Letter to the Editor: A Greater Good: Vote Yes on the Union

To the Macalester Community:

Teaching at Macalester has been and will continue to be one of the most rewarding tasks I’ve been privileged with. During my previous five years at the college I held a tenure-track position in the history department, and this fall I’ll be returning as a visitor. I’ve become mindful of this shift of my role in the community in new ways thanks to the movement at Macalester, and across the nation, to unionize contingent faculty.

Recent invocations of a Macalester culture that does not welcome unions has not only startled, but also unnerved me. The college’s decision to reject the benefits of collective bargaining flies in the face of all I had known of Macalester’s aims of public service and global citizenship. The idea of an insular Macalester culture conveys ignorance of the very real crisis across all of academia faced by contingent faculty, who now compose the majority of instructors in higher education. These scholars, who are our colleagues, have no protection from the volatility of the academic job market.

This year the American Historical Association announced a new initiative to actively provide graduate students aid in seeking careers outside academe. Case in point, I’ve been invited to speak on this subject at the 2014 AHA Annual Meeting as an example of successfully pursuing an alternate profession. While I applaud the intent of this call to action, it doesn’t provide a real solution. I’m a Ph.D. who now writes fantasy novels for a living. That wasn’t a career path; it was a fluke. I voluntarily left a tenure-track position to focus on creative writing, and I am incredibly fortunate that the choice was mine to make, but it’s a poor example to offer fledgling Ph.D.s and young professors who’ve been hopping from one visiting position to another semester after semester, year after year.

The solution to the job market crisis isn’t alternate careers – the surge in temporary faculty hires demonstrates demand for teachers – it’s a system of support and protection for these scholars that makes non-tenure track careers a viable option. The academia of today is a world where tenure is simply out of reach for the majority of new Ph.D.s not due to lack of talent or commitment, but because higher education no longer supports the crumbling foundation of the tenure track.

The lack of rewarding, fiscally sound positions in higher education has made me reluctant to recommend graduate school to even the most talented of students. I have no faith that sending a student into a Ph.D. program will more likely lead them to a fulfilling career than to disappointment and disillusionment, if not destitution.

It’s telling that the Macalester College Student Government (MCSG) passed a resolution to support unionization of contingent faculty. Not only are students those persons who best know and benefit from the presence of these vital contributors to their college experience, but they also exude the ideals of true community, of supporting the good of the many over the indulgence of the few. These are the ideals fostered in the classroom, sparks ignited in debate and discussion. Macalester students have carried out in action what they’ve gleaned from the texts we assign and the lectures we deliver. These young people hold all the potential that we should be send onto grad school in hope, not fear.

The official position of the college against contingent faculty unions rejects the idealism of the student body in favor of defensiveness and isolationism, and I worry that Macalester has opted profess beliefs of equality and community in its classrooms and its catalogs, but failed to act on those principles. It should not be the privileged few who are able to put excellence in teaching and pursuit of original scholarship at the forefront of their careers. All of our disciplines suffer from the economic and personal burdens shouldered by contingent faculty. By ignoring the plight of those outside the tenure track, we deny camaraderie to our peers and ignore the damaging impact of these precarious positions upon their true potential as teachers and scholars.

Will Macalester prove to be only a community unto itself rather than a true public servant and global citizen? Until these past few weeks I would have argued until breathless that such a charge was false.

Andrea Robinson (Cremer)