Losing Their Faculties

At NYU, Angry Professors Talk of Unionizing

Last year, New York University's graduate teaching assistants made history. They successfully unionized—something that had never happened before at a private university. Now the faculty wants in too.

A union representing NYU's 2700 full-time professors would cause deep changes in academia's labor landscape, countering the steady erosion of faculty power under the corporatized university system and pioneering a legal path akin to the one that NYU's grad students established. Although their numbers are still small and legal precedent is against them, "There is talk here about unionization," says NYU American studies chair Andrew Ross, "a perception that such a discussion is in the air. And perceptions have consequences."

NYU's top-down corporate management style and clumsy efforts to contain its labor strife have repeatedly enraged the faculty, and these may prove to be a faculty union drive's best hope for getting fence-sitters to join up. For example, when NYU was faced with a unionization campaign by the Graduate Student Organizing Committee (GSOC), the administration did not sit down with representatives of the graduate students and retained a notoriously anti-labor law firm, Proskauer Rose. Eventually, NYU did meet with the United Auto Workers, the union representing the graduate students, (the UAW also represents workers at the Village Voice) on behalf of GSOC. Without consulting faculty—who were deeply conflicted—NYU's administration spoke on behalf of the university's supposedly unified opposition to GSOC. Only after the Faculty of Arts and Science issued a highly critical report did the administration sense bad PR and begin communicating with professors. As a result, the administration lost the confidence of key faculty organizations and much of the faculty at large—including many who opposed GSOC.

Andrew Ross, NYU American Studies Chair: “The faculty had expected to participate in the changing face of the university in a fairly significant way.”
Photograph by Jay Muhlin
Andrew Ross, NYU American Studies Chair: “The faculty had expected to participate in the changing face of the university in a fairly significant way.”

The core of NYU's hypothetical union is its 159-member chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). The AAUP has 45,000 members, ranging from lavishly compensated celebrity professors to veteran tenured faculty to 3000 part-timers. Since the 1970s, the AAUP has nationally become an advocate for labor organizing, and many of its chapters—though not NYU's—themselves function as collective bargaining units. A well-attended NYU-AAUP symposium last May Day was awash in union talk. Ellen Willis, a journalism professor and president of NYU's chapter, intends to make her group a bold advocate for the faculty, though she admits, "We're still at the very beginning of trying to wake the sleeping elephant."

It is too early to know how difficult it will be to gather support. Many professors consider collective bargaining antithetical to independent scholarship and teaching. On a practical level, sociology professor and AAUP chapter secretary Jeff Goodwin also fears that bread-and-butter issues "just don't resonate for NYU faculty, who are pretty fat and happy." So far, support has more closely followed philosophical lines: It is strongest in American studies, sociology, the School of Education, and the Tisch School of the Arts, and weakest—predictably—in the Leonard N. Stern School of Business, the economics department, and the sciences.

Economics chair Douglas Gale backed up the administration. Citing "serious doubts about the wisdom of unionization" and appealing to a "balanced and open" debate, he circulated an anti-GSOC petition. It received 61 signatures, while a competing petition urging NYU's neutrality collected 177.

There are other sore spots. One was the search for a new university president after L. Jay Oliva announced his departure last spring. Typically in a presidential search, a faculty committee solicits input from an array of stakeholders, but at NYU the Board of Trustees tapped law school dean John Sexton with no open search and only cosmetic consultation with select faculty. When professors cried foul, board chairman Martin Lipton scoffed, "We fully understand the faculty point of view, and we reject it." And when Joel Westheimer was denied tenure by the School of Ed it was noted that he was also the only non-tenured professor to testify on GSOC's behalf.

These things "highlighted the faculty's powerlessness and the contempt the administration had for their opinion," says Willis. "The administration's idea of 'consultation' is to let the faculty vent without any possibility that it is going to change anything. That has been a crucial part of why a lot of faculty want to get organized." John Beckman, NYU's assistant vice president of public affairs, declined to comment on unionization or governance.

Under the old-fashioned ideal, trustees oversee the university's portfolio and endowment, and leave hiring and management decisions to faculty committees. Tenured faculty accept mediocre pay and immobility in exchange for lifetime job security, decent benefits, flexible schedules, and institutional power. In the new corporate university, authority flows top-down in educational decisions as well as strategic ones. Universities pay higher salaries to prominent professors while sapping faculty authority, assuming that faculty will be content essentially being high-end wage laborers.

These changes left many NYU faculty feeling betrayed. Andrew Ross, one of NYU's star hires, says, "You had a proto-revolution of rising expectations among new faculty. We had expected to participate in the changing face of the university in a fairly significant way."

It's worse for adjuncts. As elsewhere in corporate America, universities are replacing senior workers with flexible temp labor. Adjuncts lack job security, benefits, and any stake in governance. Nationwide, use of adjuncts has doubled since 1970, and now represents 43 percent of appointments; at NYU almost two out of three faculty—about 3700 professors—are adjuncts. While NYU's stars enjoy six-digit salaries, adjuncts earn just over $3000 per course.


Professors began unionizing three decades ago, when the National Labor Relations Board first asserted its authority to arbitrate in academia. But administrators fought back, and in 1980 the Supreme Court handed them a sweeping victory in NLRBv. Yeshiva University. The court determined that because professors participate in shared governance, they are management, so they have no right to unionize. Since the ruling, organizing at some public schools—which fall under state labor laws—has continued. But at private institutions, the Yeshiva decision quashed faculty unionizing completely.

Recently, the NLRB chipped away at Yeshiva. In cases submitted for arbitration by the incipient unions at Manhattan and Manhattanville colleges in New York, the NLRB ruled that the faculties lacked managerial status, so Yeshivadid not apply. But it is unlikely that the NLRB would exempt the faculty at a major research university such as NYU from Yeshiva. Faculties that participate in governance have at least the appearance of management powers; a faculty organizing drive at NYU would entail a full frontal assault on Yeshiva.

But there's a wrinkle. Shared governance—the basis of Yeshiva—is increasingly a facade in the modern, corporate university. At NYU, for example, the elected 35-member Faculty Council is invited to comment on issues such as faculty benefits and affirmative action, but its opinions have no binding authority, which leaves it to function as a rubber stamp for the administration.

In the corporate university, "the Yeshiva decision has less validity," says labor lawyer Daniel Ratner. He cautions that it would be tough taking on Yeshiva in court. "The faculty would have all the accoutrements [of governance] that the NLRB and the Supreme Court found in Yeshiva," he says, "and you'd have to argue that these are not real."

Governance is a non-issue for adjuncts, who therefore have a relatively simple path to union certification: They face neither the faculty's hurdle of proving that they are employees rather than managers, nor GSOC's of proving that they are employees rather than students. They intend to apply to the NLRB this fall.

The administration is paying close attention to the adjunct drive, because compared to 1400 graduate teaching assistants, NYU's 3700 adjuncts would be a hugely powerful bloc. Since NYU's clerical and technical workers are already unionized, this would leave a small minority of NYU employees non-unionized.

Organizing the full-time faculty is a longer way off. "It really would take major bungling by the president or the deans to get us to the point where faculty unionization would be a real possibility," Professor Goodwin allows. "But if the university were to continue to rule arrogantly and unilaterally in more situations like GSOC and the presidential non-search, more people might start asking, 'Why don't we just start a union?' "

If the administration continues to ignore tenured faculty's concerns, some kind of organizing effort will certainly proceed. "Yeshivashould have been successfully challenged," Andrew Ross maintains, "And it will be, whether at NYU or somewhere else." But if Yeshiva holds up, a faculty strike would be illegal. NYU's AAUP chapter would have to rely on social protest: petitions, demonstrations, and teach-ins.

Then again, as Ross somewhat cryptically suggests, "Collective bargaining and unionization in this country have advanced by challenging the law, or violating the law in the name of a challenge to it. Conditions arise: You make history under conditions not of your own choosing."

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