A Victory for All of Us: A Conversation
M: In your article for Workplace,
"Tenure Denied," you describe how the NYU administration rated
you about as highly as an assistant professor can be rated—you had some
pretty stellar accomplishments over a very short period of years. You
were essentially a model for the super-achieving young faculty member.
The administration changed its tone of approval shortly
after you supported the unionization of graduate student employees at
NYU, eventually denying you tenure.
The union filed suit with NLRB, alleging
wrongful denial of tenure on the grounds that it was an illegal retaliation
against your pro-union stance.
Can you tell the result of that investigation?
What that means is that they filed
the equivalent of an indictment so the matter would go to trial. By
that time, I had already taken a position teaching at the University of
Ottawa, which allows me to live in the same city as my wife, who teaches
at Carleton University. So I was flying back and forth to do this trial
Before trial, however, NYU settled
the case by paying me a financial settlement and by withdrawing the denial
M: For you it wasn't a question
of the size of the settlement.
J: This was a solution for
me personally at the time because they essentially admitted they had made
a mistake. Unfortunately, labor laws in the U.S. have no teeth, and the
maximum amount of money that I could have been awarded in the end—that
would have been in about ten years after they appealed it all the way
through the courts—is the amount of lost salary between the new job I
had taken and what I would have been paid at NYU. Going through the NLRB
there would have been no punitive damages and no legal fees returned back
to the union, so it seemed to me that the point was made.
M: So part of the settlement
negotiation was trading off the size of the settlement against keeping
your right to talk about the incriminating materials that you and the
union discovered in connection with the case.
J: I particularly wanted to
retain the right to speak on this topic and write about this topic.
M: Some of the NYU internal
documents that you uncovered in the process of preparing for trial were
extraordinary. Could you tell us some of the startling statements
by administrators that you uncovered?
J: The now most famous of the
emails that has been around is one that Dean Ann Marcus wrote regarding
non-tenure track faculty, saying, "we need people that we can abuse,
exploit, and then turn loose."
I think what's extraordinary about
these statements is that they were circulated on email, where there was
an excellent chance they could be recovered. What's not extraordinary,
unfortunately, is that these kinds of conversations go on all the time.
M: That's right. She also wrote
to other administrators, nominating one to be "leader of the NYU
union-bashing negotiating committee." And then she wrote about you
personally, writing that you should be required to share an office with
another left faculty member, and call it the "V. I. Lenin suite."
J: She actually had a meeting
with that other faculty member and explained to him—in a surreal moment—that
she meant that as a compliment, that she admired Lenin's achievements!
The other faculty member is a historian and he felt the need to remind
her that Lenin would not have been supportive of academic freedom or of
graduate student organizing.
The other memo was in connection with
an effort to keep union members from speaking at a faculty meeting.
M: What do you think of
the personal character of some of these assaults? A position for you that
is intellectual, a matter of political commitment—I doubt very much that
among your motives for supporting the organizing and unionization of grad
employees is some kind of animus against individual members of the administration.
By contrast, it seems clear that individual
members in the administration single out individual students and supportive
faculty members and take aim at them personally, on an emotional level—not
a considered strategy of "making examples" or whatever. They
seem to take offense. They make it a personal matter. What do you think
of this administrative personalization of the struggle?
J: That's a good question.
I think you're on target with something here that is actually an important
part of what goes on at organizing campuses. The campaign against
me was definitely personal. Certainly it was, on the part of the dean
at the School of Education. It was an anti-labor position, but definitely
it was personal also in a way I think we all have to understand in order
to fight these efforts in future situations.
I think my testimony before the labor
board meant something different to administrators at NYU than it did to
me. As you said, for me it was a political path. It's something I felt
I needed to do, the intellectual expression of my ideas and research in
education. For people like us, we're connecting our intellectual life
to public events.
I think I naively assumed that the
Dean of the School of Education would see it the same way. I didn’t even
know at the time that I testified that she was testifying on behalf of
the university against the graduate students in the trial. But when I
found out, it didn’t bother me in the least—I mean of course she would,
she's an administrator and she represents the university administration’s
interests. I don't even know what her personal views are on unionization. But
I just assumed, you know, of course we all accept the principles of academic
freedom and the right to express one’s ideas means that, sometimes, we're
going to disagree.
What I didn’t realize was the degree
to which that kind of behavior on my part was viewed as thumbing my nose
at higher administrators. I think they viewed it as a power play on my
part, you see, as if I were saying "they can't touch me and I can
do what I want."
M: This paternalism becomes
part of the administrative subjectivity and a closely held aspect of personality.
J: Paternalism is a good way
to describe it. I remember that, shortly after I testified, I got a letter
from an associate dean about something saying that he was "shocked
and disappointed" at my behavior. With that kind of language,
they were saying they were shocked in the same way a parent might talk
to a child. Not, as between adults, "we disagree with this,"
or, you know, "he shouldn’t have done this for that reason."
The psychology of the administrators in some of these situations is deeply
M: Was this experience
painful for you?
J: It was a big mixture. It
was obviously a difficult time, and I wouldn’t want to go through it again.
On the other hand I was really touched and heartened by the amount of
support and inspiration that I got from colleagues at the university and
scholars around the country.
It was an amazing outpouring of support,
a kind of solidarity that I don't think NYU administrators at the time
could possibly have imagined and it quickly got well beyond what they
were able to control.
They encouraged me to appeal my decision
within the university structures not to go outside the university. (In
fact the first thing they encouraged me to do was to withdraw my tenure
bid "for my own good," so I wouldn’t have the "embarassment"
of being denied tenure on my CV and of course, then I also wouldn't be
able to appeal or take legal action—which was naturally in their interest,
not mine.) I chose not to do that.
Instead, immediately, I made this
whole issue public. I don't think they were expecting that.
M: What are the consequences
of cases like your own for organizing and for the experiences of junior
faculty throughout the academy? In your view, how is your case being digested
or experienced by others?
J: I have an optimistic answer
and a pessimistic answer. Let me give my pessimistic answer first. The
pessimistic one is that, sure, it has chilling effects when someone isretaliated
against. It makes junior faculty members—regular faculty members as well—think
twice before expressing their views on a particular issue in fear of retaliation.
My optimistic answer, which I would
like to put more stock in, is that the amount of support that I got and
the degree of success we had in the case, would, I hope, encourage junior
and senior faculty members to stand their ground on issues that they feel
are important. At least in the end—sometimes—justice is done.
But that of course is not enough. I
would never advise anyone to do something like this based on the idea
that it is going to turn out right because things don't always turn out
right in the end. I think it was Vaclav Havel who said that hope
does not derive from working towards something that you know is going
to meet with success—I'm paraphrasing here—but rather from the knowledge
that you are doing the right thing.
I think we all joined the profession
of higher education, teaching and doing research in pursuit of ideals
of academic freedom and intellectual inquiry. Those are the ones we need
to stand by. If you give those up you're really in a different profession.
M: In the essay, you say you'd
do this again. Would you do it differently knowing what you know now?
J: I probably would be less
naive about the ferocity with which the administration defends its position. I
would be much more aware of my risks, and would keep much more detailed
records. All kinds of things. I was very lucky in the amount of material
I was able to amass regarding the administration's position, and I was
lucky with the general facts of my original tenure case which seemed so
clear cut in relation to my chances of promotion, at least to everyone
outside the administration, especially the national labor relations board.
I would go into it a little wiser. I
would make particular decisions around the case differently. I think
I would have pursued very similar lines of action, but have been more
aware of the consequences of what I was getting into.
M: What if anything would you
ask from the NLRB in the future? How has your experience, with the degree
of recourse that you have, and so forth, helped you to formulate a vision
of changes in labor law and the public institutions devoted to workplace
J: In the United States, labor
is under continuous political attack from the public administration and
unfortunately is losing ground. I'm not a labor law expert, but the main
problem with labor law that I see is that there is no teeth to the law,
there is no ability to assess punitive damages, to collect damages that
are assessed, to collect fines, to force any corporation to pay for legal
fees. The findings against employers provide no disincentive whatsoever
against breaking the law in the future. There is little effective
recourse. Secondly, labor law is a difficult field to practice. Labor
lawyers are hard-working and want to do the right thing, but generally
so poorly paid and overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task that they
often work at it for four years or less. I mean, it's demoralizing. Lawyers
working for labor are really understaffed and overworked. People end up
leaving and going on to better things.
It's a real shame that there's not
a stronger backbone for labor across the country.
M: In the aftermath of the
successful organizing drives at NYU both for graduate employees and adjuncts,
there was a huge growth in organizing at private universities, such as
Cornell and the University of Pennsylvania. I wonder if you have thoughts
about the recent set backs in the organizing at Cornell—the failure of
a card drive—as well as the surprising results of a recent interim poll
conducted at Yale, indicating less support for unionization than expected.
Do these setbacks have some significance
for organizing at private universities in general or are they just bumps
in a long road?
J: The most recent poll at
Yale, I actually think is not significant for all the issues we're talking
about and I'll tell you why. As far as I read the situation, the
graduate student union had I think 850 pledges to vote yes cards and only
600 or so of those people went out to vote. I think people just weren't
taking it seriously. I think the union basically just didn't get out the
vote. It was a strategic mishap, but not one that signals any falling
off of support for unionization.
The graduate students voted overwhelmingly
for the graduate student union in 7 out of 8 divisions in the university.
The one division where the vote did not go for the graduate student union
was in the Life Sciences, which has been historically a difficult area
for the struggle. Strongly anti-union faculty throw graduate students
out of the labs and retaliate in other ways. It's in that division where
most of the no votes were cast and the administration did a good job of
getting the anti-union vote. I think it was unfortunate but not
really indicative of what's going on at Yale.
M: You think reluctance to support unionization in certain sectors of the graduate employee population such as the Life Sciences is related to the structure of the employer/employee relations between faculty and students, which increases the likelihood of retaliation?
J: Absolutely. In the sciences
the faculty member has far more control over the content and completion
status of your dissertation. If they kick you out of the lab, you are
basically starting from scratch after three or four years of work. There
is also the fact that graduate students in those divisions can be less
interested in the union partly because they are better paid and partly
because their work conditions are better. The job is not the same. Things
are not the same for them as they are for graduate employees in other
parts of the university.
M: They're a labor aristocracy
on a small scale.
J: On a small scale, exactly.
Of course universities have worked quite hard to get the NLRB to recognize
these anti-union divisions of graduate students as part of the union,
after first fighting to bar all graduate students from being part of a
I think that there is a deeper problem represented by this Yale incident
across the country both for graduate student organizing campaigns and
faculty organizing campaigns.
I don't know what to call it other
than the pervasive culture of American individualism which permeates not
only every other sector of society but academia as well. It goes
something like this: "we are working in a merit-based system, and
if I do my job correctly—if I'm a good graduate student and I'm smart
and I do my work well, I will therefore be rewarded with a plum teaching
assignment later on in life and I will be part of the academic elite and
get a job."
The ability for the American culture
in general to promulgate that vision of merit-based rewards has created
a system where collective action is hugely de-emphasized.
People feel they don't need to work for other people, or to fight for just working conditions, for collective betterment, for workplace democracy, and so forth.
M: You see the fantasy of merit
as a great loss to everyone, including those dubbed "meritorious."
J: It's an unfortunate state
of affairs for two reasons. One is economic and political. The simple
reality is that for the majority of disciplines the claim that the system
is merit-based is just not true. There are vastly more qualified, hardworking
individuals than there are academic positions for them to fill. At a certain
level of proficiency, it becomes the luck of the draw.
But there is a much more insidious
cost of individualism. Unorganized faculty and graduate students are missing
out on an extensive opportunity for what has provided meaning to millions
of people who have come before us and that is: coming together with other
people to work for something you care about.
That kind of collective action or
activism is something that has sustained and driven individual people
and has been rewarding to them in all kinds of arenas throughout the nation's
history. It is being diminished and replaced by a false sense of our ability
to have individual success and a sense of meaning.
I'm not expressing myself very well.
M: No, I think you're expressing
it beautifully. In literature we talk about the ideology that you
are describing as one of the core tenets of realistic narrative. That
is, narrative on television or in novels gets recognized as "realistic"
precisely because they embody the dominant principles of possessive or
striving individualism. Including the claim that a person’s material conditions
reflect their moral conditions (or their merit).
So that of course the persons who
are socio-economically on top appear to have earned their way into that
And almost any other set of claims
figures as unrecognizable as "realistic." Collective realities
figure in tv or mainstream novel as somehow unreal, or they're—literally—unrepresentable
in the genre.
J: Yes. Yes. There's a terrific
speech on the West Wing where a character asks how is it possible that
all of these people can be voting to repeal the estate tax when it so
obviously advantages millionaires and is completely against their own
And Martin Sheen, playing the president,
says that it's because deep down in their hearts they all want to believe
that one day they'll become one of those successful and privileged people.
I think I see the same condition in
faculty. I think it is more pervasive in the university. This rock
star model of academia where people going into graduate school believe
their hopes for professional happiness lie in their recognition for their
individual work rather than collective action.
There are a handful of faculty to
whom that happens and I'm sure it's an enjoyable life, but the reality
is that for most of us that's not going to be the way we spend our professional
lives. The incredible joy and meaningfulness that comes from working
in collective action is lost. And the absence of that in the working
lives of many academics is a tragedy because that's what keeps us going.
M: It's hard to maintain passion
about your work when it's reduced to a vehicle for your individual career.
J: Exactly! I was at AERA [conference
of the American Educational Research Association] at a terrific session
where Bill Ayers was interviewing Studs Terkel who is I think in his 90s.
At one point he asked Studs, who's now completing another book, what keeps
In fact when asked to do the session,
Studs said, "Bill, I can't. I've got this book and I just don't have
time, I'm really under deadline for this book."
And Bill said, "What's the deadline,
when do you need to have it by?" and Studs said to Bill, "Bill,
I'm 92 years old; I'm the deadline."
But he did agree to do the session
and in the middle Bill asked him what keeps you going and Studs thought
about it for a minute and he said one word: "Activism."
And you can take that to mean a number
of things, but I took it this way—being an activist, you get to
work as a part of something bigger than yourself and that's where a lot
of meaning comes from in our professional lives.
And I think this kind of trend towards
individual achievement and individual reward is a direct attack on a kind
of contentedness that can come from working together on meaningful projects.
M: This leads into talking
about some paradoxical realities for educators. On the one hand, as you
so clearly lay out, the whole system of education, K-12 and higher education
together, actively manufactures this ideology of merit and striving or
On the other hand, paradoxically,
teachers are among the best organized laborers in the United States. Schoolteachers
certainly, but also higher ed. In public universities nearly 2/3 of faculty
are organized. Nearly half of all higher ed faculty overall really. At
minimum they are three times more likely to be organized than the average
American worker at this point in time.
On the one hand, ideology factory
for individualist striving. On the other hand, well organized on their
own account, at least by comparison to the average worker.
Is there any way of negotiating that
particular paradox in your mind?
J: Before we get to that let
me just turn it around because I'm kind of curious why you think the private
universities are less well organized.
M: That's a good question.
I think it has to be culture and the law together, maybe in equal parts.
The law, especially Yeshiva, had a very chilling effect right at the moment
when academic labor organizing was peaking elsewhere in the public sector
so I think a lot of private organizing was stillborn at that moment.
That could be turning around now.
J: Administrations have been
trying to get the message across that unionizing and organizing is the
antithesis of intellectual life. As if crass power interests come into
play instead of lofty scholarly work.
I think some of the faculty are finding
out the opposite is true.
You take away enormous power differences that keep faculty from free intellectual inquiry through organizing. Unionism has the effect of freeing intellectual inquiry especially for junior faculty in a way that is difficult to achieve without organized unions.
People are getting to realize that unionism is not the competition to intellectualism. One of the promises of collective action is getting beyond these false divisions.
M: It's a little bit like the contradictory subjectivity of the armed forces, in which you find all of these socialists who don't recognize themselves as such. These soldiers, who give their lives to export and enforce capitalism, expect massive social support in the way of day care, housing stipends, below-market food and goods, education, health and retirement benefits.
M: It is quite clear that the
graduate employee union is the most vigorous and interesting sector of
academic labor organizers at the moment. On the other hand it is
also not the whole labor movement. There is the continuing organizing
of unorganized faculty, especially at private campuses; there is the organizing
of adjuncts and part-timers and non-tenure-track lecturers.
There's also the continuing work of
established academic unions, the representation of the already organized.
What is your sense of the relationship
that needs to be created between these different sectors of academic labor?
What's wrong with the relationship as it stands now if anything?
J: I think this comes
back in part to what I was saying about the idea of being star faculty,
which is more emphasized in some areas of the academy than others.
The tenure track faculty need to recognize
that their future is inextricably bound up in the future of adjunct laborers,
graduate students and part-time faculty and non-tenure-track full-time
faculty, which is a hugely growing sector of academic labor.
I think we all need to realize that
our collective work lives, our professional lives at the university are
all bound together. The circumstances of adjunct and graduate students
relate to the circumstances of the tenured faculty: senior faculty get
to teach lower level work loads and to teach only the courses that they
want to; they can go on sabbatical and be replaced by an adjunct professor—who
is making $2,000 a course.
It can also be turned around. Once
it's clear that a senior faculty member can easily be replaced by a temporary
part-time laborer or an adjunct or a graduate student making a fraction
of their salary, it's clear that the teaching that the senior faculty
does is devalued. With the financial incentive to replace their teaching
by a much cheaper employee, their scholarship is also less valued in the
Our futures are linked together. I
would extend that far beyond just adjuncts and graduate students to janitorial
and secretarial labor, so we should all fight in concert for a just work
environment, a more just and productive place to work.
M: One of the things that the
NYU case makes clear is that the university employers are very aware of
their community of interest . The different schools actively collaborate—they
support each other financially, with tremendous vigor and aggression.
Their apparently individual labor struggles are really collective activities,
involving the sharing of knowledge, experience, funds, high-powered attorneys,
and so on. They have seminars together and file briefs on each other’s
behalf. They work actively with another in order to divide and contain
the labor movement.
It seems to me that what you're saying
is that the academic labor movement does not have quite as clear a sense
of their community of interest.
J: I think that university
employers have been extremely successful in accomplishing what I talked
about before which is an individual entrepreneurial model of academia
and I don't think that university administrations suffer from that notion.
Faculty and adjuncts and graduate
students, the people with the least power in the university still suffer
from the illusion that they can go it alone.
I don't think university administrators
suffer from that illusion at all. They know that they need to pool
their resources to engage in this and they're right.
M: Your research is in democratic
education. What's at stake in democratizing our schools?
J: Let me just pursue a tangent,
still on the university, for a second here. I think that if we as
faculty and organizers come together with the idea that if we could just
get university administrators to relinquish the reigns of control and
free the democratic deliberation and decision making process that all
will be right with the world, we're mistaken.
One thing that is going to be needed
is a culture change and a more holistic approach to our work, where what
we write about is also what we practice and strive to experience in our
daily lives. This means increased civic engagement and political participation
in working to improve society.
what are the issues that connect the movements, from the K-12 education
and higher education? How would you start to build an ensemble of
relations between the groups and sects of activist and democratic communities
in both areas?
J: I think we need to be working
in both places. The historic ideal of education in the United States as
a way to preserve and promote democracy or the democratic society is one
that we really need to recapture. It's an ideal that John Dewey laid out
and many others have laid out for education; and it is one that I think
is crucially important especially in these times when all kinds of civil
freedoms are threatened.
Both K-12 and higher ed have a critical
role to play in the creation of a society where there is democratic deliberation
and democratic participation and one of the ways it's actually done is
starting from the institutions themselves.
K-12 and higher ed as institutions
both need to reflect the kinds of democratic ideals that we want to see
in the broader society.
M: It seems to me though that
there's a gap between the kind of education, education for citizenship
that you describe in the Dewey tradition and the actual practices of service
learning in which, so often, students are just farmed out as cheap or
J: Yes, unfortunately some
of service learning has moved in that direction. As an umbrella concept,
service learning has a promising potential to move education in the direction
of democracy and active citizenship.
Too often it means primarily that
we want citizens to be honest and to show up at work on time, be nice
to their neighbors and to give blood. These are nice things, but they're
not about democratic citizenship. The "thousand points of light"
are all very well when you're talking about volunteering but if you're
only talking volunteering separated from a critical sense of justice and
a better future, what you're really talking about with the thousand points
of light is a thousand ways to conserve the status quo. So really what
we want to ask ourselves is what are the traits we want in future generations
of democratic citizens?
Democratic citizenship means to me
citizens with the ability to examine, explore, and critique social policies
and social institions with the goal of improving society. I think that
some service learning programs do that but not enough of them.
M: To what extent can schools
support a democratic citizenship in the context of increasing corporatization?
J: I think that the political
right in the country is incredibly successful at portraying the purpose
of education, K-12 and higher ed, as a giant job training institution,
whose goals are to prepare students for the work force.
Many things follow from this, not
the least of which as an incredible impoverishment of education.
You end up looking for mere outcomes
that can be measured in a way that a corporation or factory looks for
ways to improve efficiency and so forth.
If you see the outcome of education
as being an employable workforce that meets the needs of American corporate
interests then what you have is a very different agenda for education
than the progressive tradition.
M: Now that you live in Ottawa,
what differences do you see between the Canadian and U.S. education practices
and academic labor circumstances?
J: There are of course many
similarities as well as differences, and many troubling trends appear
in both places, such as the massive defunding of education in Ontario,
but there are some very distinct differences that I’ve noticed.
Most of them fall into a category
that I would say was a sort of generally freer attitude toward discourse
that surrounds conversations in the newspapers, television, among colleagues
in higher ed—but also among people in the streets.
The public discourse allows for talking
about of ideas especially regarding systems of social organization that
somehow seems more suppressed in the United States and I’ll give you an
example. When I first began reading Canadian newspapers, I was shocked
to read in a mainstream national newspaper a critique of capitalism.
What struck me about that is how surprised
I was. I mean you don't see this in the New York Times.
In the New York Times capitalism
is called "the market" or "the economy."
There's no sense that we could talk about the pros and cons of it. It's
And here in Canada that is not quite
as true. There is a discourse around the idea. For example, you might
in the mainstream press read that "capitalism is a system that has
many benefits and many problems that need improving."
That's something that's quite refreshing
here. In addition this sort of extreme individualism that I talked about
in academic work—of course it exists here as well, the idea of the individual,
but not with the same force. There is a greater understanding of the need
for more collective undertaking and for more organized social projects
that help improve all of our lives.
M: So the final question I
did want to ask you is to imagine someone who has been a graduate employee,
someone who was involved with a union or organizing campaign, has taken
a degree and persevered for perhaps a year or two—and has eventually found
a position and is now an assistant professor.
What sort of lessons do you think
your experiences have for that graduate employee activist who has recently
turned into a new assistant professor?
J: I think as you know I would
never ever advise someone who sees an injustice while they're an assistant
professor and wonders, should they confront it, I would never say yes,
you definitely should speak out about it. It's a very personal and individual
decision with risks and benefits that have to be addressed specific to
But I do feel comfortable saying,
be careful—if you want the freedom to express ideas—of delaying and postponing
that kind of work because if you spend long enough postponing that kind
of work—and I don't think it takes that long—you forget how to do it.
There's always another carrot that
is dangling somewhere out there. First you need your mentor's recommendation.
Then you have your first academic position and tenure. Next it will be
a full professorship you want. Then it will be your own center or some
other favor from the dean.
We can't live our lives that way.
I would never advise someone to do anything, any particular thing in a
given situation that might have them risk their job. But I would ask that
people think carefully about how they want to function in their profession
and take action toward it.
M: Joel, that's great.
Thank you for this.
J: Thank you, Marc. I’ve really
This interview was conducted by telephone on May 6, 2003. It has been edited for length. Special thanks to Stacy Taylor and Chris Carter, both of the University of Louisville, for transcription services and additional editing.