Another absurdity from the Ivy League: Graduate students at Columbia and Yale are on the verge of going on strike. That’s right, students. This week they plan to drop their Derrida and deconstruction for some real-world activism. They’ll hit the streets to denounce how little they’re being paid and their status as students and not workers. “We should be recognized as legal workers and be respected and given bargaining rights,” huffed one philosophy graduate student to the Associated Press on Thursday.
If it seems odd or novel that Ivy League students get paid at all, that’s because it is. At universities like Columbia and Yale, graduate students get between $17,000 and $25,000 year. This makes more sense than it sounds, at least according to the strange economics governing higher education. Graduate students who have more lucrative options than studying medieval literature will usually face piling debt and tough job markets when they graduate, so it makes sense — in an era of soaring endowments, anyway — to lure good candidates with attractive financial packages. It’s not as if universities don’t get at least some of their money back: They typically assign students to teaching assistantships or other roles where they’d have to pay adjunct professors. So given the circumstances of the higher-education market, it was probably only a matter of time before grad students went beyond exhorting the working masses to unite and started doing it themselves.
Things came to a head in 2004 when the National Labor Relations Board ruled on graduate students’ claim to have workers’ rights. It ruled against them, rightly concluding that grad students at private colleges are students, not workers. The ruling disappointed the activists and labor unions whose flagging membership numbers would have benefited greatly from this large, new and untapped constituency.
Through all this, the absurdity of feeling entitled to bargaining rights wasn’t lost on much of the rank and file. Opinion among Columbia and Yale graduate students is divided: As the Yale Daily News quoted a former member of the graduate-student organization, “A lot of people who are actually teaching are not planning on going on strike.” Said a current student: “It’s almost the last week of class, I don’t want to bring trouble to my students. That would be irresponsible. A lot of people I’ve talked to who are TAs don’t like the idea of strike.”
If the strikes occur, they apparently will be the first such coordinated strikes in the history of American higher education.
It’s tempting to think this is just another left-liberal absurdity on American campuses, which it certainly is. But it’s more than that. It’s also a sad chapter in the over-professionalization of the American university. Without intending to, universities have encouraged students to think of themselves not as future scholars and seekers of knowledge, but as just another protected class deserving of rights and privileges. That’s no doubt one consequence of the preponderance of professors who spout liberal pieties.
But it’s also a consequence of bureaucratization. With attractive financial packages and fast tracks to security, universities are filling their ranks with careerists and activists. It’s a confluence yielding graduate students who won’t wait tables — or even teach undergrads — to pursue their dreams.