presumed claim is that the kinds of intense collaborative environments that characterize e.g. research labs require good working relationships if they are to work. This is best provided by allowing the principal investigator effective _carte blanche_ – so that when someone pisses the PA off, they need to leave, if necessary with forcible encouragement, lest they poison this precious relationship. This set of claims is recognizably a version of Hobbes’ argument for absolutist rule in _Leviathan._ And it is subject to all the problems thereof. Most simply, it ends up being a pretty nice deal for the absolutist ruler, but not so much for his or her subjects (there is some incentive for the ruler to look to the interests of the ruled, but not very much). More generally, the literature on trust and collaboration, as I read it (I am a “participant in these debates”:http://www.henryfarrell.net/distrust.pdf, and hence not disinterested) would seem to me to suggest that collaboration works better in a system where hierarchical subordinates do not live in fear of being canned summarily if they do something to annoy the boss. Protections against this certainly may be a nuisance for the boss, but the argument that they are likely to undermine collaboration seems to me a weak one.

(4) We Are Obliged to Screw You by the Forces of Ruthless Competition. A variant of (3) which emphasizes the competitive nature of the research environment, scrabbling for grants etc, and how this limits the choices available to PAs, forcing them to require 80 hour workweeks and such. You can make this argument – but if you want to make it, it is equally, if not more true for companies in the private sector, which typically face even harsher competitive pressures. If you seriously think that this is a viable claim, you have to either come up with an account of how research labs face _even tougher competition_ than small private sector firms, or line up with the US Chamber of Commerce hacks. Which will then oblige you to come up with a compelling account of how respecting workers’ rights invariably hurts quality etc, which (in my, again doubtless subjective opinion), is a quite tall order, especially given that lots of labs (just like lots of firms) seem to thrive quite nicely in countries where they are obliged to recognize rights.

(5) Cos We Are Too Jedi Masters! Or, at Least, We Are Masters with Apprentices, Who Should Be Humble So That They Can Learn from Our Tutelage By Working. This is, to be blunt, an ideological confection. The idea that guilds used to do right by their apprentices in the good old days is, as best as I can tell from a reading of the history, fiction. Abuses of apprentices, and indeed journeymen were rife in history. The nub of truth in this argument is that students can learn by doing, and later put those skills to good use. But workers learn by doing in pretty well any workplace you can mention. Again – it seems to me to be hard to make a good argument that academic labs are somehow unique in this respect.

(6) Will No-One Think of the Students? Usually applied to TAs rather than RAs, and used to suggest that the victims of graduate student organization efforts will be the unfortunate students taking courses. Seen in its most fully-fledged form in the last outbreak of this debate on CT, where David Velleman proposed that the appropriate solution was to “terminate all the brutes”:https://crookedtimber.org/2005/12/08/ny-grad-students/#comment-127861. Again, rather difficult for any leftist to maintain without giving up on organizing rights wholesale, since labor action in any sector usually ends up inconveniencing customers/clients/end users.

I imagine that some commenters will disagree with these characterizations of the relevant arguments, or come up with new ones. But I can’t for the life of me see how one could be generally on the left and in favor of organizing rights, without extending that set of principles to the academy. The justifications that I’ve seen for drawing distinctions, arguing that the academy is Truly Special are pretty remarkably underwhelming, and seem to me to be a variety of forms of special pleading on behalf of a case that isn’t actually that special. This isn’t necessarily to doubt the sincerity of those doing the pleading – it’s easy to believe in the worth of social arrangements that you are used to and that (perhaps in some cases) benefit you – but belief on its own does not make people’s arguments good or convincing.

{ 154 comments }

1

Marc 02.06.12 at 7:09 pm

Put bluntly, it appears that people like you are not willing to accept that there are any legitimate arguments against unions under any circumstances.

You might as well just say so, as opposed to cobbling together a series of sneering insults at people who disagree with you. If this is supposed to persuade people like me, rest assured that it won’t. If it’s supposed to get us into a dialog you also won’t succeed. I don’t voluntarily talk with people who are calling me names.

I hope you have fun in this little five-minute hate exercise though. I guess everyone needs a hobby.

2

Steve LaBonne 02.06.12 at 7:18 pm

Put bluntly, it appears that people like you are not willing to accept that there are any legitimate arguments against unions under any circumstances.

Put bluntly, you don’t know (or pretend not to know) the difference between “arguments”and “GOOD arguments”.

Try making one of the latter kind. The ones on Henry’s list are transparently self-serving bullshit.

3

chris y 02.06.12 at 7:22 pm

Marc, Henry’s post specifies “otherwise left-leaning” academics. There may be any number of legitimate arguments against unions, but they are not arguments from the left. Any conventional definition of “left-leaning” includes supporting the right of workers to organise in their collective self interest.

4

Sebastian 02.06.12 at 7:22 pm

I’m not particularly pro-union to be honest, though they can certainly be important in some situations.

#4 is especially hilarious (and I think the most common argument at the moment). The average private lab, especially the mid-range ones are *much better* for the mid level employee than the average university lab is to its grad students. You get better work conditions on average, better pay for certain, and fewer lies about the structure of the system. [I have no doubt that the university system is as good or better for the top researcher or handful of researchers at each institution, as they essentially have fiefdoms and additionally can often gain returns from the private sector, but we’re talking about the middle level/grad student comparison].

Strangely, in many of the STEM cases, the reason universities are worse is precisely because of the lack of competitive pressures. The students exist in a situation akin to an incredibly loose labor market–they know you can’t leave with far more certainty than an employer suspects/hopes his employees can’t leave.

5

Barry 02.06.12 at 7:23 pm

Marc, I thought that you were out of here.

6

StevenAttewell 02.06.12 at 7:24 pm

“Ten degrees to the left of center in good times, ten degrees to the right of center if it affects them personally…love me, love me, love me, I’m a [professor].”

I think we can’t underestimate the personal convenience factor.

7

PTA 02.06.12 at 7:27 pm

As an “otherwise-leftwing-academic” allow me to offer the following fable:

Working conditions for graduate students at Big State University varied dramatically by department. The Department of Coffee Studies paid their TAs well, and did not admit graduate students for whom there was no funding. The Department of Coffee also hired undergraduate students to grade papers in remedial courses, freeing up the graduate TAs to spend their time on instruction, more interesting grading, and advanced latte-making.

The Department of Cookies, on the other hand was a terrible place – they admitted many more students than could be funded, paid miserly wages, and only supported students during prime-numbered years.

The President-in-Chief of the grad student union decided that a simple solution was in order: File a grievance against the Coffee department for hiring undergraduates, allowing Cookie students to have those jobs instead. Brilliant!

The Coffee students protested, asking their “representative” to stand aside, but it was to no avail. Plusalso, think of the poor cookie students!

Such a grievance was indeed filed, and the arbitrator found for the union – great news! Except, as it turns out, there are no Cookie graduate students with the necessary qualifications for grading Coffee papers. The result: No new jobs for graduate students, and no relief from grading remedial papers for the Coffee students.

(In fact, it’s worse – students taking remedial Coffee courses must now submit their work directly to the web-oodle, to be graded by squirrels turning cranks inside the internets machine.)

Moral: What’s good for the cookie is not necessarily good for the coffee.

8

nvalvo 02.06.12 at 7:40 pm

But Marc, it likewise appears — “put bluntly” — that you’re not willing to hazard any. You’re unwilling to risk arguments in favor of your position in favor of depriving others of job security and health insurance over fears of name-calling? Please.

I’m a graduate student at the University of California, Davis. We have been unionized for about 25 years now, so it’s the only world I know, grad-school-wise. I can only speak anecdotally, but unionization simply has not destroyed the Professor-Grad Student relationship. Nor has it achieved an Ideal Speech Situation or whatever — I’m no utopian. There were difficulties and misunderstandings (and occasional abuse) before, and there still are. But now, by making rights and obligations subject to negotiation, unionization has cleared up what everybody owes everybody else, so these things don’t have to be re-litigated all the time. This is *good* for professional relationships, at least in my eyes.

Plus: did I mention health insurance?

9

Baroness Thatcher, LG, OM, PC, FRS 02.06.12 at 7:47 pm

So long as one of us, somewhere is covered by a collective-bargaining agreement, how can any of us, anywhere, truly consider ourselves free?

10

SamChevre 02.06.12 at 7:47 pm

I’m not “otherwise left-leaning”; I will take that as obvious to everyone.

That said, I do wonder if whether unionization addresses the major problem.

The major problem, as I see it, is the lack of good jobs for students with a PhD. It’s not that RA’s are treated worse than medical residents, it’s that RA’s aren’t assured a professional job at the end of the process and medical residents are. This has always been a problem with apprenticeship systems, and it’s one of the ways in which apprentices have historically been exploited–but I’m not certain that bettering the conditions of apprenticeship helps that much. (And I’m assuming that no plausible union structure will ensure tenure-track job offers for all graduates.)

11

Henry 02.06.12 at 7:54 pm

bq. Put bluntly, it appears that people like you are not willing to accept that there are any legitimate arguments against unions under any circumstances. You might as well just say so, as opposed to cobbling together a series of sneering insults at people who disagree with you. If this is supposed to persuade people like me, rest assured that it won’t. If it’s supposed to get us into a dialog you also won’t succeed. I don’t voluntarily talk with people who are calling me names.

For what consolation it is, feel assured that this was not meant to persuade you of anything – I rather suspect that you would have been unpersuadable, even if I had treated your arguments with the Extreme Seriousness which you evidently felt they deserved. But as some general life advice, as you continue to pursue reasoned arguments on the internets – it is rather a bad idea to keep on throwing hissy fits and claiming that people are calling you names, when they are not. When someone says that your argument on _x_ is bollocks, they are not calling you names or saying that you are a worthless excuse for a human being. They are saying that your argument on _x_ is bollocks. The difference is significant – and discerning it is helpful in avoiding all sorts of unfortunate contretemps.

12

L2P 02.06.12 at 8:01 pm

“Put bluntly, it appears that people like you are not willing to accept that there are any legitimate arguments against unions under any circumstances.”

Ah, don’t leave us hanging. Tell! Tell us these legitimate arguments! There must be lots of great reasons people should be prohibited from banding together to jointly negotiate for better wages and working conditions when they lack bargaining power as individuals.

13

Alex 02.06.12 at 8:04 pm

Put bluntly, it appears that people like you are not willing to accept that there are any legitimate arguments against unions under any circumstances.

I can’t speak for Henry, but it does strike me that there are no arguments against people associating voluntarily to have their interests represented that are not also arguments against democracy itself.

14

Anderson 02.06.12 at 8:20 pm

In short – I don’t think that professors can reasonably demand ideals from TAs/RAs that they themselves would have great trouble living up to.

I’ve been out of the academy for a while, but I would bet that a lot of profs opposed to TA unions think that they *did* live up to those ideals … back when they were TAs themselves. If they didn’t need unions back in the day, why do the kids need them now? “Hey, you gotta pay your dues / Before you pay the rent.”

If my guess is correct, then empirical arguments showing that conditions are relatively worse for TAs today than 20 or 30 years ago might be helpful. Just a thought.

15

Meredith 02.06.12 at 8:23 pm

I’m glad I don’t work for or with Marc. (At least, I don’t think I do.)

I think Henry pretty much nails it here and am grateful for the shrewd summary.

The problem SamChevre raises is worth pursuing (and came up in the previous unionization discussion). After unionization, after fairer working conditions for RA’s (and/or TA’s) and a healthier workplace for all, then what? A larger problem of debts and jobs remains (or lack of jobs, or having one’s choice of jobs dictated by the size of one’s debt). Those of us who are tenured professors or secure PI’s (some PI’s seem to be professors, others just somehow affiliated with universities) have a responsibility to our students, and to our “profession,” to take that problem very seriously.

16

Marc 02.06.12 at 8:34 pm

@5: Out of that thread, not out of this forum. Yet, anyhow.

The most basic arguments against graduate student unions are that they don’t address the actual problems that students face in some fields, that there is a tension between the “student” aspect and union rules, and that students in different academic disciplines and departments have very different needs.

A department like mine (small, high academic standing, sciences) can afford to provide benefits that larger departments can’t. For a concrete example, we provide the equivalent of dedicated travel funds for students to attend scientific meetings in addition to stipends. I’m certain that this wouldn’t be part of a university-wide contract. We emphasize some things (like research) much more heavily than others (coursework.) Individual counseling has a lot more to do with people leaving the program than qualifying exams do, and students who leave our program almost always do so in the first two years. Job prospects depend on letters of recommendation.

There are other dimensions than “student vs. professor”. Large public universities in the US can have 10,000 graduate students. A typical program in my field may have 25 students, and there are ~200 PhD graduates a year. We routinely struggle for autonomy relative to other, larger fields.

There are also other solutions to genuine exploitation issues besides unions. Universities (and disciplines) can look at how graduates do in employment, time to degree, working conditions, and so on. In smaller disciplines such as mine, these informal networks can be extremely valuable in steering students towards departments that treat students well and away from those which don’t.

In short, you lose a lot when you turn this into a purity test for being a real (TM) leftist (which in these parts is a synonym for “good person”) and don’t bother to drill down to the actual things that people are thinking.

17

Tom Bach 02.06.12 at 8:34 pm

Sam C.:
A decent union could try and pressure administrations to stop using adjuncts and other ad hoc faculty. Right now, over 2/3s of faculty are adjuncts and its a life most sucky. (http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2012/02/01/essay-summit-adjunct-leaders). What needs to happen is a comprehensive attempt to improve tas, ras, and etca pay and conditions of work while ending the neoliberal attempt to drive down labor costs while improving the lot of administrators.

18

Ben Alpers 02.06.12 at 8:35 pm

I find it even more puzzling that most faculty–even most left-leaning faculty–seem to be opposed to faculty unions, too.

19

T. Paine 02.06.12 at 8:50 pm

There are also other solutions to genuine exploitation issues besides unions. Universities (and disciplines) can look at how graduates do in employment, time to degree, working conditions, and so on. In smaller disciplines such as mine, these informal networks can be extremely valuable in steering students towards departments that treat students well and away from those which don’t.

These aren’t really solutions though. You acknowledge that students are treated poorly, and your fix is informal networks to help potential victims-I mean, students-avoid them. That sounds like a horrible situation for students who can’t take advantage of those informal networks, or are otherwise unable to avoid departments that don’t treat their students well. Also, what incentive do universities have to police this stuff right now (one of your other “solutions”)? Obviously not enough, since these problems of lack of due process, exploitative working conditions, and lack of benefits keep coming up, and the universities in question not only don’t work to fix the problems, but actively perpetuate them. These aren’t serious arguments, they’re more useless hand waving (ably dealt with by the original post).

20

Marc 02.06.12 at 8:50 pm

@15: I actually feel sorry for you. I’m capable of imagining that people can be decent and still disagree with me. You don’t know a single thing about who I am, how I interact with students, or what it would be like to work together.

Our department has a student to faculty ratio close to 1:1; it’s small; and our students do well in standard metrics. We take graduate education deadly seriously here – it’s the main focus of our department, to be honest. We could support more students than we can mentor or get jobs for. The last three graduate students that I worked with have faculty positions (within 3-6 years after PhD). I don’t factor politics into how I deal with students, I don’t take many students on at one time (typically one, no more than three at one time ever), and I work hard to help them go into whatever direction that they want to go. This is a subject that I take great personal interest in.

But if you want to paint devil horns on me, go for it. I won’t reciprocate.

21

christian_h 02.06.12 at 8:53 pm

marc (16.): this would be an argument if you could offer proof that departments in unionized universities – like mine (UCLA) can NOT offer their graduate students more than the contract allows. Rest assured we can, and do.

PTA (7.); this is not an argument against unionization. It is, however, an argument against bad union work. Unfortunately this can, in my experience, be a problem especially with unions who rely on full time officers who are not academics (and will then object, say, to a postdoc taking a year’s leave to visit a major research institute). The solution is (and was in that case) usually reasoned argument with the union. Not union-busting.

Generally my experience with, say, department heads from certain private schools who don’t want unions are that their real concern is that they won’t be able to force people to work for free anymore.

22

StevenAttewell 02.06.12 at 8:53 pm

PTA – unions, being human institutions, are not immune to stupid people. However, speaking as a longtime grad student union grievance-handler, I have to say, that’s really far from best or common practice. In my union, for example, those undergraduate students would be union members – so the idea of trying to get them fired would be verboten. And our first and only move would be organizing the cookie department to improve conditions.

SamChevre at 10 – “for all graduates” is tricky. But to follow Camus’ logic, there are union structures that can increase the ratio of tenure-track job offers for graduates. One long-term strategy is to shrink the cost differential between grad student labor and professorial labor (and then repeating for adjunct unions and post-doc unions) to decrease the incentives that are leading to a casualization of academia. Another is to build graduate student power within academia and within the political system to address the academic labor market – the state universities are a huge chunk of the market, and most regents have to pass through state legislatures, so there are mechanisms out there to exercise democratic power on the university, albeit from a degree of separation.

Anderson – you’d think so, but as I said in the other thread, there’s a big difference between their abstract knowledge and their emotional/instinctive mental framework, and a tendency not to integrate the former into the latter when making decisions, especially when many other factors (budgetary pressure, one’s own comfort, etc.) weigh on one side of the scales. That’s one of the reasons why unions are helpful; by transforming these situations from one in which supervisors have virtually unlimited authority within the scope of university rules and the law into one in which supervisors have to deal with countervailing power (i.e, unions), it hopefully will make them more aware of their privilege in a day-to-day context.

Marc – as a science and engineering type, surely you know the maxim that the plural of anecdote is not data. You clearly had a bad experience in your department, but your department is not all departments.

As for your most basic arguments:
1. at the worst, unions provide students with a uniquely independent and powerful vehicle for addressing those problems.
2. there’s actually less tension than you assume, and a lot of that tension actually hides power differentials.
3. that’s why we have the grievance process, which begins at informal negotiations at the departmental level, so that grievance-handlers (preferably from within the department) can work out those specific issues from within the department. But from my six years of doing grievance work across a university, there’s less of this than you might think.

Regarding your department – a union contract is a floor, not a ceiling. Nothing stops departments from offering “dedicated travel funds for students to attend scientific meetings in addition to stipends” under a union contract; my department gives us travel funds to go to archives, and we’ve been unionized for over a decade.

“There are also other solutions to genuine exploitation issues besides unions. Universities (and disciplines) can look at how graduates do in employment, time to degree, working conditions, and so on. In smaller disciplines such as mine, these informal networks can be extremely valuable in steering students towards departments that treat students well and away from those which don’t.” These informal networks are all institutions in which graduate students have no power; the great thing about unions is they allow workers to have power in dealing with their own exploitation, instead of having to rely on the beneficence of the people above them.

23

Linnaeus 02.06.12 at 8:54 pm

Marc @16

The most basic arguments against graduate student unions are that they don’t address the actual problems that students face in some fields, that there is a tension between the “student” aspect and union rules, and that students in different academic disciplines and departments have very different needs.

Sure, there are challenges and there are different needs in different departments, although some issues (such as wages and health insurance) are serious concerns across disciplinary boundaries. The point that I’ve tried to make with respect to this argument is that these challenges aren’t insurmountable and the collective bargaining process doesn’t inherently prevent these challenges from being met.

For a concrete example, we provide the equivalent of dedicated travel funds for students to attend scientific meetings in addition to stipends. I’m certain that this wouldn’t be part of a university-wide contract.

Our contract does stipulate that travel expenses required for employment be reimbursed by the university. And departments aren’t prohibited from providing their own travel funds for students to go conferences and meetings.

There are also other solutions to genuine exploitation issues besides unions. Universities (and disciplines) can look at how graduates do in employment, time to degree, working conditions, and so on. In smaller disciplines such as mine, these informal networks can be extremely valuable in steering students towards departments that treat students well and away from those which don’t.

Informal networks can indeed be valuable, but they’re of limited help with system-wide issues that affect ASEs across disciplines. The cuts to ASE wages and health benefits that my university proposed last year, for example, would have applied to every ASE.

24

Eli Rabett 02.06.12 at 9:02 pm

Eli takes it that Henry has always personally provided all of his graduate students full tuition and a munificent stipend sufficient for the east side of Manhattan, ensured that they were never stressed and that they spent no more than three years to reach the doctorate. Oh yes, he has personally guaranteed their mortgages.

Further, it is well known that Henry insists that every member of his department and university do the same and has pledged to resign if not.

25

Eli Rabett 02.06.12 at 9:12 pm

Ben, (#18) FWIW, Eli was strongly for a faculty union until he noticed the people who were leading the charge

26

Barry 02.06.12 at 9:30 pm

Eli, since you’ve clearly run out of arguments, I’d like to point out that the door is right over there.

27

Eli Rabett 02.06.12 at 9:30 pm

Oh no, just thought Henry could use some more strawmen.

28

Marc 02.06.12 at 9:38 pm

@23: I agree with you on the subject of health benefits and the like; students do benefit. But for programs like mine there are real costs. Collective bargaining centralizes decisions. If you’re part of a large, cumbersome university this can be a problem. It doesn’t *have* to cause problems, but it definitely can cause problems.

Basically, any graduate student union at my university would be negotiating for average student conditions worse than what the students in my department currently have. The only outcomes of a successful unionization drive would be less autonomy for our department and more paperwork.

@19: I understand the objections to informal networks. For small programs sprinkled in universities across the country, however, I don’t think there is any viable alternative. What constitutes an “abuse” is the sort of thing that’s incredibly hard to police, especially locally. A “long time to degree” in some fields is short for others; the only meaningful comparisons are within a given discipline.

Basically, a useful union would be organized by academic field, not by university, and I can’t see a good structural way to make that happen.

29

StevenAttewell 02.06.12 at 9:44 pm

Marc, unions can and do have department stewards for these issues, and grievances always begin at a departmental level.

30

nvalvo 02.06.12 at 9:54 pm

Good response, Marc (@16).

My department also has had some funds available for graduate students in areas like travel, although these are not in our contract. These have waxed and waned with the state of the University budget, mind you, but they are there. My point: such things are not incompatible with unionization.

And yes, advising is important for innumerable reasons, no question, but so are things like maternity leave and childcare reimbursements — things that UC graduate students have now, albeit in inadequate amounts, and would certainly not have if we had not bargained for them collectively.

31

nvalvo 02.06.12 at 9:57 pm

Oh, and Marc: I should add that none of us doubt that unionization has costs and downsides. I’m not arguing that it is perfect, or an improvement in every respect. I am arguing that the good outweighs the bad.

32

christian_h 02.06.12 at 10:07 pm

Here’s the precise arguments I once got from chairmen A (big private school in NYC) and B (small private school in Texas).

Chairman A: the lecturers unionized and now we can’t – as we used to – make them teach 75 min per class hour. It’s an outrage! (This falls under Henry’s 6, I believe.)

Chairman B: nobody unionizes in Texas, thank god. All that bureaucracy to deal with would just be too much hassle.

33

Marc 02.06.12 at 10:31 pm

@30: I’m sure that students in some departments would benefit. What’s remarkable in academe is how utterly different the various disciplines actually are. If you construct a question like “why would anyone oppose graduate student unions?”, for example, these differences become very relevant.

Faculty unions would face the same issues: the pay scales and teaching duties are totally different in different departments. I’m expected to get a lot of grant money and teach two courses a year. A history professor in my university might have to teach five courses per year, would make a substantially lower salary on average, and a grant would be a bonus. What would a union contract that helped both of us look like?

You may notice that the original post didn’t address “loss of local control”, or “all we would get out of a union is an extra layer of pain-in-the-ass bureaucracy”, or ‘student experiences are radically different in different departments’.

You know, the actual reasons why leftist professors might object to a union in good faith. As opposed to the made-up objections in the original post.

34

StevenAttewell 02.06.12 at 10:32 pm

christian_h – and the amazing thing is how often it’s the union that’s arguing for quality of education and the department arguing for cutting corners so that you stick within your hours no matter how many students per TA they assign.

35

StevenAttewell 02.06.12 at 10:37 pm

Marc –
“loss of local control” – for local, read management control. Yes, unions establish a workplace constitutionalism. And that’s good for graduate students who don’t have access to tenure or academic freedom regulations.

“all we would get out of a union is an extra layer of pain-in-the-ass bureaucracy” – for bureaucracy, read graduate student activists who volunteer to defend the rights of their peers. And the union isn’t for “we” the professors.

‘student experiences are radically different in different departments’. – this has been repeatedly addressed to now acknowledgement.

36

StevenAttewell 02.06.12 at 10:37 pm

* no.

37

Salient 02.06.12 at 10:48 pm

I appreciated having the chance to read Marc’s comments #16, #28, but to sort of pile on a little, they seem to me to be arguments that one particular body of grad students would not benefit from (and let’s say might be adversely affected by) unionization, not arguments that grad students should be disallowed from acting as a collective and forming a union. If someone is arguing for a right to unionize, an argument that those people or some subset of them would not benefit from actually unionizing is not a rejoinder. It’s… a legit category of statement to make and offer support for, it’s just not a counterpoint rejoinder. We have all kinds of rights that are worth defending that we wouldn’t ever benefit from exercising, and plenty more whose benefit is highly circumstantial.

I can understand witnessing firsthand a stark example of counterproductive unionization and generalizing from that, and did like having my passive ‘but who wouldn’t benefit from the protection of collective solidarity’ background default setting checked and pushed around a little, so hey, thanks for that.

38

mdc 02.06.12 at 10:54 pm

I hadn’t seen that Velleman thread before. I’m gratified in a resentful way to see that such a sloppy, ahistorical interpreter of Kant is also such a high-handed company man.

39

Linnaeus 02.06.12 at 11:12 pm

@28:

But for programs like mine there are real costs. Collective bargaining centralizes decisions.

I don’t know what it’s like at your university, but I can say that at mine, many of the key conditions of academic student employment were already being centrally determined prior to our unionization. The base pay rate for TAs and RAs, for example, was set by the university. ASEs in some departments earn an additional percentage beyond the base rate. What changed with unionization is that ASEs could now collectively bargain over the wage scale, instead of having the university be the sole determiner of what it should be. So the folks in say, chemistry (who do earn above the base rate) aren’t brought down to my level (or the level I would have if I still worked as a TA or RA). Their pay goes up along with the base rate.

Our health insurance is also centrally determined. Prior to unionization, the university could unilaterally cut health insurance (as an aside, the fact that ASEs had health insurance at all was due to students organizing for it about 15 or so years ago) and in one particularly egregious case, did cut it without telling ASEs, which resulted in some nasty surprise medical bills for at least a few students. And these cuts applied to students in all departments. Now, the university has to negotiate with us.

And Salient brings up a good point. The incident that inspired the original discussion centers around the fact that U-M’s administration (with support from the faculty senate) maintains that RAs shouldn’t even have the choice of whether to unionize.

40

Henry 02.06.12 at 11:18 pm

bq. You know, the actual reasons why leftist professors might object to a union in good faith. As opposed to the made-up objections in the original post.

If it’s not horrid name-calling of the sort that will cause you to huff off again, I’ll observe more than one of these “made-up objections” was based on actual not-so-made-up objections that you, yourself had made. Feel free to ask me for illustrative quotations if you’ve forgotten what you said over the intervening 48 hours. I’ll also point out that the objections you make in this thread, while reasonable, also apply to nearly any large scale organization effort that one might care to mention. ‘What should we take as the appropriate bargaining unit’ is not a question unique to the university setting. In other words, they are possible arguments against union organization _in general,_ bringing us back to the question of whether the ‘I am a leftwing and pro-union academic, just as long as organizers leave the academy alone’ position is one with good intellectual foundations.

And finally, if you are correct in your suggestion that unionization will actually turn out to be a shitty deal for the RAs/TAs themselves, do you not think that you can trust them to figure this out for themselves, and figure out whether to organize without being intimidated? Or do the poor dears need the threat of being fired hanging over their heads for their own good, to remind them of the great deal that they have? This is a rather direct and harsh way of posing the question, but since you (and Eli) appear to have moved in the last thread from a position of ‘she got fired because she wasn’t competent’ to one of ‘she got fired because she was a disruptive pro-union person who disagreed with the PA, and what’s wrong with that?,’ it seems appropriate.

Eli – I’m always grateful when someone constructs and advocates straw man arguments for me to attack, so I don’t have to go to the bother meself, but really, you shouldn’t have – you already gave me _quite enough_ in the previous thread to last me for a while.

41

Marc 02.06.12 at 11:18 pm

@35: Let’s see. In one model the graduate student experience is set by a collective of thousands of people in other disciplines. In the other it’s set by professors in their field. It’s pretty easy to come up with cases where this is unconditionally worse for the students.

Bureaucracy can protect the rights of students. If the conditions for the students are already good, however, you’re protecting against nonexistent threats. And you’re injecting people outside the field who can create problems where they don’t exist.

I’m not claiming that unions are always a bad thing, just that there are clearly circumstances where graduate student unions can be a net negative. Union support is weak in the sciences and strong in the humanities for a reason.

42

ascholl 02.06.12 at 11:22 pm

I’m not an academic, and I would support graduate student unionization in principal, though without being informed enough to take any sort of firm stance. But if I were going to guess at a reason why unionization might be thought not be super necessary or useful, I’d imagine that it would have a lot to do with the expectation that members would be pretty temporary — being a TA isn’t a long term position like school teacher or factory worker often are, and a lot of the value a union offers is providing protection for members who are stuck one position for a long time and thus don’t have much negotiating power individually. My opinion or understanding of the situation doesn’t much matter, and I’m probably hopelessly uninformed, but I’m surprised that none of the hypothetical bad arguments presented touch on the prospective union members’ (relatively) short tenure.

43

Henry 02.06.12 at 11:28 pm

bq. I’m not claiming that unions are always a bad thing, just that there are clearly circumstances where graduate student unions can be a net negative. Union support is weak in the sciences and strong in the humanities for a reason.

Fair enough. But again – that is a question of appropriate bargaining units. The question in the last thread concerned whether or not a professor had _fired_ a RA because she had discovered that the RA was a union organizer. You and others initially suggested in various ways that the RA had been fired because she probably wasn’t much good. As more evidence emerged to suggest that the timing was rather remarkable if that were true, you modified your arguments in ways that continued to suggest that the firing was justifiable, because of the various ills that unionization could inflict. If you are prepared to accept that students should be allowed to make the decision over whether to organize, without any direct or indirect intimidation from faculty, I imagine that this would be constructive. If you think that professors are better judges of the interests of graduate students than those graduate students themselves, at whatever reasonable bargaining unit might be agreed upon (whether the university as a whole, or the humanities, or the sciences), then the problem (from my point of view) continues.

44

GSRA 02.06.12 at 11:38 pm

What I would really love to see is someone of the pro-graduate-unions persuasion make some solid arguments against GSRA unionization, purely as an exercise in intellectualism and open-mindedness. It seems unreasonable to assume that ALL anti-union individuals (or even all left-wing anti-graduate-union individuals) are utterly misguided and have no idea what is good for them and/or their students.

45

Marc 02.06.12 at 11:40 pm

@40: I can’t recognize my own arguments in what you say. I *never* intended to advocate that “she got fired because she was a disruptive pro-union person who disagreed with the PA, and what’s wrong with that?”

Never. Didn’t say it, didn’t imply it, nothing. You’re making up completely false statements about what I think.

46

Metatone 02.07.12 at 12:04 am

Science grad students are slowly realising that they need unions because an increasing number of professors are stealing their work and not giving credit.

It’s slow going because a lot of science grad students are easily influenced by their professors, who don’t always have the best interests of the student at heart.

47

StevenAttewell 02.07.12 at 12:17 am

Marc – in one model, the graduate student experience is set by a collective of graduate students, which includes thousands of people in the same and similar disciplines as well. It’s also a process in which the S&E graduate students have multiple venues for exercising their voice: they can vote to elect stewards, head stewards, recording secretaries, unit chairs, and statewide officers; they can fill out bargaining surveys; they can vote on the initial proposal; they can vote on the negotiated contract; and they can use the contract within their department.

In the other, it’s set by professors in their field in a process in which they have no venue to exercise their voice.

“If the conditions for the students are already good, however, you’re protecting against nonexistent threats. And you’re injecting people outside the field who can create problems where they don’t exist.” There are two problems with this statement: first, if conditions are good, then union contracts act as a floor to prevent them from getting worse and a spur for departments to raise their packages to compete. Second, “injecting people outside the field” is anti-union propaganda with no basis in reality. Union grievance handlers are graduate students, including S&E graduate students, who act when a grievance is brought to them by members in the department – we can’t and don’t act without their department.

48

Jacob T. Levy 02.07.12 at 12:29 am

It seems to me that Henry’s (5) isn’t a particularly reasonable way of expressing:

“Research assistanceships vary tremendously in kind, but in many cases are very closely entangled with the student’s own dissertation research. The allocation of responsibilities between RA work for which a student is paid as an employee and research toward the degree for which the student could, in principle, be charged tuition is legitimately very fuzzy. This has two consequences. One is that a collective-bargaining unit will represent students with two very different sorts of employment– those for whom the work is entangled with their own research and those for whom it is not. This is likely to serve one of the groups poorly. The second is that unionization, by organizationally emphasizing the employment frame over the educational frame for work that mixes the two, may bureaucratize the educational relationship in disruptive ways.”

I don’t have strong views on this, and I’m not in Henry’s target audience. But I think it’s unreasonable to gloss the anti-unionization arguments without ever mentioning the word “degree,” or acknowledging the *formally* complicated and hybrid status of the student-RA doing work that is partly-dissertation, partly-assistance. “People learn on the job in all kinds of jobs” isn’t really responsive to that.

Question for those at universities with well-functioning RA unions: in case of strike, are such hybrid researchers allowed to continue showing up to the lab and working on their own dissertations? Or is that illegal strike-breaking? (*Not* a rhetorical or sarcastic question– I genuinely don’t see what the outcome would be, having witnessed less-complicated-but-still-very-messy problems of when a person is a student and when an employee.)

49

Tiny Tim 02.07.12 at 12:32 am

When I was a grad student I opposed the efforts to unionize. Given my current evolved feelings I’d probably support based on ideology and solidarity alone, but I still had good, if selfish, reasons for opposing the unionization. Basically the people pushing for the union were doing so in order to correct some probably mostly valid grievances related to the particular circumstances of their departments/disciplines, but they really had made no effort to reach out to people in other departments to see if there were perhaps common grievances could be addressed, and I could reasonably see how achieving their goals could make my life worse.

Anyway, my point is the grad student experience is not monolithic and while I do think most of the opposition reasons coming from the faculty/administration side are dumb, wannabe union organizers need to have a more universal positive reason for supporting unionization. My anecdata is based on personal experience as a grad student and then again as a faculty member at an institution where some students were trying to organize.

50

djw 02.07.12 at 12:34 am

Marc, as Linnaeus (and I, at LGM) have pointed out repeatedly, it’s not only possible for graduate student employee unions to negotiate contracts that don’t interfere with some department’s ability to provide surplus benefits to their students, there are recent, significant empirical examples of such cases. I’m familiar most with Washington, where the concern you raise was a major concern in many of the Sciences. Once the union was formed, we elected a bargaining committee. They knew that a) solidarity across departments was important, and b) no one in English wanted to screw the bioengineering students out of their extra stipend and travel money in any case, anyway. So: we negotiated a contract that focused on a floor, and didn’t attempt to level down departments where students had particularly good deals. I understand this arrangement to be similar to other unionized universities, including the UC system.

I won’t accuse you of arguing in bad faith, but the longer you simply ignore evidence that fails to conform to your anti-empirical yet strangely unshakable views of What Unions Really Do, the harder it’ll be to come up with plausible alternative explanations for what you’re up to here.

51

zrichellez 02.07.12 at 1:01 am

I was an RA and TA in Grad school and can’t imagine why I would have needed to unionize unless we were going to get cookies and ponies. If you need to be protected you might not be very good at what you do and there are consequences to that. Welcome to the real world.

52

StevenAttewell 02.07.12 at 1:20 am

I was an RA and TA in Grad school and can’t imagine why I would have needed to unionize unless we were going to get cookies and ponies. If you need to be protected you might not be very good at what you do and there are consequences to that. Welcome to the real world.

I feel like printing this out and having it framed so I can hang it in my gallery of Shockingly Ill-Informed Statements.

Honestly, there’s a thread below where a worker got fired because her PI didn’t like her outside activities. Prior to unionization at the U.C, a post-doc was almost fired because she was pregnant and the university didn’t want to pay her maternity leave. (http://republicans.edlabor.house.gov/UploadedFiles/4.30.10_tyler.pdf)

The real world is full of injustice against which merit is no aegis.

53

Henry 02.07.12 at 1:27 am

Marc – fair enough – I withdraw that. Eli Rabett claimed it on your joint behalf.

bq. Yes, Goldman is an anti-union hard ass, but what is the solution here for Dibbern – to go back to Goldman’s lab? To continue in the same department? The usual is to find another adviser. If this is in the same department, well, you know how friendly departmental politics is, taking students that have left another group does not improve the atmosphere. Marc is right, this is messy but it is messy to require that PIs keep RAs that they are not happy with in their labs. That will never have a happy ending.

but you never said so yourself.

So, can we take it then that you disagree with Rabett’s suggestion that it sure is tough that someone gets fired for being pro-union, but that the alternative of requiring that the person be allowed to keep her position is worse?

54

Marc 02.07.12 at 1:35 am

@49: I see your point, and it’s a reasonable one. The original post was postulating that there was no reasonable set of grounds to be opposed to graduate student unions. I’ve given what I regard as actual and reasonable arguments about why unions could be a problem. It’s good to see that there are creative solutions around some of these issues. Protections against firing for pregnancy or political / union activity are obviously good things. A minimum floor is a good method to deal with unequal departmental experiences (although it doesn’t actually benefit the science students much, if at all).

However, other issues (like having the X department being in charge of the X graduate program) are more thorny. And there are some areas – academic ones – where I’m afraid that there really may be less common ground. But at least we can get to a place where we understand why the people that we’re disagreeing with believe the things that they believe.

55

djw 02.07.12 at 1:53 am

(although it doesn’t actually benefit the science students much, if at all).

This turned out to be not really true at all. At the University of Washington, no department (to my knowledge) provided a separate and better health insurance plan for their graduate student employees. I imagine this is not unique.

Some history, the unionization movement really took off at UW the year after the following happened:

1. Someone at the University screwed up some paperwork, resulting in a legislative request for funds for insurance for GSAs.
2. Legislature provides insufficient funds to continue relatively decent insurance (not because of lack of money in the state coffers, this was the halcyon days of the late 90’s)
3. Administration deals with the problem by providing GSAs with much worse insurance plan but not bothering to actually tell us
4. Cock-up is slowly discovered as the poor bastards submit claims, get claims rejected, bang their heads against bureaucratic walls for a while until they finally figure out what happened.

In addition to screwing some people over pretty badly, this alerted pretty much everyone to their vulnerability with the current amount of power they have, regardless of how much they might trust their advisor/department/PI/program to look out for their interests. I doubt’s we’d have been able to get the massive supermajorities in our card drives and votes without this stark illustration of how our lack of bargaining power left us dangerously vulnerable.

Also, with regard to pay, the way it works at UW is there’s an official graduate school stipend rate, call it X. Departments that are able to support students beyond that through via their own budgets either offer supplementary pay, or a “scholarship” that’s dispensed as cash once a term, since tuition is paid for. Either way, that’s coming from their own budget, and (except for procedural stuff about taking it away and so on) not bargained over. Call it Y. In those departments, compensation is X+Y. So when a new, higher X is negotiated by the unions, the pay of students who received X goes up by the same dollar amount as the students who in departments who are paid X+Y. (Unless some departments decided to strategically reduce Y, but I don’t know of any cases in which that actually happened). So on multiple fronts, the “little, if at all” aside doesn’t necessarily apply.

56

zrichellez 02.07.12 at 1:54 am

@Stephen the law already covers that with or without a union.
Your employer may not fire you, force you to quit, or force you to take a leave because you are pregnant.
I am sure since you are not ill informed you are very much aware of that.

57

djw 02.07.12 at 1:54 am

#1 above s/b 1. Someone at the University screwed up some paperwork, resulting in an insufficient legislative request for funds for insurance for GSAs.

58

christian_h 02.07.12 at 1:55 am

Again, being in a science department (math) at a major, graduate assistant unionized research university (UCLA), I have not come across a single issue where the union would have interfered with the education of our graduate students. the same was true at my previous university, University of Illinois at Chicago; again, unionized and no noticeable interference with graduate education.

I have heard stories from other places (Canada mostly) where either graduate or lecturer unions have created some friction that seemed to me to be unnecessary and indicative of a lack of understanding of the academic process, but I have never experienced it (and in any event it is unavoidable – as has been pointed out, unions like any human organization can produce less than smart outcomes sometimes).

On the other hand, many graduate student unions are, in my experience, not very effective as unions (partly due to the high turnover in the membership). But that’s a different issue…

59

christian_h 02.07.12 at 2:00 am

(55.): Oh dear. The law? You really believe that? Employees are constantly being forced out for being pregnant. Women are constantly asked by prospective employers if they intend to become pregnant. Without a union, the only recourse is an expensive lawsuit, which will take years, without guarantee of success (the employer will of course come up with arguments why they had to fire you etc.); meanwhile the graduate student in question will have been out of academia for a long time – career over.

In addition, you get the law wrong. An employer may termin ate a pregnant employee if not doing so poses “undue hardship” on the employer. What that is again would have to be clarified in a lawsuit – unless you have a union backing you up, something to be considered only for people with a lot of fight willing to give up on their careers.

60

Marc 02.07.12 at 2:01 am

@52: I think that we’re not communicating well. There are two issues here for me.

The first is that I’m generically suspicious of “outrageous behavior claimed on the internet”. Reality is never as simple as the initial portrayal; I’ve seen this movie so often that I’ve gotten jaded. That’s the basis of my reaction to the question of cause here – the tea leaves that I could read made me suspicious that there was more to this case than “union hater fires organizer.” I also freely admit that I could be wrong. I didn’t think that I had to specify that it would be immoral to fire students on political grounds. They trust you with their careers, and you have the duty to be a goddamn grown-up and professional in exchange. If I was in that department and I believed that a good student was fired for activism…I’d be pushing to strip that professor of the ability to supervise students, since she was obviously not taking her responsibilities seriously enough. I’d need to know more than I do to understand what actually happened here.

But Eli was making a different and practical point: sometimes you get into a situation where adviser and student just can’t work together. You’re relying on your adviser to write you letters getting you jobs; you can’t force people to write good letters for people they detest. It’s also the case that you’re sometimes under pressure to produce results in a grant, and if someone isn’t doing the job then you just have to give the work to another person capable of performing it.

The reasons can be petty and they can be wrong. In this respect graduate school is like many other jobs – it is extraordinarily rare in the states to have any formal protection against being fired on short notice. My daughter’s boyfriend was summarily dismissed from his lab with no notice – pretty stunning, really. I’d make no case that he was treated fairly. I also advised him to get the hell of the department, since it was obvious to me that he shouldn’t be in a place that treated students that way. I can’t see of a set of rules that would make his case, or the Michigan case, actually go any better.

“Hard cases make bad law” and all of that. I hope this clears things up a bit.

61

StevenAttewell 02.07.12 at 2:17 am

zrichellez – yeah, that doesn’t exactly work when you work via temporary contracts; all the employer has to do is to not re-hire you.

And what christian said.

62

UM_GSRA 02.07.12 at 2:35 am

@Henry, I’m just going to skip over the post as to why normally left-leaning professors are against unionizing since it is somewhat irrelevant to the actual GSRAs that will be affected by this. In one of your comments, you state one of GEO’s basic populist arguments: “shouldn’t we just let the GSRAs decide whether it’s a good deal for them, without outside interference or intimidation?”

On it’s face, this seems like a perfectly reasonable question. However, you (as does every person who has made this argument in the last year) seem to only allow for interference and intimidation on the part of those opposed to unionizing (e.g. professors, U of M administration, right-wing idealists, etc). Any actions on the part of the union or union-supporters are never viewed in this light, but instead treated as “organizing” or “informing” the GSRAs.

If a professor speaks out against unionization to his students, this is decried as intimidation and an unfair labor practice (GEO has even gone so far as to petition the university that professors not be allowed to even encourage students to vote). On the other hand, when AFT employees repeatedly show up unannounced in a student’s office or lab during work hours, or even at their home, for a 2-on-1 sales pitch, this is never considered intimidation.

An inherent problem with this election is the fact that one side, the union, has far more resources, experience and organization to run a political campaign. The other “side” is either the university (which cannot openly oppose unionization) or GSRAs themselves who have no resources, personnel or time to mount the same level of campaign as the union. While GEO and AFT love to paint their organizing as fair and democratic, they have clearly invested a lot of time and money in swaying the outcome of this election and so it is hard to believe that they only have the GSRAs’ best interest in mind.

If this election occurs, it will be decided by the majority of those that vote. On the one hand you have a fine tuned union campaign juggernaut that has the information of and has repeatedly visited every GSRA that showed support for unionization over the last year. On the other hand you have a group of GSRAs who are unorganized, largely uninformed and therefore apathetic. Which side do you think will be more successful in turning out its supporters? Who should be the counter-balance to GEO’s campaign?

If you forced every GSRA to vote and told him or her that unionizing will not change their salary or benefits (they are identical to the unionized GSIs, after all) and it will cost them $400/yr, I highly doubt the majority would vote for unionizing. But this is not the sales pitch most GSRAs will get. Instead, they have been promised vague things like “a voice” and “solidarity” by union reps that have come by their lab once a week for the last 8 months, which they have either swallowed and will vote for or have ignored and probably won’t bother to vote.

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nvalvo 02.07.12 at 2:59 am

If I was in that department and I believed that a good student was fired for activism…I’d be pushing to strip that professor of the ability to supervise students, since she was obviously not taking her responsibilities seriously enough. I’d need to know more than I do to understand what actually happened here.

Right, and this is how the collegial model of departmental self-governance is supposed to work. But sadly… your mileage may vary.

64

Patrick 02.07.12 at 3:39 am

I’ve been present at two Big Ten universities where the grad students unionized, once as an undergrad, once as an adjunct and then lecturer.

I still haven’t heard an argument that grad students don’t have the right to organize that convinces me–but I think that “right” matters a whole lot less than power. And, lord knows, we faculty love power over students. (Is my memory playing tricks, or are many of the arguments against unions similar to arguments against forbidding sexual harassment?)

In any case, at both schools, the union got decent health insurance for grad instructors who had crappy insurance or none, and in both cases, the union got the grad instructors full tuition waivers. I supervise grad instructors and, interestingly enough, they work hard and conscientiously, even though they can take their kids to a doctor now, instead of the ER.

65

Meredith 02.07.12 at 5:33 am

Marc, I take back what I said above, that I’m glad I don’t work for or with you. And I apologize for the (what passes with me as) snark. If you conduct yourself as you describe here — and I have no reason at all to doubt your description — you’d be an excellent colleague or mentor.
But maybe that’s what’s hanging you up? What I mean is, modes and models of behavior and relationship like those you describe remain fundamentally necessary with or without unionization. But I don’t believe you/we need worry that unions will get in their way, will subvert such relationships or make them more rare. They may actually enable and nourish them. In fact, unionizing may be the only hope for them in the larger academic world, whatever the situations in this or that department at the moment.

66

js. 02.07.12 at 6:41 am

My daughter’s boyfriend was summarily dismissed from his lab with no notice – pretty stunning, really. I’d make no case that he was treated fairly. I also advised him to get the hell of the department, since it was obvious to me that he shouldn’t be in a place that treated students that way. I can’t see of a set of rules that would make his case, or the Michigan case, actually go any better.

Well, maybe if he had bargaining rights or access to a grievance procedure he wouldn’t have been, or couldn’t have been, dismissed in such a “stunning” manner. So that’s one way in which it could go better. Really, it’s just like any other work place, in this manner at least. (And yes, I’m an academic.)

67

Doctor Slack 02.07.12 at 6:51 am

Marc: I can’t see of a set of rules that would make his case, or the Michigan case, actually go any better.

Yeah, really… can’t you? For serious? Maybe you could stand to look into the history of unions a little? This seems like a rather incredible statement well over a century into the existence of modern labour organization.

68

mattH 02.07.12 at 7:24 am

Benevolent dictatorships are only good as long as you’ve got the same dictator; people move on, and everyone dies.

69

StevenAttewell 02.07.12 at 7:29 am

Doctor Slack – agreed. Grievance procedures exist precisely to deal with these kinds of situations.

At this point, Marc’s selective deafness is starting to ring a little false.

70

Eli Rabett 02.07.12 at 9:23 am

js, care to suggest how the boyfriend could have been protected? No one, no union, could force any other faculty to pick him up as an advisee, and there is the rub. Currently many offer letters guarantee support for some period (three years often) so the department might have to pick him up for a short time until/if he found another advisor and those of us who have seen similar situation are aware of such things happening.

The example of UW is useful. The union helped with a global issue, health insurance, but there really are significant limits about what unions can do with respect to advisor/student relations and that is what this started about.

PS: Go read what the duties of the faculty spy at UW physics

The major responsibility of the faculty spy is to attend faculty meetings and take good notes about any and all issues that may be of interest to graduate students, then to send these notes out to all the graduate students. Faculty meetings can actually be quite lively at times, and you get a good sense of the departmental dynamics by attending them. The faculty meetings are once a month, usually on the first Wednesday at 3:30 pm, and typically last about an hour or an hour and a half (there’s a closed session after that, but they kick the faculty spy out).

71

Ebenezer Scrooge 02.07.12 at 9:30 am

A few points:
1. Some of the anti-union folk think they have an argument by pointing out downsides to unionization. That’s not an argument. There is no institution on this planet without its downsides. The question is one of net benefit (to whom?)
2. I used to be in academia, but am now a soulless corporate tron. From management’s perspective, unions are a royal pain in the ass. Take my word for it. But then again, the same is true for customers and suppliers. It’s management’s job to deal with it.
3. Many students–especially in the sciences–do not need unions. But more almost certainly do. Welcome to collective action!
4. SamChevre @10 identified an issue far more significant than academic unionization: that more people want an academic life than other people want to pay for academic lives. StevenAttewell@22 was about the only person who responded, in effect arguing that universities need to be radically reorganized. (His language was that of greater pay equalization; that’s radical reorganization in my books.) Universities are becoming IMO increasingly dysfunctional, and academic labor practices are a painful symptom, but not the disease. I don’t have any problems with treating symptoms, but . . .

72

J. Otto Pohl 02.07.12 at 11:48 am

I will just note that I am far, far to the right of almost everybody else on Crooked Timber and am a very, very strong supporter of unionization of all workers. Most US unions after WWII were fiercely anti-communist. On the other hand opposition to independent unions by leftists is not unusual at all. Solidarity in Poland was not suppressed by a right wing government. Rather the issue is should workers have the same right to organize and collectively bargain that is accorded to businesses. There is nothing more anti-free market than government restrictions and the use of force that prevent workers from organizing themselves into collective bargaining units to further their own economic interests.

73

Barry 02.07.12 at 2:13 pm

Marc: “My daughter’s boyfriend was summarily dismissed from his lab with no notice – pretty stunning, really. I’d make no case that he was treated fairly. I also advised him to get the hell of the department, since it was obvious to me that he shouldn’t be in a place that treated students that way. I can’t see of a set of rules that would make his case, or the Michigan case, actually go any better.”

First, ‘get the hell of the department’ is generally going to mean ‘drop out of grad school, and not get into another program’.

Second, “I can’t see of a set of rules that would make his case, or the Michigan case, actually go any better.” The basic protections would be (1) students can’t be fired without notice barring actual emergencies, (2) students have rights to due process and appeals, and (3) barring proven significant misconduct on a student’s part, the department is obligated to support the student.

At this point, you’re lying.

74

Anderson 02.07.12 at 2:22 pm

From management’s perspective, unions are a royal pain in the ass.

Anything that requires managing is a pain in the ass to management.

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SamChevre 02.07.12 at 2:53 pm

Barry @ 71
(3) barring proven significant misconduct on a student’s part, the department is obligated to support the student.

This, I think, is where the main problem lies. As I understand it (and I never went to grad school, but many of my colleagues did) many/most students who leave graduate programs without a terminal degree don’t leave because of “significant misconduct”; they leave because it’s clear that they are not “doing/going to do well enough” to be worth their staying longer. (Sometimes the student, and sometimes the department, makes that decision.)

I’m not sure that a “all have competed, so everyone must -have prizes- be supported until they finish a PhD” is compatible with a recognizable graduate program.

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Barry 02.07.12 at 3:51 pm

Correct; I didn’t write well there. I was actually assuming that failure to make academic progress was a reason to terminate support, since this is the background of all grad student support systems that I’ve ever heard of.

Please consider this to be added to my comment above.

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SamChevre 02.07.12 at 4:47 pm

Ah–that makes more sense.

78

JW Mason 02.07.12 at 4:56 pm

Question for those at universities with well-functioning RA unions: in case of strike, are such hybrid researchers allowed to continue showing up to the lab and working on their own dissertations? Or is that illegal strike-breaking?

Strikes are not part of the grad union experience. The vast majority of grad unions have never had a strike, in part because they are legally prohibited from doing so. The tiny handful of cases – you could probably count them on the fingers of one hand – are so sui generris you can’t generalize, but one thing we can say is that no one is ever legally obliged to strike. (The category of “illegal strike breaking” does not exist wrt the individual employee.) The only tool the union would ever have is moral suasion, and again, established grad unions *never* strike. (The handful of strikes that have taken place are for recognition.)

It’s an interesting question, tho, insofar as it reveals what a wildly unrealistic perception many people have of the practical implications of graduate employee unionization, e.g. that it involves regular strikes.

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Marc 02.07.12 at 5:10 pm

@65: Feel free to define a system that forces advisers to write good recommendations for people that they don’t like. Really, go for it. Because in academe that’s one of the major functions that a professor provides for a student. When you’re at it, describe how you regulate what opportunities a professor provides for their students – for example, what meetings they get to attend; what papers they’re a co-author on; what their position is in the author list. I could go on, but you’re not going to get union rules that can *make* professors advance the careers of people. And you’re going to get strong academic resistance to the idea that professors should be obligated by union rules to award PhDs to people whom they don’t believe to be academically qualified.

So, yes, I can’t see a set of rules that would enable someone to build a career over the opposition of their mentor. If you can, go to it. This may be your hint that there is something about the graduate student experience that is *not* the same as a factory worker. Or not, as the case may be.

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Marc 02.07.12 at 5:18 pm

I would have thought it obvious, by the way, that the “wage” aspect of being a graduate student isn’t the one that’s a problem for unions. It’s the fact that a student is working in a lab to get a degree, write research papers, and get recommendations for postdoctoral positions. You can prevent someone from getting fired, but you can’t make people do any of the other steps involved in being a successful graduate student. And that’s why the talk of employment rules is so utterly alien in the context of RAs. The employment rules can’t help you with the informal and academic ingredients that are central to a scientific career.

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Consumatopia 02.07.12 at 5:30 pm

@70

No one, no union, could force any other faculty to pick him up as an advisee, and there is the rub. Currently many offer letters guarantee support for some period (three years often) so the department might have to pick him up for a short time until/if he found another advisor and those of us who have seen similar situation are aware of such things happening.

But isn’t there a large gulf between what you just described, and the situation in Michigan or Marc’s daughter’s boyfriend? If after three years you can’t find anyone in the department to work with, okay, you’re screwed. But that’s still much better than being summarily dismissed because one person hates you.

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Tim Wilkinson 02.07.12 at 5:49 pm

Marc @79 define a system that forces advisers to write good recommendations for people that they don’t like

Those of us in ordinary employment have to make do with the implied threat of a defamation suit, pretty much. It’s far from ideal, but it is better than nothing – and defining rights does actually get some people to internalise them to some extent, others to be concerned in a general way about the consequences of not doing so, yet others to avoid breaking them because of the costs of avoiding detection, etc. Even I know that, and I’m a card-carrying conspiracy theorist, for flip’s sake.

Basically, the idea that imperfect compliance renders attempts at regulation pointless is not a runner, and if I’m right about that then your last two comments aren’t either.

re: #80. I don’t think there’s any question of forcing person A to bring it about that person B does what’s required to get a degree, write research papers – I’m supposing that the idea is that the supervisor/advisor should do their bit, and not obstruct the student in doing theirs. And if there is really is a problem – a student who is seriously underperforming but doesn’t realise it or perversely insists on continuing, presumably? – it should be addressed openly, fairly, according to some set of guidelines and in a reviewable, e.g. documented, kind of way, I should have thought.

Or what consumatopia said.

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Tim Wilkinson 02.07.12 at 5:50 pm

consequences of not doing so -> consequences of infringing them
to avoid breaking them -> to avoid infringing them

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Henry 02.07.12 at 5:56 pm

Marc – I’m glad that you personally think that retaliation by professors against students who don’t share their politics _should_ be sanctioned. But there is an obvious disconnect between this general statement of principle and your repeated suggestions that there is nothing much that can be done practically to help RAs. Where I think your analysis is failing is that you are thinking about this purely in _ex post_ terms – where the relationship between a PA and RA has gone sour for political reasons, and not in _ex ante_ terms – where the existence of an appeal system may structure the incentives for both professor and advisee. If there is a clear set of appeals procedures, and set of possible sanctions associated with misbehavior on the part of PAs, _ceteris paribus_, PAs will be less likely to engage in the kind of retaliatory action that Goldman is alleged to have engaged in (and I have to say that Dan Hirschman’s comment in the last thread makes me think that she has at the least a strong _prima facie_ case against her). This would be true even if the sanctions are relatively mild (supervision for a period, formal admonishments) – professors do not like to be embarrassed in front of their colleagues, as long as there is some real chance that the sanctions would be carried out. What you want is a system that makes abuses less likely _ex ante_, even if it is still tough to deal with them _ex post._ It is also worth noting that in this case, the RA was not looking for reinstatement – rather an admission of blame (which I imagine was intended to help her find a position in another research group) and some tuition benefits to help tide her over.

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piglet 02.07.12 at 6:23 pm

The question has been raised about “the lack of good jobs for students with a PhD” (who wouldn’t be student any more of course). Clearly this is orthogonal to the unionization question but, I would be curious to hear more about this.

Does anybody else here think that their department is graduating too many PhDs, and that that the typical duration of a PhD program is unconscionably long? And if yes, what should be done about it? I find it mind-boggling that some departments regard 10 years for a PhD as a reasonable amount of time. How many PhDs actually graduate within 3-4 years? I think the fraction is tiny (in the US, that is). What’s going on here? Has somebody studied this issue?

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J. Otto Pohl 02.07.12 at 6:34 pm

piglet:

I did my PhD at SOAS (University of London) in two years, but then was unemployed for three years. It took me seven years after completion to get a contract longer than a year. The institutional structures of the market greatly favors people who take longer over those who take a reasonable time. So finishing in 3-4 years only to be unemployed for two to three years is not a better deal than finishing in five to six and getting a tenure track job off the bat.

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Jacob T. Levy 02.07.12 at 6:42 pm

@78 JW Mason: “one thing we can say is that no one is ever legally obliged to strike… established grad unions *never* strike. ”

Well, I guess my view here is colored by a TA union strike here at McGill four years ago– by an established, recognized union. And, yes, once a binding strike vote was called, the members were obliged to strike, which is to say that McGill was prohibited from employing them. During the strike we operated under strict, but convoluted, rules about faculty-student contact since communication with TAs qua TAs was supposed to go through the collective bargaining structure. Difficult when professor-TA were also advisor-advisee– but manageable, since TAing is not normally dissertation work. Had it been a strike by the RA union (which we didn’t have then but have now) I really can’t imagine how it would go and what would be necessary to distinguish the RAships from the students’ research.

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piglet 02.07.12 at 6:47 pm

86: Of course finishing early just to be unemployed is not ideal but what is the evidence that those who take longer have better job chances? “finishing in five to six and getting a tenure track job off the bat”, how realistic is that? And even five years seems, currently in the US, to be on the low side. (I should look up those numbers).

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L2P 02.07.12 at 6:49 pm

“So, yes, I can’t see a set of rules that would enable someone to build a career over the opposition of their mentor. If you can, go to it. This may be your hint that there is something about the graduate student experience that is not the same as a factory worker. Or not, as the case may be.”

Are you serious?

This is pretty routine stuff. I’m a supervisor right now and routinely right recommendations for my unionized employees (they’re all professionals w/ graduate degrees.) If I don’t accurately give them fair recommendations, they can grieve and MY EMPLOYER will be forced to hire them at whatever position they were applying for. It’s part of their union contract. Plus I’m on the hook for defamation (not very fun.) Do you think it’s impossible for a university to hire a grad student as a professor if the mentor unfairly maligns them in a recommendation? You can whine about lack of money, but that’s a reason to avoid being a jackass, not a reason to avoid the remedy.

It’s really not that complicated. Plumbers and Theoretical Physicists aren’t members of different species. Union rules can prohibit you from calling either of them useless assholes in a recommendation, and specify the remedy and punishment if you do. Why do you think it’s impossible?

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Marc 02.07.12 at 7:01 pm

@89: I’m part of an international scientific community. The one certain thing for my students is that they won’t be hired at the place where I work (there are strong cultural taboos against hiring your own students.) Universities in California and research institutes in Denmark aren’t going to care about Midwestern university union rules.

You’re generalizing your experiences into a context where they’re simply not applicable. Research is extremely competitive and assessing the talent for original research is highly subjective.

If there’s one thing that I’ve learned as a professor it’s that academe is a fractured place, where the formal and informal rules can be completely different even in related fields. The union and grievance model simply doesn’t map well onto mentoring relations involving creative work, spanning years, and frequently being one-on-one.

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SamChevre 02.07.12 at 7:04 pm

L2P and Tim Wilkinson,

I’m really curious how “fair recommendations” work. (At my employer, it’s a violation of terms of employment to provide any information about another employee’s work–for fear of defamation lawsuits–except for HR, which will confirm the dates of employment. To say this is unhelpful to people who are job-hunting is an understatement.)

I can easily see how to insist that statements of fact be true–but the reason you want recommendations (especially for someone without a long track record) is exactly for the stuff that’s not exactly objective facts.

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JW Mason 02.07.12 at 7:09 pm

Sorry, I was talking about the US.

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Marc 02.07.12 at 7:16 pm

@81: In the sciences you have a two step process. For (typically) the first two years you’re taking classes and preparing for qualifying exams. Once you’re passed the exams you’re then working on your dissertation and you must have an adviser and a dissertation topic. If your adviser doesn’t want to work with you any more you typically need both a new adviser and a new dissertation – because it’s very unlikely that there will be another professor who does exactly the same work. If the split is amicable then the student just takes an extra year and graduates.

But other professors are under absolutely no obligation to take responsibility for additional students – and if a student has no dissertation and no adviser then they rapidly stop being students too. Problem students are not especially attractive unless the other faculty perceive the issue to be compatibility or the fault of the former adviser, and that’s not a guaranteed sell. It’s a fundamental issue of academic freedom if you start talking about compelling professors to work with students on original research.

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js. 02.07.12 at 7:39 pm

piglet:

Does anybody else here think that their department is graduating too many PhDs, and that that the typical duration of a PhD program is unconscionably long? And if yes, what should be done about it?

In the humanities (in the US), students starting a PhD program are generally going to have a Bachelor’s (don’t have numbers on this, but I’m pretty sure this is mostly true). So there’s a couple of years of coursework before you’re technically a “doctoral candidate” working on your dissertation. Once you combine the coursework and the writing of the dissertation, it’s seriously hard to get below 5 years. Especially if, as at all but the richest schools, you also have regular teaching (or other research) duties.

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Tim Wilkinson 02.07.12 at 7:46 pm

SamChevreit’s a violation of terms of employment to provide any information about another employee’s work—for fear of defamation lawsuits

this makes no sense.

But the idea is – isn’t it? – just that a supervisor might be required to give an accurate appraisal as part of their job, and (notionally) to be liable for damage – to the appraised or the apprised – caused by failing to do this properly. This is not an outré or bizarre proposal. The behaviour of some HR staff (or drafters of employment contracts) in other sectors is pretty irrelevant, isn’t it?

Marc @93 – If your adviser doesn’t want to work with you

People have to work with other people. Teachers have to teach students. If there is some reason why they really don’t think it’s reasonable that they should have to in a given case, then these reasons have to be given and substantiated. What is the big mystery about this?

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Tim Wilkinson 02.07.12 at 7:50 pm

this makes no sense sorry, it does make sense – I misread it. But the following points stand.

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djw 02.07.12 at 7:55 pm

marc, following up on Henry’s point, it seems to me that the most practical benefit of an established and enforced procedure for termination, for people whose advisors irrationally dislike them, is that it forces their supervisors to a) actually document their complaints (so the RA could learn what they’re doing ‘wrong’ and attempt to address it) or b) get the message in a more timely fashion than your daughter’s boyfriend got it such that he/she could start looking to either repair the relationship or transition to another lab on his/her own terms.

So in other words, better and fairer procedures about this kind of stuff can’t fix all problems related to the potential abuse of power. But can provide tools and options for the student to address the situation in ways that may be pretty valuable to the students’ career.

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Jacob T. Levy 02.07.12 at 7:58 pm

People have to work with other people. Teachers have to teach students. If there is some reason why they really don’t think it’s reasonable that they should have to in a given case, then these reasons have to be given and substantiated. What is the big mystery about this?

Teachers have to teach students– accepting all duly enrolled and qualified students into the course. But advisors don’t have to advise in the same way. There’s no duty to act as an advisor for any particular student. There’s no presumption that a student has a right to the advisor of his/her choice, and no burden on the advisor to justify declining taking on another doctoral advisee.

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AcademicLurker 02.07.12 at 8:23 pm

Regarding the letters of recommendation sub-conversation, I would note that it’s completely unnecessary to “malign” someone in a rec. letter.

Academia is competitive enough that all that’s needed to ensure someone won’t get the job is a letter that isn’t packed to the gills with superlatives.

I doubt that a defamation suit would provide any remedy in most cases.

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SamChevre 02.07.12 at 8:25 pm

just that a supervisor might be required to give an accurate appraisal as part of their job

I can easily see requiring an accurate appraisal, for items that are objective. I think of an appraisal as answering the question “what did Sam do, and how well did he do it?”

I think of a recommendation as being much more about potential, and hence much less objective. I think of a recommendation as answering the question “what can Sam do, and how likely is he to be good at the things that you do and he hasn’t yet done?”

I can imagine how to require an accurate appraisal; I’m having difficulty imagining how to determine whether a recommendation is “accurate”.

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piglet 02.07.12 at 8:41 pm

“no burden on the advisor to justify declining taking on another doctoral advisee.”

Correct. But one an advisor has taken on a student, he/she does have a burden to do his/her job. Because advising students is part of their job. There are, or should be, detailed procedures that both parties need to follow. Grad students have a right not to be treated arbitrarily.
If the student is also working for the advisor as an employee, protection from arbitrary treatment, including termination, obviously is even more vital.

js 94: I finally looked up the statistics: http://www.phdcompletion.org/

The numbers are indeed worst in humanities and best in engineering but still. Across the board, fewer than 60% finish within 10 years. Most of the rest presumably have dropped out. Most of those who do finish seem to finish in their 6th and 7th years, with a considerable tail into year 9.

Is this really a good use of the time and talent of so many bright, educated, young people? I don’t think so. And is there reason to be believe that scholars of earlier generations were less well educated? There’s something fundamentally wrong with this system.

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piglet 02.07.12 at 8:49 pm

Addendum to Levy 98: “Teachers have to teach students—accepting all duly enrolled and qualified students into the course. But advisors don’t have to advise in the same way.” But actually, grad students are charged tuition precisely because presumably, their advisors spend so much of their precious time educating them. And it was argued earlier that students should regard waved tuition (i. e. the time spent by the advisor) as compensation. Apparently, grad students are not employees because they are students, but then they also aren’t really students. What are they? Chattel?

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Orpho 02.07.12 at 8:50 pm

I’m torn. One the one hand I’d like to snark that you can’t start letting grad students unionize, or else American corporate contract 35-hour work week “temps”, unpaid interns, adjuncts, and child care workers will start thinking they have the right to the same sort of treatment enjoyed by (some) janitors, other public school teachers, plumbers, firefighters, and NFL football stars. How dare they? To Wisconsin with them! (Or is it Ohio now? So hard to keep track of American union purgatories.) And clearly the differences amongst these professions mean that no union solution could _ever_ be found for the rarified heights of academia. I’ll tell you, the NFL players union clearly prevents teams from giving extra benefits to its high-performers. The poor dears even labour under a salary cap! The inhumanity!

On the other hand, I can just sit amused at the continued insistence that old boys’ networking, personal relationships that _obviously_ have _no_ possibility of exploitation, prejudice, or unfair dealings for minorities of all stripes are the way that academia must function. Is strong academic progress impossible when treating students fairly? Is cutting-edge research derailed by having to treat employees fairly?

Don’t worry, even with a student union in place you can still only recommend and give that extra crucial bit of help to the ones you like.

And for the “but I treat my students fairly” benevolent dictators, well, kudos. But if you can’t conjure in your own head circumstances where depending on benevolent, enlightened dictators wasn’t good enough to ensure fair treatment, no argument you’ll read can help you.

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John Quiggin 02.07.12 at 8:53 pm

(I haven’t read all the comments, so this may have been stated above.)

In Australia, tenured academics, TAs and (most kinds of) administrative staff are represented by the same union. It’s not the most militant union in labor history, but we do have the occasional one-day strike and other forms of industrial action. As I type this, the sky looks a little wobbly, but has not yet fallen.

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adam.smith (was Sebastian(1)) 02.07.12 at 8:55 pm

Marc – you mostly seem to argue that unionization won’t do much to solve the biggest issues facing graduate students – and I completely agree. But that’s hardly an argument against it. If unionization proves a remedy against some forms of the worst excesses, that would be enough, no?

I think part of the reason people seem to be talking past each other is that the questions they’re actually answering are different there is
1. Should RAs have the right to unionize? It seems to me that even Marc’s answer to this would actually be yes. I certainly agree with Henry that it is very hard to be on the left and argue against this.
2. Do you have to support every instance of graduate student unionization?
I think depending on the details, the answer to this is far less clear. People in this thread have argued that it’s possible to get this right – and I completely agree – but I think it’s also possible to get it wrong, especially since a lot of the unions doing the organizing are industrial unions with very different management-labor experiences than most graduate students. I think, empathizing with Marc for a moment, it would also be legitimate for a professor in a field were students feel like that overall unionization is a bad deal and fear being outvoted by students in other fields to side with her students.

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Tim Wilkinson 02.07.12 at 9:11 pm

JTL @98 – But we’re talking about the ad-/super-visees they have accepted already, and how capriciously they are allowed to behave once they are in that relationship, aren’t we?

AL @99 – indeed, it’s not perfect by any means but as long as it’s understood that it’s not ok to disadvantage people just because you don’t like them, and that you will have to be sneaky about it, etc., thats’s better than nothing and for all I know courts would recognise this kind of thing – maybe on grounds other than defamation. Who knows – as a supervisor, do you want to gamble on it? The protection offered to employees in other sectors by the nominal ability to sue is pretty feeble in reality too, but these things do still have some effect, see above. In any case, at least the student has been able to get the PhD rather than getting booted out arbitrarily I suppose.

SC @100 – this kind of issue comes up before courts all the time and people manage to make a tolerably sensible fist of sorting them out in many cases. Liberal use of the word ‘reasonable’ and a judge who’s not barking mad will usually do it I reckon.

(A very general point – objections to a proposed change based on the contention that it won’t change much are a bit rum. Or ‘it won’t work’ – well let us worry about that, thanks.)

However it occurs to me that since it’s possible I may want to be a supervisee in the not too distant future, I should probably avoid following a fairly abstract argument entered into in a rather idle fashion down a path that makes me look like I am even countentancing the possibility of any kind of friction with a future supervisor.

I’m assuming that these are pretty rare cases we’re talking about here, where either the student or supervisor is being unreasonable.

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StevenAttewell 02.07.12 at 9:24 pm

Jacob T. Levy – your experience is an artifact of Canadian labor law. Here in the U.S, strikes are not generally permitted during the lifetime of a contract, and there are no clauses either in contracts or laws that bar employers from employing scab replacement labor.

Marc – as people have repeatedly pointed out, we have examples of union grievance systems operating in lab sciences in an effective fashion. Moreover, one of the virtues of union grievance system is the deterrence factor and its impact on department cultures (which aren’t set in stone, after all; sexual harassment is no longer officially tolerated in academia, despite its ubiquity a generation earlier). Protections against discrimination and retaliation make department chairs and staff conscious of the need to intervene early on – informal procedures might sometimes lead to the same end, but protections create an on-going institution imperative to ensure that that end is sought in every case.

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piglet 02.07.12 at 9:33 pm

I remember that in Germany (and probably some other places) employees have a legal right to a written work appraisal by their employer (“Arbeitszeugnis”). These are submitted as part of any subsequent employment application. The legal requirements for how the appraisal must be written are strict and well established and employees who feel treated unfairly go to court regularly. Since the appraisal cannot be openly negative, there is a lot of speculation about how to recognize a bad or mediocre one.

It is interesting that in US academia, although recommendations are voluntary, the tendency is that any recommendation that is less than glowing is interpreted as a no-no. Iow the pressure on supervisors who wish their students well is clearly to not be honest. Moreover, I have heard the same about tenure evaluations, which are supposed to be fair and accurate reviews rather than letters of recommendation. A tenure applicant who was denied was told by the Dean that the reviews “have to be glowing”. Any hint at room for improvement justifies denial.

Nobody is so good that a fair and accurate review wouldn’t contain any negativity. Everybody has room for improvement. So is the trend that reviewers are required to make up their mind whether they want the candidate to get approved, and if yes, then to lie?

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Barry Freed 02.07.12 at 9:48 pm

@adam.smith (was Sebastian(1))

Sorry for the OT but are you the same Sebastian of the Obsidian Wings blog or is that the other Sebastian.

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AcademicLurker 02.07.12 at 9:53 pm

@108
I remember that in Germany (and probably some other places) employees have a legal right to a written work appraisal by their employer (“Arbeitszeugnis”). These are submitted as part of any subsequent employment application. The legal requirements for how the appraisal must be written are strict and well established and employees who feel treated unfairly go to court regularly. Since the appraisal cannot be openly negative, there is a lot of speculation about how to recognize a bad or mediocre one.

I seem to recall this being mentioned on CT before. Whoever mentioned it added that employers had devised an elaborate code for trashing someone without saying anything openly negative. For example “X performed his duties to my full satisfaction” sounds good, but actually that’s actually meant to blackball someone. If you want to really recommend them you say “X performed his duties to my fullest satisfaction”.

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Tim Wilkinson 02.07.12 at 10:00 pm

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Eli Rabett 02.07.12 at 10:34 pm

Copyrights can be transferred, which is what is usually done with scientific publications. Geez, get your fingers outta there guys

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Eli Rabett 02.07.12 at 10:47 pm

Apologies, that was supposed to go elsewhere

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adam.smith (was Sebastian(1)) 02.07.12 at 11:07 pm

@Barry 109 – no, I’m not.

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Eli Rabett 02.07.12 at 11:15 pm

To summarize:

There is a good case that unions (or graduate student councils) can contribute to improving collective benefits such as health insurance.

There is a good case that formal rules should be followed in both establishing and disestablishing advisor/advisee relationships independent of there being or not being a union.

Beyond that, as Marc has been pointing out, it runs into the problem that graduate students are in school to earn a degree and to do so they need an advisor who supports them. There appears to be a faction here arguing that advisors must accept all comers. Does the faculty have to approve whatever thesis the comers provide?

Do faculty have the obligation to secure support for their students? If a faculty has provided funding for a student is the faculty obligated to continue providing that support forever? or if not for how long?

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adam.smith (was Sebastian(1)) 02.07.12 at 11:30 pm

@piglet – that’s an odd argument to bring up considering that the German academic system is far more abusive to graduate students and recent graduates and much more of an old boys network than in the US.
I think Marc is completely right that no union or other regulation will be able to remove a relatively high degree of dependency from the advisory/advisee relationship. It’s impossible to regulate good advising, it’s impossible to make a professor mention a student’s name to his colleagues, to make those phone calls during the job market etc. I just don’t see why that’s an argument against unions.

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Salient 02.07.12 at 11:55 pm

There appears to be a faction here arguing that advisors must accept all comers.

You’re an interesting soul, Eli. You’re confusing the pre-relationship period where an adviser contemplates accepting an advisee, with the obligations of an adviser who has already agreed to undertake the responsibility of an adviser role. The question is, really, are you confusing these two intentionally? I happen to think you probably are, but it’s entirely possible I’m being uncharitable and am wrong, and spelling out this distinction will help you understand your interlocutors’ general position. I guess we’ll see?

So. Distinction. Once an adviser accepts an advisee, there should be a formal written contract which specifies when and how the contract can be terminated by either party. That seems like a pretty basic thing we should insist upon, unionized or no.

On the other hand, there’s no reason why there should be any obligation to initiate an adviser-advisee relationship, any more than there is any reason to require employers to hire anyone who applies.

To be honest, I can’t imagine why we would defend any employment practice in which there’s no specification in advance of how, when, and why the employer can terminate employment. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it should be formally contractual for everyone, but cripes, even freaking Domino’s Pizza and Woodman’s Grocery have formal procedures to follow. (In the latter case, they actually set some skill set completion targets that are at least loosely analogous to research/dissertation-progress completion targets, so the “in TA case employee is also a student” thing is not a shazam rejoinder.)

Come to think of it, maybe actuaries are a good analogous example. They have to complete research and study work on their own time and make consistent progress on that, in addition to their formal duties. (There are a battery of tests to pass that are sort of like stages toward a dissertation, P-test, F-test, etc. It’s not a perfect analogy, but if it were perfect, it wouldn’t be an analogy.)

Another example might be authors who are contracted to write books. The consequences for failure to work with the editor and failure to make progress are pretty clearly spelled out.

Do faculty have the obligation to secure support for their students?

The word “their” is too ambiguous. I would feel apprehensive about a circumstance in which an adviser knowingly accepts a student who will not be in a financially secure enough position to fulfill their role as an advisee, but I can also imagine lots of cases where it wouldn’t make any sense to say the faculty member failed to meet an obligation.

If a faculty has provided funding for a student is the faculty obligated to continue providing that support forever? or if not for how long?

Ok, that’s more specific and easier to respond to. Again, we grad students here have contracts that spell all of that out quite precisely, and specify a procedure for terminating the adviser-advisee relationship, and we have once per semester interactions with the department in which we submit a report that describes our progress toward a dissertation and degree. I think our advisers either submit a report or discuss our progress too, though I don’t know. I’ve seen a couple cases where a person was sat down and told “here’s what I need you to be doing and you’re not doing it” type stuff, with the understood implication that the student would not be continued to be supported after that semester.

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Marc 02.08.12 at 12:09 am

@117: and we have exactly this setup without unions. Every year you have to evaluate progress to degree. Grants have to be renewed, and funding can be contingent on getting a grant. If a student isn’t doing well they typically get anywhere from 3 months to a year to change their progress, depending on the case involved. If a student does get dropped by an adviser, they either need to get another one or they have to leave the program. It’s therefore pretty unusual to have people summarily dropped, and that is usually the consequence of some sort of nasty argument. These cultural protections are much stronger than the formal ones in any department that I’ve ever been a part.

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Tim Wilkinson 02.08.12 at 12:15 am

Once again: if it’s not going to make any difference, you won’t object then.

120

piglet 02.08.12 at 12:23 am

adam.smith 116: which argument exactly do you consider “odd”?

121

adam.smith (was Sebastian(1)) 02.08.12 at 12:33 am

piglet – maybe I misunderstood, but I took you as saying that the German case shows that it’s possible to effectively regulated recommendations. Given the realities of German academe I thought that was an odd choice of example. But re-reading your post I may have missed your intention.

122

piglet 02.08.12 at 12:55 am

adam.smith: that was more of a side remark. It has little bearing on German academia and the treatment of doctoral students.

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Tim Wilkinson 02.08.12 at 9:55 am

AL @110 – employers had devised an elaborate code for trashing someone without saying anything openly negative. For example…[etc]

But is this not a convention rather than a secret code? Or if it’s the latter, do the German courts recognise it, as well as CT commenters? (That’s what I meant by ‘this kind of thing’ in for all I know courts would recognise this kind of thing @106.)

(Of course the argument ‘if you know about it, it can’t be a secret’ is too quick: known examples are often provided as part of a sampling process (here ‘grue’, Frank Jackson’s lobsters come in), or because it’s highly plausible that they are the tip of an iceberg or that having been exposed, they have been replaced. The comment @111, about known – and mostly thus supposedly shut down – employee blacklists, implicitly relies on such points. )

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SusanC 02.08.12 at 10:41 am

At the UK universities I’m familiar with, research assistants are unionized. (That is, the union is recognized by the employer and many – but not all – employees join it).

Strikes are pretty rare, but do happen occasionally (see the recent UCU strike at the former polytechnics over pensions).

It’s pretty clear that research assistants are employees.

Something that may be different from US universities: some people are just PhD students, some people are just research assistants (i.e. employees) and some people are both. Back when I was both, I was paid a salary by the university (in my capacity as an RA) and out of that paid fees back to the university (in my capacity as a grad student).

The two roles are fairly decoupled (although the discussion in this thread makes me aware of how much potential for conflict of interest there is).

It’s certainly possible to imagine someone being kicked out of the PhD programme but kept on as an employee. (The failed researcher who is really, really good as a Unix sysadmin is almost a cliche).

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SusanC 02.08.12 at 11:06 am

Other observations:

1. If a project relies on the RAs working excessively long hours, the the principal investigator screwed up when writing the grant application. (A crucial part of the PI’s job being to budget for how much work the project will require to complete). Yeah, I know, things go wrong unexpectedly. Exactly what will go wrong is unexpected, but the likihood of *something* going wrong is fairly predictable.

2. From the PI’s point of view, the way projects are funded may make variation in employee competence a bigger risk that in other lines of business. If you have 10 employees doing something, and estimate a 10% chance that each employee will turn out to be useless, you bugdet on 90% productivity and bill your customer accordingly. But it would be a big research project that has 10 RAs working on it, and crucially, accounting practises make it difficult to shift resources between projects[*], so the variance is the problem.

[*] One university I’ve worked for did this pretty often – employee A is actually assigned to work on project X, but is being billed to the grant for project Y .. and later employee B will be assigned to work on Y while having their time billed to project Z. The extent to which you can do this depends on what your funding bodies will put up, what your accounts department will let you get away with, and local culture.

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c.l. ball 02.08.12 at 5:31 pm

I think Henry gets most of the arguments correct, with the addition 14‘s position. I heard this frequently when unionization was discussed at NYU and Columbia in the 90s.

7 is well put too. At Columbia in the 90s many of the hard science grad students wanted nothing to due with unionization in order to raise humanities’ GAs salaries. They figured that the humanities would end up stealing from the sciences rather than obtaining new funds for the humanities. The floor would be built by lowering the ceiling.

There are plenty of leftists who do not clamor for unions for professions where labor supply is lower than demand or strong competition means that employees can exit to better positions easily. No one campaigns to unionize corporate lawyers (even if their labor supply is now greater than demand), medical specialists, or investment bankers. But DAs and PDs, GPs, and bank tellers could use a union. Enrolling in a new degree program is not easy, and at dissertation stages, switching schools on your own in near impossible.

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piglet 02.08.12 at 9:46 pm

123: whether there is really a `secret`code or merely some sort of convention is somewhat disputed. But there`s plenty of web sites that purport to help workers decode the code – google “arbeitszeugnis code”. Interestingly, the law goes so far to explicitly ban the use of coded messages. I guess it`s up to the courts to sort that out.

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faustusnotes 02.09.12 at 1:43 am

Much of the debate here makes me think that academics just don’t understand the concept of professionalism. When you work in the real world, you have to work alongside, above or beneath people you don’t like and don’t get along with. You have to write them recommendation letters, you have to sometimes do things that help their career but not yours, and you have to learn to separate your ego from your work.

For some reason, a lot of academics seem to believe that managing graduate students is different to this. That you couldn’t possibly supervise someone you don’t like, or write them a recommendation letter that recognizes their skills and contribution even though you don’t like them. Or that if your student you hated moves to a different supervisor in the same department, you somehow have to continue hating them and trying to shaft them.

Try doing that in any moderately well-run organization outside of academia, even without a union, and watch how well it works out for you. Unless you’re already near the top and happily committed to running a dysfunctional organization, it won’t. And I’m yet to see a reason why academia should be different.

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J. Otto Pohl 02.09.12 at 9:51 am

Faustus:

Academia is different because many of its institutions are dysfunctional.

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faustusnotes 02.09.12 at 10:58 am

J Otto Pohl, that’s like saying “I don’t like eggs because they’re gross.” It strikes me that academia is not different and not special, and with a suitably-designed union and some standards that academics are held to (other than just “freedom”) maybe they would start to behave professionally.

In fact, I would go further and suggest the following: abolish the PhD system altogether, and replace it with a graded system of employment. Everything would look different to everyone involved if the “student” nature of the PhD student were done away with. And what are PhD students in the end? They’re potential academics who are learning on the job. The very concept of a PhD student is ripe with opportunities for exploitation, and I think in many ways it’s an anachronism. So, unionize and professionalize!

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Marc 02.09.12 at 2:03 pm

@128: There is an awful lot of misreading going on in this thread.

The original claim was that union protection could compel a professor to keep a student as a RA. The counterargument was a practical one: if the relationship between the two is so poor that the professor wants to end it then the student is not going to have that person serve as a mentor. This holds true across other fields as well. Now, obviously, the student can set up a new relationship with another mentor – this happens all of the time. But there is no advantage for the student to stay with a hostile adviser. Advisers who mistreat their students should clearly be sanctioned (although, again, there are models other than unions for how to do that.) But we got off into a surreal tangent, where it is a good idea for a student to spend years working for someone who hates them, and somehow they’ll be forced to write them recommendation letters that will get them good jobs.

The people not in academe are missing the fact that this supervision is typically one on one, and takes place over many years. And that graduate students are actually students, being taught how to do their profession. They’re not just workers, any more than undergraduate students are “clients.” And, at least in the sciences, they tend to graduate into well-paying jobs. And that the policies in most small graduate programs are designed by a small group of faculty in consultation with a small group of graduate students. It’s not the same thing as an assembly line.

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faustusnotes 02.09.12 at 3:36 pm

Marc, people in many professions spend years learning the ropes. In fact, a bit of professionalization might lead to a higher standard of learning – we’ve all seen the quality of “thought” that comes out of some of the more biased supervisors in the academic world (I’m lookin’ at you, Economics). Maybe if those people treated their students more like (shudder! woe!) “clients” and less like clay to be molded, we’d see a little more rigor in that part of academia. And why should students be victims of a single adviser anyway? What’s the benefit? It’s ego-massaging of the basest kind, and yet another example of a non-professional ethos.

I don’t see what “they tend to graduate into well-paying jobs” has to do with it. So do train drivers, but you won’t find each train driver being taught idiosyncratic crap by their particular supervisor, and bullied for failing to do things in a specific and outdated way. Engineers and doctors don’t learn in such a backward way, and they earn just as much as academics. So, probably, do Australian soldiers. What makes academia so terribly unique that a single professor has to have complete power over what a single student learns?

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Katherine 02.09.12 at 4:12 pm

The original claim was that union protection could compel a professor to keep a student as a RA.

No, that was not the original argument. As Henry said in comment 84.

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Kbunny 02.09.12 at 4:13 pm

Good discussion. The way you frame it makes me think the question is, “why do academics think they are special when they work for institutions with endowments that rival tech-giant capitalization?”

You say

“would seem to me to suggest that collaboration works better in a system where hierarchical subordinates do not live in fear of being canned summarily if they do something to annoy the boss. ”

“annoy the boss” might be something so simple as having the annoying quality of costing more money than supposed “peer institutions” are paying for a given employee pool. Oops, we’re looking at some “painful” staff reductions even though the endowment is as prosperous as can reasonably be expected (the securities wizards are right on schedule and everything)

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hellblazer 02.09.12 at 5:41 pm

to faustusnotes at 130: if you want to end up with new researchers in my corner of academia, that suggestion seems like it would be ruinous. (This is only meant as a narrow response to that comment, not to the wider discussion.) A lot of these students are not learning on the job, they don’t even know how do to the job when they start; this was the case for me when I was a student, and remains the case as far as I can see.

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hellblazer 02.09.12 at 5:46 pm

Also: not all academic fields, let alone practitioners, fit into the same box. It would help if people with an animus against academic unprofessionalism narrowed it down slightly by the fields which they have in mind.

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praisegod barebones 02.09.12 at 6:13 pm

Much of the debate here makes me think that academics just don’t understand the concept of professionalism.

You seem to be taking Marc’s position as as a good guide to of what academics as a class understand. I’m not sure that’s warranted. (John Quiggin and Henry Farrell are both academics too; fwiw, so am I and I’ve been shocked by some of what’s been put forward for it).

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Marc 02.09.12 at 7:45 pm

@132: “Victim of a single adviser?” It seems that a lot of people here have some really strange mental picture of what research is like and how it’s done.

A typical pattern in a department like mine would go something like this. Students are expected to do two non-dissertation projects with different people . These will almost always be first-author papers for them. They find a topic they like, a person that they can work with, and they then define a dissertation and choose that professor as an adviser. Once there is a dissertation they work together for 3 years, give or take, and then the student graduates. The adviser typically sinks many hours into teaching the student the intricacies of the field and how to perform original research. The payoff is that the student takes off and becomes the teacher once they’ve mastered the subject.

Some subfields involve massive collaborations, in which case the student defines a sub-project and the adviser spends more time jockeying for the students interest. Others involve small collaborative groups, in which case the concept of a single adviser is more dilute. Choosing the right graduate school and subfield is important because it largely dictates which of the models involved is the one that the student will work in. So in most cases of a one-on-one relationship, it’s one that the two people have chosen after completing something successfully, and it’s because they have compatible interests and working styles. And the flip side of the “power” of the adviser is the responsibility involved and the large up-front investment of time in training students and advocating for their career development.

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Tim Wilkinson 02.09.12 at 7:55 pm

’tis but a scratch

140

Eli Rabett 02.09.12 at 9:06 pm

The original argument was not that an advisor be forced to keep a student on, but that an advisor would be forced to support that student from the research grants that the advisor is responsible for. Neither Eli or Marc (assumed) would have much trouble with the idea that the department/university might support that student for some time, but if the student is not working on the project it is flat out illegal in the US to pay him or her from that grant.

However, let us move the ball forward a bit. Assume that Advisor Alice and Student Bob come to a parting of the ways. Assume also that Student B is not supported by the grants of Advisor Alice. How long should the student have to find another advisor and what if he or she cannot do so.

Now assume that Student Bob is being supported by the grants of Advisor Alice, does this change anything? If so what?

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Eli Rabett 02.09.12 at 9:07 pm

Oh yeah, on the letters thing, Eli has a friend who is a professor in Germany and whom he has occasionally asked for a letter of recommendation, and always gotten the question, US or German style. The latter is less glowing and more realistic.

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Henry 02.09.12 at 9:49 pm

Again, I refer people back to #84, which as Katherine notes seems to present a rather different set of arguments than those that Marc believes himself to be responding to. The obvious question for me is whether someone who might innately be inclined to fire a RA who has the impertinence to disagree with her politics will be more likely, less likely, or equally likely to do so under a system where there are actors representing her interests and clear rules governing fairness and appeal procedures, than under a system where there are no such procedures, and where the university will rubberstamp whatever the PA decides. The plausible answer to that question seems pretty obvious to me.

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js. 02.09.12 at 9:52 pm

Eli:

an advisor would be forced to support that student from the research grants that the advisor is responsible for.

No one has made this argument. Straw men always make for good company though.

144

Salient 02.09.12 at 10:34 pm

The original claim was that union protection could compel a professor to keep a student as a RA.

No, it really wasn’t, and it’s increasingly exasperating to have to re-explain this. The claim is that with union protection the student has a better chance of receiving the protections they were supposed to receive according to official university policy.

The counterargument was a practical one: if the relationship between the two is so poor that the professor wants to end it

…then the professor can be a professional about it, suck it up, fulfill their professional responsibilities, and follow all the procedures their university has in place, so that that professor is not violating the student’s right to be bound to those procedures as part of their contractual agreement with the university facilitating and governing the terms of both of their employments.

@117: and we have exactly this setup without unions.

No, ‘we’ don’t, at least not those of ‘us’ (not including me) who are graduate students at the University of Michigan. When you hire someone while you have a policy in place governing how to fire them, and then don’t announce any change to the policy and don’t follow that policy to the letter, you’ve done something wrong, you misled the student when hiring them; unions provide a mechanism through which we can prevent or inhibit exactly that kind of wronging.

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Marc 02.09.12 at 11:14 pm

@144: And it’s also true that I clearly misunderstood what was being argued on the other side. I was trying (yet again) to explain what I was reacting to.

I will just have to disagree on the merits: for students in my field, I don’t think that they’ll get any meaningful protections against bad advising relationships from the presence of a union. Students may or may not want collective bargaining for things like wages, and that’s fine. But the flip side of small-scale and personal instruction is that it doesn’t lend itself to remedies designed for large industrial work forces.

Yes, the ordinary course of things is for professors to be professional, and we’re talking about hypothetical cases where all of the usual solutions have failed. I think that the way to deal with abusive professors (who exist) is for students to have procedures in place to make complaints (thus we agree). In our case professors can be disciplined by their colleagues (and are). If you’re postulating a bad professor and a bad department…well, I imagine that you might need some outside force to fix that. If you’re not dealing with both…maybe not.

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faustusnotes 02.10.12 at 1:35 am

hellblazer:

A lot of these students are not learning on the job, they don’t even know how do to the job when they start;

obviously I’m not proposing that people go straight from undergrad or masters to being a fully-fledged academic; rather, I think that maybe PhD studentship should be abolished in favour of a structured and professionalized research assistantship, which includes training in the necessary aspects of the profession, supervision of the sort one sees in other professions, and proper assessments under some formal kind of program. This would then be the first level of a properly professionalized academic career. Most people who enter a research assistantship straight from a Masters are learning on the job, and that’s accepted by everyone involved. So why not just get rid of the distinction between paid, not-yet-fully-skilled researcher, and unpaid but not-yet-fully-skilled researcher?

The answer of course, is that lots of academics enjoy having a free or very cheap workforce at their disposal, that can be expected to take on the tedious and nasty tasks and do long hours because it’s “for their career.” If all their students turned into paid-up, unionized research assistants they wouldn’t be able to make them do a lot of the stuff they do. Think,e.g. of that stats guy in GMU who blamed his plagiarism on a student (who wasn’t credited anyway). He’d have thought twice about that if the student were a unionized and paid employee.

Separately, I would be interested to hear what people (including the OP’s authors, and Michael Berube) think of the conflict between academic freedom and professionalism, and how these two things can be balanced. I don’t think it always can be, and I think this may be the big downside of academic freedom – but maybe I’m just misunderstanding the ideal.

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ezra abrams 02.10.12 at 3:09 am

my perspective is that of phd molecular biology
A lot of phd candidates aren’t that good, and professors are reluctant to hand the wheels of Formula I race car to an idiot, to mix metaphors
a prof running a research lab is a small businessperson (it is one of life’s little ironys that grant funded professors are more captilist, in a true free market, then say M Romney or most business people); like any (ANY) rational employer, they seek to limit the wages and power of their employees; I mean, what else would you do if you are an employer ??
Sexual, political and psychological power – I always find it astonishing in these meta-academic discussions that no one is willing to explicitly say, a tenure prof job is apretty good gig, esp ifyou like to lord it over people
If any other similar group of professionals talked about their jobs, without mentioning how attractive young interns are screwed (literally and figuratively) academics would shred these people…the mote in thine own eye, etc

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Jerry Vinokurov 02.10.12 at 3:33 am

I just want to interject a description of two actual scenarios with which I am familiar in order to maybe help shed some light on where the unions might come into this discussion. One of these situations took place at my graduate institution, in my department (physics); the other took place at a friend’s graduate institution in a different scientific department. I’m keeping the details of both situations vague out of respect for my friends’ privacy, but I am reporting all the things I either know or have very good reason to believe are accurate and germane to the point.

Situation 1: A friend of mine, who was also at one point my lab partner in a class, was admitted to my graduate program (he was a year ahead of me) and wanted to be a theorist. Since I’m guessing Marc is a physicist of some sort, he should be able to confirm that competition for theory spots is quite tough in many departments. In my particular department, it was very clear that the adcom had admitted more people than there were theory spots. What that meant, obviously, was that someone would end up being left out. Who got the theory spots was determined almost entirely from the results of the preliminary exam, scored in my department out of 50 points. Since the folks competing for the spots were very bright people, it was not uncommon for a one-point difference (this is essentially noise as far as the prelim goes) to decide who got what. I know my friend scored very well (I don’t know what it was but it was well over 40) but for whatever reason, whether it was because more people scored even higher or the profs who had openings didn’t like him for some reason, or I don’t know what, he wasn’t offered a spot. Long story short, he had the choice of either leaving or becoming an experimentalist, and as his lab partner I can vouch for the fact that the latter option would not have gone well for either him or the experiment. In the end, he chose to leave the department and transfer to a much less prestigious one so that he could pursue the theoretical work he wanted to do (he loved it that much). The last wrinkle here is that he was also foreign, so without staying in a graduate program, he couldn’t stay in the country.

Situation 2: My friend is a graduate student working under a professor with a large group. This group included two individuals, one male and one female. The male grad student made repeated unwelcome sexual advances on the female grad student, to the point where the female grad student had to take a leave of absence to cope with the situation. When my friend brought the issue before his advisor, the advisor replied that he didn’t know what was going on, didn’t care to know, and because it wasn’t an “academic” problem, it didn’t matter anyway. To this, my friend replied that he could no longer work with the harasser and requested that he (the friend) be excused from any interaction with him (the harasser). My friend’s advisor refused this request, and again, long story short, the final outcome was my friend having to withdraw from his department over this issue.

I bring this up because it seems to me that these are exactly the sorts of situations which unions could help prevent. Admitting more grad students than you know you have places for in the hopes that they’ll abandon their stated goals to fit into your organizational rubric is dishonest, in my view; standing by while one grad student sexually harasses another and then not allowing a witness to that harassment to excuse himself from interaction with the harasser is even worse. In both of these cases, a union would almost certainly have had institutional protections in place that would have either prevented these abuses or given the people involved some measure of recourse.

The problem with the informal methods Marc is defending is that in an informal setting without any formalized protections, the person with the power (that would be the professor) is essentially infinitely more powerful than the underling. Yes, academia is special in some ways, but it’s not that special. It’s not so special that underlings cannot be victimized by their supervisors (or others in the department, as per Sit. 2) and it’s not so special that those with the power should be allowed to wield it however they please without having to answer to anyone. If a grad student is truly wrongfully dismissed, maybe reinstating them isn’t the right remedy, necessarily (you really can’t work for an advisor who hates you), but they sure as hell should get some kind of compensation. Because the flipside to Marc’s point about how grad school works is that it is also a gargantuan investment of time (not to mention opportunity cost) on the part of the student, who hopes to defend their dissertation and come away with a degree; if that path is unfairly derailed, then it is absolutely imperative that the student be compensated in some way.

As we’ve seen from quite a few posters in this thread, GSRA unions exist in many places and don’t seem to affect the student-advisor relationship, nor do they seem to result in hypotheticals like “English grad students setting the compensation of grad students in physics” (although if I’m wrong about this, please do correct me; I’ve never heard of such a thing happening, although to be honest I’m not sure it would be entirely inappropriate even if it did). Instead, they function to protect the basic rights that I think all workers, grad student or not, should have: the right not to be abused in the workplace, the right not to be deceived by management, the right to not be expected or coerced to work 70 or 80 hour weeks (and believe me, when you’re working that much, the returns diminish quite rapidly). I think these are perfectly reasonable protections to want and grad students are perfectly reasonable for wanting them.

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hellblazer 02.10.12 at 3:58 am

faustusnotes: thanks for the reply. I’ll just reiterate, if only for those who are skimming or catching up on the thread, that I am not arguing against unionization of “grad students” (which country? which systems?) but am just a mite peeved with an apparent assumption in some of the discussion on CT that what’s observed in one field as the norm is how things work in other fields and other places.

For instance, in my discipline (or the niche thereof), a PhD student would only be up to the level of a RA by the time they finish and become a postdoc – I don’t have any work I could give to them as slave labour that I couldn’t do more quickly and more reliably myself, except in cases of exceptional students. To be less coy: I’m a mathematician, of the “no applications expected” variety. There seems to be some tacit vision of a “lab” in much of this discussion, and that’s simply not the model for how PhDs work for us.

The answer of course, is that lots of academics enjoy having a free or very cheap workforce at their disposal, that can be expected to take on the tedious and nasty tasks and do long hours because it’s “for their career.”

this is, in my field, more of a concern at the postdoctoral level. My feeling, but I admit this is based largely on subjective though not uninformed impressions, is that trying to make the PhD training phase in my area more professionalized would be too Procrustean. That doesn’t mean students shouldn’t be given some buffer or safety net in the form of unionization, especially if it comes to TA work. But a mathematics PhD is not something you can learn on the job, unless you spend your time on the job holding everyone else up and reducing productivity. It has to be done, to a large extent, away from the coal face and in the training room. (The teaching component of graduate studies, on the other hand, is very different, and I would instinctively welcome options of unionization here.)

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faustusnotes 02.10.12 at 5:33 am

I would have thought that Jerry’s point:

The problem with the informal methods Marc is defending is that in an informal setting without any formalized protections, the person with the power (that would be the professor) is essentially infinitely more powerful than the underling

should not need reiterating on a left-wing blog. It’s kind of basic. Institutional intervention is necessary to mediate negotiations between a weak person and a powerful person, or else the powerful person always wins.

I’ve also seen many examples of the same flavour as Jerry highlights. I think many of them would go away – or would end very differently – in a unionized workplace.

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Jerry Vinokurov 02.10.12 at 6:08 am

hellblazer,

I don’t have any work I could give to them as slave labour that I couldn’t do more quickly and more reliably myself, except in cases of exceptional students. To be less coy: I’m a mathematician, of the “no applications expected” variety. There seems to be some tacit vision of a “lab” in much of this discussion, and that’s simply not the model for how PhDs work for us.

This is sort of an orthogonal question to the question of unionization (surely the sorts of things I described do not require a lab in any sense to happen), but let me just say that in a lot of other fields, grad students (and postdocs) do indeed function as very cheap labor. A great deal of my own graduate education was spent soldering and drilling holes in things, because that’s what had to be done; not a great use of my time and talents (such as the are), I thought. And I wasn’t the only one working on my collaborative project who had to do a lot of menial work like this.

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Katherine 02.10.12 at 10:05 am

like any (ANY) rational employer, they seek to limit the wages and power of their employees; I mean, what else would you do if you are an employer ??

I dunno, act like a human being towards other human beings instead of an arsehole? Honestly, is it just taken as read by you that it is a benefit to the employer to have their employees paid as little as possible and miserable? That’s an extremely zero-sum way of looking at things. Another would be that happy, well-paid employees might be more productive and useful, and less likely to take industrial action, say.

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Barry 02.10.12 at 12:20 pm

Jerry Vinokurov: “Yes, academia is special in some ways, but it’s not that special. It’s not so special that underlings cannot be victimized by their supervisors (or others in the department, as per Sit. 2) and it’s not so special that those with the power should be allowed to wield it however they please without having to answer to anyone.”

I disagree to agree – Ph.D. programs are rather special, in that the people in them have very little power, and are trivially easy to crush. They have extremely low mobility between departments, which drops to virtually none as they progress.

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kris 02.11.12 at 8:06 am

To summarize Marc’s argument:

1. Faculty essentially have complete power over grad student careers.

2. It is not clear how unionization would dilute said power, instead it would
create a lot of paperwork.

3. Therefore unionization is a bad idea. Instead one should rely on a) informal networks and b) “grievance procedures” for students and self policing of faculty (i.e disciplining each other).

This argument is very weak.
i) Students face a real fear of retaliation if they file grievances, while professors rarely suffer any real consequences for mistreatment. This is the case even in situations going far beyond poor treatment by faculty, involving professional misconduct on the part of faculty (e.g scientific misconduct, see for example the case of one H. Hellinga at Duke). Informal policing by faculty has no real value, since i) they have a greater cost to bear by punishing one of their own rather than ignoring student grievances, and ii) even if the department is “good” and well intentioned, faculty have little enforcement power.

At the very least a union provides some legal workplace protection for students, which is better than nothing. Expecting students to give up this in order to repose their faith in a group of people with power over their careers and whose interests are different and in conflict is at the very least a poor idea.

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