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Graduate Student Unions Undermine the Ideal of a University

It is hard to suppress schadenfreude about the recent ruling of the National Labor Relations Board giving graduate students the right to organize labor unions.  Elite universities are united in their opposition, but these same institutions are dominated by left-liberals who want to expand the reach of unions in businesses. Most of their professors approve of increased regulation on everyone but themselves. The NLRB is giving them a taste of their own medicine.

Universities are in fact a much more hierarchical world than most businesses with a vast gulf in compensation, prestige, and autonomy between tenured professors and everyone else.   If critical university theorists were as much in vogue as critical race theorists and radical feminists, we would be treated to endless papers on the oppression of university hierarchies. But for some reason universities don’t produce such advanced thinkers.

Nevertheless, given the baleful effects of this ruling, we should contain our glee.  First, the university is not the factory floor, and graduate students are essentially students, not employees. Teachers are mentors of students, not their bosses. Unions will tend to turn congenial relations between independent scholars into an adversarial ones between different groups.  They will create an atmosphere focused on the petty disputes of the moment rather than the transmission of truths and sensibilities from one generation to the next.

Second, unionization is in tension with many of the other laws that regulate modern educational institutions. Unionization, for instance, tends to require disclosure, where academia values confidentiality, a value now encoded in many laws relating to education.

Third, this ruling will accelerate one of the worst aspects of the modern university—the empowerment of bureaucrats. Labor relations specialists, not department chairs, will have a larger role in shaping the schedule, staffing and structure of courses.  Professors may remain autonomous in their research, but unionization will be another step in making them bystanders in the way their universities are operated.  With the addition of each new regulation and each new administrator, universities become ever more places run for the benefit of competing stakeholders rather than for accumulation and dissemination of knowledge.

And finally, unionization will make universities more expensive and less flexible.  As a result, undergraduates will take on more debt and yet have more difficulty designing a course of study that will meet their needs.  Our universities must become more efficient and innovative to help society navigate the shoals of accelerating technological change. Unionization, here as elsewhere, makes for more rigid and hidebound institutions.

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on August 26, 2016 at 09:16:32 am

"Third, this ruling will accelerate one of the worst aspects of the modern university—the empowerment of bureaucrats. Labor relations specialists, not department chairs, will have a larger role in shaping the schedule, staffing and structure of courses. Professors may remain autonomous in their research, but unionization will be another step in making them bystanders in the way their universities are operated." This observation is spot on.

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Mark Pulliam
on August 26, 2016 at 10:57:18 am

#3 & #4 are as Mark says "spot-on."

However, why would the *university* and in particular right-leaning professors (as few as they are) not benefit from a good "airing-out" of currently confidential decisions on tenure, etc. So scratch #2.

As for #1 -" rather than the transmission of truths and sensibilities from one generation to the next."

When the heck did all these leftist professors, to whom you allude, start doing that? Unless, of course, by "sensibilities" you mean encouraging the young to seek safe spaces due to their enhanced *sensitivity* to contrary opinion.

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gabe
on August 26, 2016 at 12:33:17 pm

Why, no—baseball isn’t a profession, it’ a game! Anyone can see that! So obviously it should be exempt from antitrust laws….

Why no--Hobby Lobby doesn’t exist to make money; it exists to manifest the owners’ love of Jesus! Anyone can see that! So obviously it should be exempt from Obamacare sanctions….

Why, no—universities aren’t places run for the benefit of competing stakeholders; they’re places run for accumulation and dissemination of knowledge, free from any stakeholders! Anyone can see that! So obviously….

It’s always incongruous to see hard-nosed economists who won’t tolerate sentimentality suddenly waxing lyrical about how their own noble profession transcends the petty self-interest that plagues other human interactions.

In fairness, every circumstance has its unique aspects, and every regulation’s benefit comes with a burden. Maybe McGinnis is right that in this circumstance, the burdens of the National Labor Relations Act will exceed its benefit.

But I’m not sure I’d identify the same benefits and burdens as McGinnis.

First, the university is not the factory floor, and graduate students are essentially students, not employees. Teachers are mentors of students, not their bosses.

The problem with this statement is that it glosses over the diverse outputs generated by the university: It does scholarship. It trains grad students to become professionals. And trains undergrads. It provides credentials and status. It provides recreation for the community (especially sporting events). It provides recreation for students (especially other students)

So, is a university a factory floor? With respect to the research and teaching of a grad student, arguably not. But with respect to cranking out another semester of intro Econ classes, it’s totally a factory floor.

Is the grad professor a boss? I suppose that might vary by institution. Who decides which grad students will teach which classes? Who sets the pay? If the grad student doesn’t show up to teach, who yells at her? If the professor performs those tasks, then yes, the professor is the boss. If some school administrator performs those tasks, then arguably the professor is not the boss—and arguably, McGinnis would not have much basis to complain that unionization was displacing the role of faculty in administering their programs, because those duties have already been shifted to others.

Unions will tend to turn congenial relations between independent scholars into an adversarial one between different groups. They will create an atmosphere focused on the petty disputes of the moment rather than the transmission of truths and sensibilities from one generation to the next.

Yes, unions may stoke conflict; they have a self-interest in doing so.

But surely even McGinnis would have to acknowledge the flip side of that coin: Those in power have a self-interest in suppressing efforts by their subordinates to raise issues that are unrelated to, or antithetical to, the interests of those in power. And when McGinnis suggests that there is no adversity in the relationship between a professor (who may spend a decade or more wielding the power to grant or withhold benefits from his students) and the students themselves, he merely betrays his years of economic training.

Let’s take the easy example: Sexual exploitation. Does McGinnis really believe that professors have neither the interest nor the opportunity to extort sexual favors from grad students? And once you acknowledge the possibility of sexual exploitation, then why not exploitation of every other kind? Indeed, doesn’t economics teach us to expect precisely that kind of dynamic would arise in these circumstances—that people would exchange what they have for what they want?

We constantly allege such behavior by government agents; why should professors be exempt from the same scrutiny? (Indeed, I suspect that most college professors are government agents, because the number of kids attending public colleges dwarfs the number attending private ones.)

Unionization, for instance, tends to require disclosure, where academia values confidentiality, a value now encoded in many laws relating to education.

Not sure what this refers to.

Labor relations specialists, not department chairs, will have a larger role in shaping the schedule, staffing and structure of courses.

Federal labor laws don’t protect a worker’s right to intrude into management’s prerogative about the product being generated. So it’s unclear how unionized grad students would influence the schedule and structure of courses, any more than unionized auto workers influence the location of cupholders in the Dodge F-150 pickup.

[U]nionization will make universities more expensive and less flexible. As a result, undergraduates will take on more debt and yet have more difficulty designing a course of study that will meet their needs.

This much I suspect is accurate. At their base, unions function by wielding monopsony power over the labor supply to extract a larger share of a business’s profits for the benefit of laborers. Management has an incentive to minimize this reallocation. The competing parties eventually resolve their disputes.

But where organizations don’t operate according to traditional market forces, this dynamic gets muddled. Thus, elected officials may not have the same incentives as private businessmen to push back against union demands; the concessions they make will not be borne by themselves especially, but by taxpayers. Similarly, most universities are public and/or not-for-profit institutions. In the absence of “retained earnings” to allocate, increased costs must be transferred to other parties—such as undergrads or taxpayers.

Bottom line: When grad school was a brief apprenticeship before being declared a master of a remunerative profession, no one cared much about the burdens of this period. Now that the period for obtaining a PhD has grown and the assurance of remuneration has shrunk, people do care. For better and worse, grad school has already become more like a factory floor; the law is merely catching up to reality.

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nobody.really
on August 26, 2016 at 14:00:03 pm

This discourse is intriguing in that it focuses upon universities, institutions that developed from facilities that were established to meet social needs. Without going into the background of how our society recognized and provided for those facilities, we might proceed to understand that they are now "institutions, " with all the freight that ennobling condition carries; and what that entails.

So, before proceeding to offer some ameliorations to Professor McGinnis' concerns, and at possible risk of some repetition, let us consider the characteristics of institutions and then return to consider whether universities, as institutions, share certain characteristics and how those characteristics may produce unwanted or "adverse" reactions.

Carroll Quigley (1910-1977)

Used the term Social Instruments to describe facilities established to meet real social needs.

He found an explanation for the disintegration of social orders
in the gradual transformation of social instruments into institutions, that is, transformation of social arrangements functioning to meet real social needs into social institutions serving their own purposes regardless of real social needs. [From the introduction to the work cited below]

Quigley identified categories of human “needs” in the development of “levels of cultures ‘ that make up social orders.

He posits:

To satisfy these needs, there come into existence on each level social organizations seeking to achieve these. These organizations, *consisting largely of personal relationships,* we shall call “instruments” as long as they achieve the purpose of the [cultural development] level with relative effectiveness. But every such social instrument tends to become an “institution.” This means that it takes on a life and purposes of its own distinct from the purposes of the level; in consequence, the purpose of that level is achieved with decreasing effectiveness. In fact it can be stated as a rule of history that “all social instruments tend to become institutions.” [* added]

An instrument is a social organization that is fulfilling effectively the purpose for which it arose. An institution is an instrument that has taken on activities and purposes of its own, separate from and different from the purposes for which it was intended. As a consequence an institution achieves its original purposes with decreasing effectiveness. EVERY INSTRUMENT CONSISTS OF PEOPLE ORGANIZED IN RELATIONSHIPS TO ONE ANOTHER. AS THE INSTRUMENTS BECOME AN INSTITUTION, THESE RELATIONSHIPS BECOME ENDS IN THEMSELVES TO THE DETRIMENT OF THE ENDS OF THE WHOLE [ORGANIZATION. [Emphasis added]

[pp. 101-102 Op. cited]

The Evolution of Civilizations by Carroll Quigley 1961; Liberty Fund reprint 1979 Still available in print.

Once those thoughts are digested, we can return to consideration of the characteristics of today's universities in a follow-up post.

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R Richard Schweitzer
on August 26, 2016 at 14:39:25 pm

The relationships within universities are largely, if not entirely, hierarchal. Faculties are largely at least self-replicating where they are not self-perpetuating.

The institutional purposes are now largely hierarchal certification of completion of particular processes. Participations in those processes are generally very carefully monitored and controlled by the institutional hierarchy. Like most hierarchies, each is a coalition of group and personal interests.

As often happens within institutional structures, a dependence of some parts of the coalitions upon the participation of "non-members" for the maintenance or advancements of their particular interests, results in the formation of a coalition of those additional participants.

Given the reasons (principally hierarchal benefits) for the participation of graduate students in the processes controlled by existing hierarchies of universities, the formation of coalitions of those additional participants, and their use of other facilities from our social order for their coalescence, can be seen as a reaction and response to the institutionalization of those learning facilities, and as an offsetting factor to the absolute dominance of their hierarchies.

So long as the purpose of the institutions continues to be hierarchal certifications, we may have to accept intrusions into the processes for those certifications from sources (including, of all horrors, "bureaucrats") that are not, and have not been, part of the hierarchal structure.

Perhaps we should be less concerned with those intrusions and their effects, and more concerned with the conversion of those institutions into facilities that meet the *actual* cultural needs of our society as it is developing.

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R Richard Schweitzer
on August 26, 2016 at 15:44:28 pm

Yep - right on all counts!

"So, is a university a factory floor? With respect to the research and teaching of a grad student, arguably not."

except, perhaps, the above comment.

Arguably, it is a "factory floor" whose self developed and monitored *production* processes manufacture reams of reports in pursuit of additional government funding and grants. Funny, how we have turned a diffident academic into a high powered salesman in search of new Executive Agency customers.

Is this the distortion of the initial associational (instrumental)*aims* of which Richard speaks below?
I suspect it can be so argued.

Can a research assistant (Masters or Doctoral student) be denied credit for his or her work? You betcha? Could a union help these students? Perhaps?
Is it worth the NLRB's expected intrusions? Don't know - but perhaps the Academy does need a little shaking up. Who knows it may even get back to it's original mission - a Classical Liberal Education!

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gabe
on August 26, 2016 at 17:20:09 pm

To be a bit more clear on the cases, I should have written the last sentence of the second paragraph of the second post to read:

Like most hierarchies, each is *composed of* coalitions of group and personal interests.

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R Richard Schweitzer
on August 27, 2016 at 10:52:02 am

If I understand correctly, the "unionization" is to be effective for "Teaching Associate" functions not for the status as students qua Graduate Status.

As you note:

"Third, this ruling [unionization] will **accelerate** one of the worst aspects of the modern university—the empowerment of bureaucrats." [**added]

Administrators ("bureaucrats") are now well established as coalitions within the hierarchies of most universities. Originally established for specific functions of university operations, administration has taken on activities and purposes of its own, separate from and different from the purposes for which it was intended. Consequently it performs its *original* purposes with decreasing effectiveness. In gaining its position in the institutional hierarchy, administration provides and/or maintains benefits for the other members of the hierarchy. Among these benefits has been the increases in the use of supplemental "Teaching Associates" making available economic extractions from tuitions and appropriations for academic compensations by increased enrollments with no increase (and, often, decreases) in academic efforts.

The formation of Teaching Associates into effective coalitions will require some external supports for their establishment vis a vis administrators whose chosen functions require some degree of control over the position of Teaching Associates in the institutional hierarchy.

It is likely that administrators, rather than academics, will bear the brunt of the external intrusions into the institutional hierarchies. However, it remains to be seen.

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R Richard Schweitzer
on August 27, 2016 at 11:39:49 am

If critical university theorists were as much in vogue as critical race theorists and radical feminists, we would be treated to endless papers on the oppression of university hierarchies. But for some reason universities don’t produce such advanced thinkers.

Don’t they? How ‘bout Susanne Lohmann at UCLA?

”As the university became increasingly differentiated into schools and departments, and factions within schools and departments, and factions within factions, it became internally conflicted. The members of a faction tend to reserve the most intense feelings of hatred for their intellectual neighbors rather than for the inhabitants of far-away worlds. This makes it very hard for faculty in the same, or closely related, fields to agree on appointments and curriculum design.

Protective structures followed faculty infighting: strong walls sprang up to separate the departments and schools, and federalist structures emerged. The voting procedures that aggregated the preferences within and across departments and schools became ever more complex. The university thus developed an intricate internal organization to protect the faculty from each other.

* * *
There is a dark side to the history of the university. It is largely a history of ossification punctuated by bursts of intellectual vibrancy and structural innovation. In the large sweep of history, change occurs not because existing scholars, departments, and institutions move with the times, but through replacement. New ideas and methods are developed by new generations of scholars working in newly founded disciplines. New structures that support new forms of inquiry and learning emerge in newly founded universities.

Existing institutions do change—some of them, some of the time. When institutional change occurs, it is typically in response to the political or economic threat posed by entrants. Departments have a harder time reinventing themselves, and when they do, it is because of generational turnover, for individual scholars tend not to change at all.

* * *
The university is a cruel institution. It takes the best and the brightest, promises them the world, and then it throws most of them to the dogs. The vast majority of scholars start out as fresh-eyed and bushy-tailed newly minted assistant professors; their career peaks as they become tenured associate professors; and from then on their human capital declines steadily for reasons that are mostly not under their control. As a result, there is a lot of bitterness and resentment floating around in the heads of the tenured faculty.
* * *
Disciplines are controlled by journal editors and leading scholars who collectively decide what gets published in the top journals, who is awarded tenure, and which activities are to be supported by grants and showered with honors. There are selection biases in place that create a tendency for self-perpetuation. Perhaps most importantly, there is a natural bias toward gerontocracy that benefits scholars who are in mid-career or even over the hill. This is the group from which journal editors and leading scholars are drawn from, and they will tend to favor traditional work and support clones of themselves.”

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nobody.really
on August 27, 2016 at 14:25:20 pm

Nobody.really acknowledges why the private sector model of collective bargaining--created to eliminate the presumed "inequality of bargaining power" between labor and capital--doesn't fit in the public sector (or non-profit world): "At their base, unions function by wielding monopsony power over the labor supply to extract a larger share of a business’s profits for the benefit of laborers. Management has an incentive to minimize this reallocation. The competing parties eventually resolve their disputes.

But where organizations don’t operate according to traditional market forces, this dynamic gets muddled. Thus, elected officials may not have the same incentives as private businessmen to push back against union demands; the concessions they make will not be borne by themselves especially, but by taxpayers. Similarly, most universities are public and/or not-for-profit institutions. In the absence of “retained earnings” to allocate, increased costs must be transferred to other parties—such as undergrads or taxpayers."

This acknowledgment (salient but often overlooked) heightens the incongruity of importing unionization into higher education by altering the legal status of graduate students. The public sector allocates goods and services through the political process, not by "market decisions." Allowing public employees to "collectively bargain" distorts the allocation by granting them greater influence than taxpayers and voters, without any economic incentive for "management" to resist. This is why so many public employees are organized and why so many state and local governments have granted excessive compensation and benefits (especially pension benefits) to government employees.

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Mark Pulliam
on August 27, 2016 at 15:58:23 pm

www.srproject.com

Graduate Student Unions Undermine the Ideal of a University - Online Library of Law & Liberty

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www.srproject.com
on August 27, 2016 at 18:12:27 pm

This acknowledgment (salient but often overlooked) heightens the incongruity of importing unionization into higher education by altering the legal status of graduate students.

Two points of clarification:

1. This critique applies to grad students at public universities.

2. This critique applies only to the extent that it applies to public unions in general. I can understand opposing unionization of all public employees. But where the law permits unionization of public employees, I don't see the merit of excluding organizing rights to that tiny percentage of public employees known as grad students at public universities.

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nobody.really

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