On Being a Graduate Student (sort of) On Strike

by zunguzungu

The UC system is striking today, and after taking part (and taking pictures), I wanted to pause a minute and occupy the moment I’m occupying. For one thing, the idea of a university on strike is sort of a strange one. After all, a university is not a factory, where the idea of a strike was (sort of) first invented, and to which the idea still sort of mythically harks. And the real strike is a two-day work stoppage by the UPTE, a professional and technical workers union (their memo on the strike here), who can strike because they are workers in no uncertain sense and because they are charging that the university has engaged in unfair labor practices. As indeed it has. Since the grad student contract is not up for renewal, the most that we are supposed to do is sympathy strike. I’m not sure whether the difference matters. But this is also not really about labor practices, not entirely. Or rather, that “not entirely” is what makes figuring out what to do in this situation such a complicated thing.

After all, I am a worker in a very real sense: without the slightly-above-the-poverty-line money they pay me to teach, I would not be able to live this lavish lifestyle in one of the most expensive population centers in the country. Yet thinking of grad students as workers is not quite right. Part of it is that being a graduate student is, in practice, to work very hard for very little money. But I say that less as a complaint than as a way of expressing the fact that most of the work we do is essentially voluntary: what we are paid to do and the amount of work we actually do are not, in any direct way, connected. It would be incredibly easy to skimp on one’s classes, incredibly easy not to schedule those extra office hours, to spend that extra half hour on grading each paper, to spend half a day preparing a single hour’s class (not to speak of all the other stuff we don’t get paid to do, like the entire industry of producing scholarship). Sometimes we do just enough to get by, of course. Sometimes I am selfish, and I choose to do only as little as they actually pay me to do. But, then, I’m not talking about being a bad teacher; I’m talking about the difference between what you can get away with doing and what can be done. Because there is no endpoint to how much this job can take. If you were completely selfless, you could spend your entire life pouring energy and time into the black hole that is the “what could be done” to make your classes better. There is always more.

In practice, then, we learn to strike a balance. And one of the things that I find most striking about the graduate student teachers I’ve known is not so much where they strike that balance, but why. The teachers I admire work extremely hard for their students, taking a responsibility for their students’ education, less because they are paid to do so than because they have the opportunity to do something for students who come to become far more important in our lives than they probably realize (or we sometimes like to admit). It’s difficult to do this job well, and I’ll be blunt in saying it’s something I’m still struggling with, and something I’ve often fallen short in doing. But it’s because we take our professional responsibilities personally that the job becomes more than “merely” a business transaction.

Which is why there’s a striking contrast between an administration that wants to make the problem of education a purely economic one, to reduce everything to its cost and value, and this university’s teachers, who do more than they are paid to do as a matter of course, precisely because they think in terms of what they can do, and what needs to be done. And especially because they know what the UC administrators can avoid having to acknowledge, that when corners get cut, the students are the real human beings who end up falling through the cracks. This is only part of why I’m not at all comfortable thinking of my students as consumers of a product that I’m selling them, one of the baseline assumptions of the University’s increasing privatization. For one thing, if each class is a discrete unit of instruction that can be priced, then I’m getting royally screwed out of what they owe me. For another, the thirty percent tuition raise that the regents are voting on (update: voted on) will mean that the money my students paid last semester will now purchase roughly 76% of that much instruction next semester, or something like that. And if this is a simple transaction of dollars for instruction, then we have as much right to arbitrarily decide to withhold our instruction as the university does to arbitrarily raise tuition and withhold 10% of the salaries of faculty and staff. No one, in short, would have any obligations to anyone.

But, of course, I think we do. And this is why every graduate student I know is deeply conflicted about canceling classes for the strike. Our obligations to our students are at odds. On the one hand, every class canceled is that much less time they’ll have to learn things that we don’t have nearly enough world or time to teach them anyway. But on the other hand, the UC system is screwing them by arbitrarily raising tuition 30% at the same time as they gut the quality of the education they receive[1]. That the state is partially responsible is part of the story, of course, as is California’s incredibly stupid and dysfunctional fiscal process, but the UC regents and President have acted in bad faith throughout the entire process, have capitalized on a legitimate crisis to push forward a narrow partisan agenda against the stated objections of a whole range of stake-holders within the university. There’s a reason why 96% of the university community voted “no confidence” in UC president Mark Yudof, just as there is a reason why Time magazine named him one of the top ten university presidents for having done everything in his power to make this place a worse (but more profitable) university. Some people like the idea of a public university, while some people believe a university should simply be a corporation. Some people think public education is a worthy allocation of public funds. Some people do not.

Yet while you can have this disagreement in good faith, what makes me angriest is that the people in power have not done so. To take some language from the UCSB Academic Senate’s vote to censure Yudof:

1) UCOP has misrepresented the real nature of the University’s financial situation.  The options with which we were presented in June were not the only ones available, but were calculated to coerce us into accepting measures that UCOP and the Regents wanted to enact. The state cutbacks, though significant, are being used as an excuse to proceed aggressively with further steps toward transforming the University from a public resource, dedicated to the education of the people of California and the pursuit of knowledge, into a profit-making enterprise, a research facility of benefit primarily to industry and beholden primarily to commercial interests.

2) The “emergency powers” declaration, approved in July, was unnecessary, an effort to give the budget measures an air of urgency and inevitability that they do not in fact possess.  The specific purpose of the emergency powers is to free UCOP’s hand to undermine longstanding institutional structures, like faculty governance, and to circumvent financial obligations to faculty, staff, and students.

3) The decision of UCOP (as communicated in the memo of Provost Pitts) to override the expressed will of the Senate by demanding that faculty furloughs be taken on non-teaching days is a direct assault on the principle of faculty governance, a deliberate and offensive effort to undermine and degrade the institutional culture of the UC system.

4) President Yudof’s recent interview in the NY Times was an embarrassment. His statements showed him to be a cynical opportunist with no commitment to education.  He called his own entry into the field of education an “accident;” he claimed that the “shine” had gone off education, and he likened the UC system to a cemetery.  Such remarks are an insult to the UC community he is well paid to serve and lead; they are unbecoming to the president of the nation’s leading public University. They call his fitness for his position into question.

I have real reservations about the strike myself. I wish there were a clearer sense of what the goals were, and I wish I understood how some kind of negotiation is supposed to occur here. But then, that problem is, itself, a huge part of what we are protesting, the manner in which the administration has declared that no negotiation or discussion will occur. The Regents granted Yudof a range of “emergency” powers at the July 15th meeting precisely so that there could be as little input from the university community at large as possible (putting aside a university tradition of shared governance) and Yudof announced the specifics of the furloughs and salary reductions three days before the meeting (ignoring a broad range of alternative plans that were offered) precisely because the official line is that they don’t have to negotiate (The Council of UC Faculty Associations legal challenge to it is worth reading, by the way). But I go back over this not to rehearse all the reasons why Yudof is Teh Terrible but because having a coherent negotiating position presumes that they are listening to us. They’re not; which is why this strike can’t be about what results we want at the bargaining table. Everyone who is not a regent has already been excluded, en masse, from this discussion. This strike is, for me, about making Yudof and the regents admit that there is a bargaining table, that the university community at large has a legitimate stake in these decisions as well. They have an obligation to us, too.


[1] It’s hard to overstate how depressing this semester has been in terms of watching this university get dismantled. Berkeley is still a great place. But every part of the university’s mission that is not being degraded right now while simultaneously becoming more expensive. And while the change is gradual and slow, it has also been comprehensive, and the collective experience of watching it happen is incredibly frustrating.