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University Unionism and the Decline of Academic Freedom
Progressive Populist
by Nathan Newman
April 01, 2002

New York University is rapidly becoming the Detroit of post-industrial university unionism, the place where labor precedents are being set for campuses across the country.

In 2000, graduate students at New York University made history when the National Labor Relations Board ordered the school to end its refusal to recognize the union; NYU grad students became the first graduate teachers' union to win a federally-supervised election at a private university.

In January of this month, NYU was forced by union mobilization to agree to its first graduate employee union contract, improving benefits and raising salaries by as much as 40% for many teaching assistants.

And on February 28, the National Labor Relations Board formally charged the university with illegal retaliation against Professor of Education Joel Westheimer, the only untenured professor who had testified on behalf of the graduate students before the Labor Board back in 1999. (Full disclosure-- my law firm worked on his behalf). His denial of tenure last summer sparked a nationwide protest by unionists and fellow academics, including five past presidents of the American Educational Research Association, who praised his scholarship and noted that he had been unanimously recommended for tenure by both his department and seven outside scholars brought into review his work.

Responding to this protest, Celeste Mattina, director of the labor board's New York region, stated that after a four-month investigation, the agency had concluded that NYU violated the National Labor Relations Act. "After balancing the information, we concluded that the real reason for his denial of tenure was because of his union activities," said Ms. Mattina.

This vindication of Dr. Westheimer just highlights the assault on academic freedom embodied in the union-busting that is a pervasive element of modern university life. NYU's actions show that even the supposed integrity of tenure processes will be undermined to prevent university workers from having a democratic voice on campuses.

During the original university campaign against graduate student unionism, administrators sent out legal memos telling faculty how to use their position of authority over graduate students to pressure them to oppose the union.

Among those who voiced public disagreement with the administration was Dr. Westheimer. Beyond his sympathy with to the union drive, Dr. Westheimer felt a particular responsibility as an Education professor to speak out on this issue. With administrators arguing that unionization would be harmful to teacher-student relations, Dr. Westheimer felt he had an alternative viewpoint as a nationally recognized scholar on issues of teacher community and service learning.

At a forum organized last October by Jobs with Justice to highlight NYU's abuses of union rights, witness after witness testified to how the retaliation against Dr. Westheimer had put a chill into academic freedom at NYU. They noted that when the administration feels free to punish an academic superstar like Joel Westheimer, all teachers at the university have to fear whether saying or doing anything controversial will lead to retaliation by the University.

The anti-union intimidation by NYU just follows a similar pattern of schools like Yale. During a 1996 graduate teachers' strike, some Yale faculty and administrators threatened strike participants with being banned from future teaching assignments, suggested that participants could be kicked out of graduate school, and adopted a policy allowing faculty advisers to write negative letters of recommendation on the basis of strike participation. These reprisals led the federal government to file charges against Yale administrators and faculty and led to resolutions of censure against the school from the Modern Language Association, the American History Association, and the American Association of University Professors (AAUP).

One reason Dr. Westheimer has been forced to seek redress through the National Labor Relations Board is that there is no longer a legitimate grievance process at NYU through which a professor can appeal. Back in 1990 , the NYU administration was censured by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) for violations of principles of academic freedom, tenure, and due process. As Dr. Westheimer noted, "NYU is censured by the AAUP for improper grievance procedures; the review committee is essentially a dean's advisory committee. The judge is the person your complaint is against."

Increasingly, courts have recognized that the secrecy of tenure decisions is not a protector of academic freedom, but often its enemy. No less an authority that the Supreme Court has forced universities to open up their tenure records in tenure disputes, noting that Congress intended to "expose tenure determinations to the same enforcement procedures applicable to other employment decisions." University of Pennsylvania v.EEOC (1990)

Even if the tenure process is reformed, that will not protect the academic freedom of most teachers on university campuses, since increasingly most instructors are temporary or part-time without any job security to protect their rights to free speech on campus.

One reason the graduate employee union campaigns nationwide are so important is that graduate students teach an increasing percentage of all classroom hours. And nationwide, graduate students are responsible for 90 percent of all grading of undergraduate papers and exams.

Between 1975 and 1995- a period when overall enrollment was expanding significantly - the number of tenure track faculty actually fell by 10 percent nationwide, even as the number of graduate teaching assistants increased by nearly 40 percent. As well, the number of short-term adjunct professors, each teaching a handful of courses each term for low pay, has vastly increased on campuses. It is estimated that 50 to 70 percent of all teaching hours are now performed by graduate students or adjuncts.

In a university world where tenure is increasingly a thing of the past, unionization is the only guarantee of both decent working conditions and free speech. Graduate students have had unions on a number of public universities for years, and now, in the wake of the NYU labor board decisions, graduate students, adjuncts and other academic workers at Yale, Tufts, Brown, Temple, Columbia and other campuses have seen an explosion of new union organizing.

Unionization is critical for the preservation of free speech and academic freedom on our campuses. As Donna Lieberman, head of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said at last October's Jobs with Justice forum, "It is necessary for students and other faculty members and other employees to understand the connection between the NYU administration response to the union and academic freedom. It is clear to me that when a professor loses the right to tenure because he spoke out that a chill goes through the classroom."

Nathan Newman is a labor lawyer and longtime community activist, a national vice president of the National Lawyers Guild and author of the forthcoming book Net Loss on Internet policy and economic inequality. Email or see
Posted by Nathan at April 01, 2002 10:29 AM