Corporate Universities Are Shocked To Learn They Have Graduate Student Employees

BY MICHAEL MERANZE

The following is reposted with the author’s permission from the Remaking the University blog.  Michael Meranze is Professor of History at UCLA. 

As you may know, a 3-1 majority of the National Labor Relations Board ruled that Columbia University’s Teaching Assistants (known at Columbia as Instructional Officers) are to be considered “employees” under the terms of the National Labor Relations Act.  As a result of this ruling, Columbia’s TAs (and by implication those at other private universities) now have the legal authority to seek an election to select a union to collectively bargain with the University.  In so ruling, the Board Majority overturned a previous decision concerning Brown University but also, and more significantly, rejected the argument that if a graduate student’s relationship with their university was “primarily educational” (6) they could not be considered employees when serving as Teaching Assistants.  Instead, using the legal equivalent of “if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck…” the Board Majority ruled that when graduate students functioned as common law employees (under the power and direction of managers subject to sanction and receiving compensation) then they should be considered employees.

Moreover, the Board majority noted quite correctly that whatever may have once been the case, in the modern corporate university graduate student employees provide important economic service to their university.  As the majority noted (16):

Teaching assistants frequently take on a role akin to that of faculty, the traditional purveyors of a university’s instructional output. The teaching assistants conduct lectures, grade exams, and lead discussions. Significant portions of the overall teaching duties conducted by universities are conducted by student assistants. The delegation of the task of instructing undergraduates, one of a university’s most important revenue-producing activities, certainly suggests that the student assistants’ relationship to the University has a salient economic character.

The Board thereby acknowledged the current structure of university labor–that Teaching Assistants (like adjunct faculty and tenure track faculty) provide important economic value to universities above and beyond the educational benefit they may receive.  That economic value is generated by teaching classes and sections that bring in tuition.  Without this revenue, private universities could not exist. Moreover, this  labor takes place under the determination of the university’s needs and not of the educational logic of graduate education.

In doing so, the Board recognized the logic that has been systematically imposed by university managers onto their teaching forces for decades now.  As is common knowledge, a substantial amount of the actual teaching in higher education is done by graduate students and adjuncts (of course the amounts vary institution by institution).  Despite all the worries expressed about how collective bargaining will intrude inappropriate economic questions into academic life, it is, in truth, the changing labor strategies of universities that have already subordinated academics to economics.  The never ending cries to make universities more like “businesses” (i.e. lower labor costs) is only the most obvious symptom of this transformation.

Predictably, the managers of leading private universities have objected to this recognition of reality in the discussion of graduate student employment.  As Corey Robin has pointed out, Chicago, Columbia, Princeton and Yale all quickly released statements warning graduate students that they might lose their individual voice in the overweening collectivity of a union. Implicit in all of these discussions is the threat that if graduate students voted to be represented by a union on issues relating to their working conditions, these negotiations would interfere with the educational relationship of faculty and graduate students.  As Columbia’s Provost John Coatsworth put it in a letter to staff: “For my part—and, in this, I speak for my colleagues in the University administration and for many faculty members—I am concerned about the impact of having a non-academic third-party involved in the highly individualized and varied contexts in which faculty teach and train students in their departments, classrooms, and laboratories.”  But this claim is absurd on its face.  As Provost Coatsworth must well know, if the graduate student employees vote for collective bargaining it will be graduate students and not some “non-academic third party” conducting the negotiations in a situation in which universities have long let non-academic (financial) considerations shape their programs.

It is hard to tell whether these responses are a sign of managers’ failures of self-awareness or truthfulness.  After decades of transforming themselves on the model of the financial industry (and ensuring that many of their students end up in finance), they now worry that economic interests may disrupt academic relationships.  But graduate student employees at Columbia and elsewhere are seeking an institutional mechanism to address a power imbalance between them and university management. It is in fact this power imbalance that is destroying the academy from within, and not bargaining rights designed to correct it.  The NLRB recognized that.  Reality made a rare appearance in the discourse about the economics of higher education.

7 thoughts on “Corporate Universities Are Shocked To Learn They Have Graduate Student Employees

  1. What are these “corporate influences” you speak of, and where are their “profits” going? I look at the American university system and see much that resembles a budget-maximizing public bureaucracy. But that is a distinct beast from a corporation.

    • If you look at the private (not public although this applies there as well) universities that this post talks about you will see an increasing effort to “be like” corporations and to remake themselves in ways that will appeal to the financial and investment communities. This can take a variety of forms in universities: deployment of more and more precarious labor, diversion of funds from education to branding, funneling money to real estate, raising of tuition (which often supports activities beyond the educational core), greater authority for non-academic activities, etc. It is true that they don’t have “profits” in a traditional sense but if you look at their internal structures they try to model themselves on the contemporary corporation (including outlandishly salaries at the top determined in a manner similar to how corporate CEOs salaries are determined). And as the the post made clear, the key recognition in the NLRB decision was that the relationship between universities and their graduate student employees is an employment one and not some pristine academic one of long past memory. Hope this helps.

      • That’s an interesting list of grievances. Now where is the empirical evidence that they are happening? And what makes them features of a “corporation” as opposed to a bureaucracy?

  2. If you look at the private (not public although this applies there as well) universities that this post talks about you will see an increasing effort to “be like” corporations and to remake themselves in ways that will appeal to the financial and investment communities. This can take a variety of forms in universities: deployment of more and more precarious labor, diversion of funds from education to branding, funneling money to real estate, raising of tuition (which often supports activities beyond the educational core), greater authority for non-academic activities, etc. It is true that they don’t have “profits” in a traditional sense but if you look at their internal structures they try to model themselves on the contemporary corporation (including outlandishly salaries at the top determined in a manner similar to how corporate CEOs salaries are determined). And as the the post made clear, the key recognition in the NLRB decision was that the relationship between universities and their graduate student employees is an employment one and not some pristine academic one of long past memory. Hope this helps.

  3. Sorry if this is out of comment order I accidentally double posted in response to your previous comment.

    Anyway, if you spend time with the annual financial statements of any of the Universities you can track the investments, there is a lot of data available on the growing salaries of University Presidents (the CHE posts that each years), the changes in the job force are well documented as well. You can find a good analysis of some of Columbia’s shifting of resources by looking at the reporting in the Columbia Spectator as well as similar reporting on Chicago. Do you really doubt the increasing spending on branding etc? If this was intrinsic to bureaucracies that still wouldn’t explain the particular timing of these changes so to me simply asserting that it is the nature of a bureaucracy doesn’t get us very far. On the other hand, these developments have gone hand in hand with efforts to impose models drawn from business and also–although this is in the public sector obviously–from declines in state funding and increasing dependence on private sources of revenue. Bok had some interesting things to say about this in his “Universities in the Marketplace” although at that point the developments were more ambiguous.

    • Nothing about that is distinctive of “corporations” though. Bureaucrats actually *do* in fact behave as you describe:

      – Overinvestment in non-essential personnel (administrative bloat, anyone?)
      – Maximization of administrative budget allocations (basically every campus in America
      – Wasteful spending on large capital projects to build new office space for administrators (also every campus in America)
      – Overpriced PSA-style ad campaigns about themselves, but without actually having any product to show for it (aka what you call “branding”)
      – Pretending to be concerned about efficiency by mimicking what they think the “business world” does…except as implemented by bureaucrats, so it ends up becoming even less efficient (this is what you are mistaking as “corporatization”)

  4. No, you are mistaking a particular transfer of corporate (or perhaps financial corporate) practices for something instrinsic to bureacracies. There is a specific history to those things you point out that are tied to changes in the ways that universities operate and the finacial rather than educational logics that they now employ. If there was no history or historical change in all of this your assertions would have more persuasiveness. But what you describe are the results of misplaced reverence for a particular type of corporate approach. Corporatization is a more precise way to describe it as opposed to simply attributing it to generalized characteristics of bureaucracy (although i completely agree that one of the effects of corporatization has been an expansion of those bureaucratic numbers you describe–and that universities have not provided adequate explanation or documentation for why they are necessary for the educational missions).

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