Justice, Community, and UW Unionization

In 2013, I came to the University of Washington as an assistant professor in the philosophy department. During my time as a graduate student at NYU I witnessed an undercurrent of tension between the administration and the broader community because of institutional growth.  

At NYU, corporatization of higher education was at play. At the time, the school thought of development primarily in terms of opening new campuses and spreading the NYU brand instead of, say, making the school more affordable for undergraduates.

I see a similar tension at the University of Washington and a growing lack of affordability. 

Support_Faculty_300x300.jpgThe Corporatization of Higher Ed

Tuition rates at public universities across the country have climbed steeply, largely because of decreased public funding, and administrations put more money and more effort into fund-raising and attracting international students who pay for full tuition and accommodation costs. Operating in conditions of austerity, administrators have to think about money more and more, making them act more like CEOs.

We need more state funding so that students don’t have to bear the burden of high tuition rates and underpaid faculty can finally make a reasonable wage, thereby doing away with the cost-cutting measures the UW has invoked. Squeezing the lowest-paid, hardest-working employees sounds too much like the worst forms of big business to me. At public universities, private funds rarely if ever can support faculty salaries across the board, and have a very limited effect on tuition.

My colleague, Diane Morrison, has an interesting discussion of breaking down the corporate culture at UW in her recent blog post when she speaks about having a “richness of other fields in the mix beyond our own silos” in board governance. The composition of the Board of Trustees is an issue I think we need to look closely at if we are worried about the corporatization of higher ed.

A Community of Trust

Faculty should have a seat at the table when it comes to making big decisions at the UW. Collective bargaining will go a long way towards giving faculty this voice.  There is nobody that faculty trust or listen to more than their colleagues. Out of a love of truth and teaching, I know personally that many UW faculty have devoted themselves to their work and their students and they always have students’ best interests at heart. Many of these faculty members could have easily earned much more money in the private sector, but feel proud of their role as public servants.

If faculty had more control over how the university runs, works, and what its priorities are, students would benefit. For example, many of my students apologize for not doing better in my classes because of how many hours they have to work at jobs outside of school. This breaks my heart. Like many of my colleagues, I think it is urgent that we make UW more affordable so that students can focus on learning, versus trying to make rent and ultimately, paying off exorbitant student debt.

Student_Harm_300x300.jpgTackling Issues of Social Justice

Collective bargaining is working together with my colleagues to make the university a better place. I support UW Faculty Forward because I believe unionization can improve UW for everyone.

I have been here three years, and I cannot claim to have a sense of the university as a whole. The philosophy department, though, is in the business of teaching classes on justice and fairness, and I have seen our support shrink since being here. Most recently, this happened in cuts to our graduate program, which has limited our capacities for undergraduate teaching – even in classes that almost always fill up with interested students. My colleagues are fiercely committed to justice, and are constantly working to make all aspects of our department more fair. Many of them, moreover, are experts about principles of justice. That is why I would trust them with having more control over the university.

It’s easy for the discussion of unionization to start sounding like a contest between faculty and administration, but ultimately, I don't think it is. Instead, I think of unionization as a step towards empowering the administration to demand proper funding from the state and federal government and for leveling the playing field to improve equity among faculty. Imagine if the administrators could honestly say to the state legislature, with full confidence, that the university as a whole was going to shut down unless it was provided adequate funding!

UW is a terrific institution, and I feel deeply grateful that I get to be part of it. But I believe that UW has the potential to be an even greater force for good than it is, if the faculty unionize alongside the other UW unions. 

Colin Marshall is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Washington (Seattle).

All UW photographs by Curtis Cronn and subject to CC-licenses as indicated on Flickr

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