Op-Ed: IU faculty member comments about upcoming grad worker strike

The following Op-Ed was sent to the Bloomingtonian Tuesday night by Indiana University Professor, Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies, Indiana University, Bradley A. Levinson:

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“Bradley A. Levinson

Professor, Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies, Indiana University

On the eve of the IU GSWC strike, the IUB administration has dug in its heels and refused to recognize the strong majority of graduate employees (Student Academic Appointees, or SAAs) who wish to form a union. In recent statements and actions, they are using a full-court press to cajole or intimidate lower-level administrators, and faculty, into breaking the strike.

A strike is regrettable for all parties, but it’s important to understand how we’ve come to this, and to offset the anti-union rhetoric with some crucial perspective.  I try to offer that here.

Our top administrators largely dismiss SAAs’ claims to fair labor rights by referencing the rewards of belonging to our “academic community.” SAAs are students, first and foremost, they argue. Yes, stipends are modest, but SAAs also have most of their tuition covered, and they receive important training and mentoring from faculty supervisors.   

Many of my faculty colleagues are prone to agree with them, I’ve learned. In numerous conversations, I’ve heard variations of the “paid our dues” narrative: “We all had a tough time as grad students, we all scrimped and suffered, but look, we paid our dues and were rewarded in the end.”

Until recently I, too, thought the same. After all, when I was a doctoral student at the University of North Carolina from 1987 to 1993, I often had to supplement my stipend by waiting tables at a Mexican restaurant. I also lived quite frugally, sharing a ramshackle house, bicycling to campus and eating basic vegetarian fare. It was all part of the graduate style.

 In the larger scheme, I thought I was still relatively privileged, and in some sense that was true. I was willing to endure hardship to earn a degree in the field of Anthropology that I loved. I was building character, I thought, and I could afford to slum it.

But let’s compare then and now: I was a White, middle class kid in my mid 20s, free of family or spousal responsibilities. My parents told me they wouldn’t help much with my impractical career choice. But they would help pay for my trips back to my native California for visits, and I remained on my father’s health insurance plan.  Indeed, I enjoyed the benefits of “generational wealth.”

Moreover, the tasks demanded of me as a teaching or research assistant always stayed within proper bounds. I never had to attend to more than one section at a time, and the workload rarely rose above 15 hours per week. My faculty advisors were truly compassionate and collegial.

Finally, the academic job market was much more promising back then. I knew that I had realistic prospects for well remunerated, full-time employment.

Fast-forward to IU today: Many of our most accomplished graduate students are into their 30s and 40s when they arrive on campus; they may have spouses, kids, or other family responsibilities. We recruit such students because of their maturity and experience. Many of them belong to under-represented racial minorities or other countries; even more of them represent the first generation in their families to attend college.

Because there is little centralized oversight, IU’s academic departments often require far more than the posted suggestion of 15-20 hours of work. And it is often work of the hardest, most urgent kind—composition, foreign language, math. Faculty, under pressure (or ego) to publish research, often devolve most of the least desired teaching activities (Read: grading!) onto grad students. The latter, in turn, may have to balance sudden surges of teaching work with their own graduate course requirements.

Finally, job prospects for many Ph.D. students have become ever more precarious in recent years. They live today with rampant inflation, and they are being asked to go into debt for a future rife with uncertainty.

Under such conditions, is it any wonder that our graduate students are asking for more? “Shut up and get back to work,” our administrators seem to tell them, “and someday you, too, will enjoy our six-figure salaries.” Fat chance! If we believe our stated ideals of equity and justice, then we need look no further than our own students to advance the cause.”

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