Why Tenured Professors Need Unions

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I once got stuck in an airplane sitting next to an off-duty pilot. As we sat on the runway for an hour, only to find that we had to change flight crews and pilots because of the long delay, a relieved smile came across my neighbor. “Thanks to the union,” he whispered. People turned their heads in surprise. “Thanks to our union, we’re not flying with a pilot who hasn’t slept in 24 hours.” I smiled and nodded in affirmation. He continued, “The airlines would keep us going for days if we didn’t have a professional association setting the industry standards. Without the union, a lot more planes would go down.” It was getting very late and everyone was tired of sitting on the tarmac. It also happened to be New Year’s Eve at 11pm, and the plane was supposed to arrive in Champaign by 9:30pm. Another passenger from a few seats ahead called out, “Unions are for fuck-ups!” My neighbor shook his head. He quietly continued, “Actually, we need unions to do our job properly. Airline executives don’t know how to fly planes. They only know how to cut costs. Our union maintains the professional standards of our line of work. They make sure that only the most qualified people fly planes. They defend our ability to keep our passengers safe.”

The flight was terrible by most measures. Not only did we take off after midnight, but we flew through a turbulent ice storm and had to circle Champaign many times in the air. Yet, we landed safely with a fresh crew. I often wonder what that flight might have been like if we were flying with a pilot who hadn’t slept in two days.

I always think of this experience when people ask me if I support the unionization of tenured and tenure-track faculty at the University of Illinois. Like the pilots, most of these faculty do not struggle financially. Many are well-paid. But, like pilots, many of these folks struggle to maintain their own professional standards. The academic vocation is supposed to be a balance of teaching, mentoring students in the research process, and pursuing research oneself. Tenured and tenure-track professors are not able to maintain our professional standards when they are given a job description that tasks them with “teaching” hundreds of undergrads, but does not allow time to meet with more than a handful.

As a Teaching Assistant at the University for the past eight years, I observed more courses every year move from medium-sized seminars to large lecture courses. Courses that used to be run with TA sections moved to courses with only graders, and 150 students per grader. Twice I worked in a course with over 800 students, about 9 TAs, and a long queue of professors who came in for a two or three class sessions at a time. Each of us TAs were assigned to 75 students, and expected to spend only 20 hours per week being their sole instructor. All exams were multiple choice. Excellent research and publications continue to earn us the name of an excellent university. But, speaking now a member of the PhD guild, I do not think that the standards of the trade are being upheld. Undergraduate education is being shortchanged.

I don’t blame any of these professors individually. Many of them are working around the clock at handling the impossible job description known as, “half-teaching, half-research, half-service.” I have gotten work emails from professors at midnight and 4am. I have seen pictures of professors (yes, multiple professors) typing up their research while in labor, and proudly keeping up their work a day after their child is born. Almost all the tenured and tenure-track professors I know work tirelessly, even as they often love their jobs and want to do nothing else.

And yet, for a large majority of these faculty members, the job descriptions they were given by administrators themselves shortchange undergraduate students.  More and more, the job of meeting individually with young undergraduate students and introducing them to their respective disciplines is handed off to Teaching Assistants. Meanwhile, Teaching Assistants are given more and more students, and less and less stated responsibility to actually meet with them. In each of my four “Teaching Assistant as Grader” assignments, for example, I graded all the work for my 150 students, but met individually with only one or two of them—and only to discuss grades. My job was only to grade, and the professors’ job was mostly just to lecture. The university’s cost-savings measures are increasingly economizing on the one thing undergraduate students thought they were getting out of college: mentoring by experts in a field. Professors’ job descriptions are increasingly to focus on their own research, advising graduate students, and professional service. There used to be a large number of 300 and 400 level classes which were intentionally intimate. But, the number of these classes is dwinding, and their sizes are growing. When they stay small, enrollment priority goes to upperclassmen and majors. Many students only take three or four advanced classes in their entirety of their undergraduate careers, and only in their majors. By and large, tenured and tenure-track professors are not being hired to mentor undergraduates.

Asking university administrators to dictate the job descriptions of professors is like asking airline executives to dictate the job descriptions of pilots. Proposals for cost-savings and profitability often come at the expense of trade standards. In fact, as a labor historian, I know that cost-savings measures often intentionally break the professional standards of a trade in order to fragment the workers and undermine the power of the guild itself. Pilots need a union so that executives are forced to take their professional standards seriously. Professors need a union for the same reason. I am so thankful that pilots have risked their jobs to defend passenger safety. I hope that professors earn the same right to defend higher education.


Janine Giordano Drake is an historian of US  labor and religion. One of her many part-time jobs is with the Campus Faculty Association.”

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