> Where Have All the Tenured Radicals Gone?
> Robert D. Johnston
> Robert Johnston is assistant professor of history at Yale University and
> author of a forthcoming book on middle-class radicalism in Portland, Oregon.
> When I arrived to teach in Yale's history department in the fall of 1994, I
> was excited about a number of things. Not the least of them was the idea
> that I would be teaching in a department that honored politics, especially
> my kind of politics. The faculty exemplified a connection between scholarly
> inquiry and radical visions. David Montgomery, for instance, was a
> preeminent labor historian and a scholar who insisted on the primacy of
> class in human relationships. David Brion Davis had produced a stunning and
> eloquent critique of capitalist hegemony, in The Problem of Slavery in the
> Age of Revolution. Nancy Cott was among the leading feminist historians of
> our time.
> These and many other professors had trained graduate students who had
> produced prodigious amounts of wonderful-and plenty of
> left-wing-scholarship. Indeed, as a relatively mild and gentle populist, I
> was wondering how soon it would be before I would be taken to task for
> being an insufficient leftist in the city that had housed one of the nodes
> of the Radical History Review collective.
> I soon found that the graduate student union struggles at Yale had twisted
> the political environment in strange ways. No longer would I have to worry
> about being insufficiently leftist. Indeed, my tenured radical colleagues
> were almost all, with very few exceptions (David Montgomery being the
> primary one), viscerally opposed to GESO-the Graduate Students and
> Employees Organization.
> This was primarily a matter of chatter until the end of the fall 1995
> semester, when GESO staged its well-known grade strike (discussed fully in
> Cary Nelson, ed., Will Teach for Food: Academic Labor in Crisis). Then the
> rage against GESO truly poured out, led by my distinguished senior
> colleagues. It's not as if the history department was worse than others in
> this regard; indeed, in mild (and ineffectual) ways, history professors
> tried to contain some of the worst excesses of administrative hostility and
> vindictiveness toward union members. If anything, post-colonial literary
> critics were even more retrograde on the labor question than left-wing
> Why Does It Matter?
> I want to explain here the opposition, hostility, or even apathy to union
> organizing in the places you'd least expect it. Regarding apathy, many of
> us found that we simply couldn't get those few senior faculty who were on
> "our side" to do much, if any, of the nitty-gritty grunt work of
> organizing, when it came to offering support for GESO and for the other
> Yale unions that went out on strike during the 1996 spring semester.
> Indeed, left-wing faculty sometimes had the most hostile reaction to the
> idea of graduate student unions. On one occasion, one of my senior
> colleagues-echoing sentiments I heard elsewhere numerous times-blurted out
> that "during the '60s I was involved in real politics. I helped occupy the
> president's office at my college in order to bring the Vietnam War to an
> end. What these kids are doing now is simply the revolt of the pampered,
> pretending that they're exploited."
> Beyond an insulting-and fairly constant-use of terms such as "kids,"
> "children," and "juveniles" to describe thoughtful adult graduate students,
> it was clear that such a reaction indicated just how personally threatening
> graduate student unions were to senior faculty. What was it, then, that
> caused such good leftists, or at least liberals, to come to such
> conservative conclusions about the most pressing political matter on campus?
> I am still not sure that I have the answer to this mainly political, but
> partly psychological, question. Material reality explains a good part of
> it: graduate students do most of the hard work of teaching, which otherwise
> regular faculty members would have to do. Or, if one prefers explanations
> based on power and status, it is readily apparent just how easily tenured
> professors at places like Yale get sucked into an extremely close
> identification with the institution. This goes well beyond the kind of
> loyalty that an institution needs in order to run effectively. Rather, it
> involves a sense that the tenured faculty own the institution and, as in
> most large-scale organizations, the most valuable kind of property is
> control. Graduate student unions interfere with the sense that tenured
> faculty know what is best for the institution-and can decide on what is
> best without the substantive input of those below them.
> Many professors seemed to take genuine glee in watching the administration
> crush the grade strike, and the anti-union rhetoric at the Yale College
> faculty meeting where the strike was discussed was venomous. The senior
> administration (which consisted exclusively of regular Yale faculty
> members) firmly upheld the right-indeed, it was suggested, even the
> obligation-of faculty members to include reports of students' union
> activities in their letters of recommendation, even after the American
> Association of University Professors (AAUP) and other professional
> associations rebuked this action as a violation of academic freedom.
> Rarely did one hear outright anti-union sentiment; indeed, many of the
> anti-GESO faculty had been fairly prominent supporters of Local 34, the
> clerical and technical workers' union, during its strike for recognition in
> 1984-1985. Instead, the special nature of graduate student status was
> emphasized. Unions were for factory operatives or coal miners; graduate
> students were privileged would-be members of the elite. More respectfully,
> distinguished scholars discussed how important it was to create a
> semi-sacred cultural space outside of the dictates of both market and
> modern organization. Graduate education was one of the last places in our
> culture where a non-pecuniary apprenticeship mode of vocation could be
> On the surface, these are compelling arguments, especially if one has
> already taken for granted that the general decision over these issues
> should be made by faculty members or administrators, not by the graduate
> students themselves. Yet, it was ironically GESO, with its strong stand
> against casualization, that was most effectively combating the real forces
> that were undermining "traditional" academic relationships. Even the most
> virulent anti-union senior faculty at Yale bemoan the replacement of
> full-time faculty positions with part-time work, but none of them has a
> plan to staunch the flow. One would at least think that if this was a
> genuine priority for them, they would be more willing to engage in a
> dialogue with the one institution at the university that has brought this
> fundamental issue to the table. That they didn't and don't is testament to
> a fundamental flaw in the way they look at the world.
> Where to from Here?
> As things look now, there will be more efforts to organize graduate
> students and adjunct professors in the near future. For those embarking on
> an organizing campaign, I share the following thoughts. Graduate student
> organizing will almost certainly not get anyone hit over the head by the
> "boss-man," but it can jeopardize student-faculty relationships, affect
> chances for academic jobs (although GESO activists have done remarkably
> well on the job market), and create personal and professional tensions in a
> variety of relationships. Graduate students, in all likelihood, will be on
> their own-or, as is increasingly likely, have the federal government and
> organized labor, but not the senior professoriate, on their side. (If
> forced to choose, though, I'd choose labor and the feds.) It should be
> noted that coming to grips with political isolation can be empowering. It
> undercuts one of the most detrimental qualities perhaps inherent in the
> hierarchical nature of graduate education: We (the tenured faculty) know
> better than you (the graduate students and non-tenured faculty) because we
> are older, have been around the block more, understand the world better,
> and because, in the end, we're smarter. Such paternalistic and patronizing
> assumptions are often, if not generally, untrue in the world of humanistic
> education, where each generation has to unshackle itself from its elders
> just as much as it has to learn the extremely valuable wisdom that our best
> sages should-with humility-hand down to us. And it's certainly untrue in
> the world of university politics, where the cold brute facts of power and
> institutional prestige operate just as coldly as in the real world.
> So, where have all the tenured radicals gone? The radical impulses of the
> New Left generation survive, and it is certainly worth trying to bring them
> around during an organizing drive. But if, or rather when, they don't come
> around, it's time to cut bait. It's better to speak their language-of
> democracy and equality-while making clear that you take these terms more
> seriously than they do, serious enough to make higher education
> institutions imbibe them.
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