From California to Chicago, A Call for Unionized Universities

From California to Chicago, A Call for Unionized Universities

At the University of Illinois Chicago, striking faculty are recalling the founding mission of America’s great public universities.

Student support for the University of Illinois Chicago faculty union (UICUF/Facebook)

Editors’ note: As of the morning of Tuesday, February 18, faculty at the University of Illinois Chicago are on strike over a contract dispute.

One of the twentieth century’s great public intellectuals, Tony Judt, once wrote:

By far the best thing about America is its universities. Not Harvard, [or] Yale . . . though marvelous, they are not distinctively American; their roots reach across the ocean to Oxford, Heidelberg, and beyond. Nowhere else in the world, however, can boast such public universities. You drive for miles across a godforsaken midwestern scrubscape, pockmarked by billboards, Motel 6s, and a military parade of food chains, when like some pedagogical mirage . . . there appears . . . a library! And not just any library: at Bloomington, the University of Indiana boasts a 7.8-million-volume collection in more than nine hundred languages . . . . A little over a hundred miles northwest across another empty cornscape there comes into view the oasis of Champaign-Urbana: an unprepossessing college town housing a library of over ten million volumes.

A hundred-odd miles further north lies another landmark in the American public higher education system: the University of Illinois Chicago. With 28,000 students, UIC is the largest university in the Chicago area, public or private. It is also the first major public university in Illinois with a unionized faculty—whose current battle with the administration puts UIC on the front lines of the present-day crisis in higher education, economic justice, and democratic governance.

The state research university, that hallmark of America’s egalitarian promise, is at a crossroads. Looming ahead is a market-oriented university ever more beholden to the whims of cost-cutting corporate benefactors. But there is an alternative path, toward a social democratic university responsive to the needs of students, faculty, and surrounding communities—that is to say, the public that actually owns these institutions. That way forward, recalling the founding mission of America’s great public universities, demands a unionized staff front and center.     

The contemporary crisis in state higher education did not result from an absolute scarcity of money, but rather from an unwillingness to safeguard, manage, and fund this most basic public good. That is why staff, graduate students, and faculty must embrace militancy and advocacy—the ingredients of the sort of self-governance and common ownership at the heart of social democracy—to demand fully unionized universities. A voice and a vote in university affairs should not lie merely in student councils or faculty senates but in staff, graduate student, and faculty unions, whose rights are protected by state and federal law and whose necessity is clear at a moment when public higher education is increasingly run for and like a business.


The need for unionized universities has its roots in a larger question: what are the uses of the university? President Abraham Lincoln offered one enduring answer when he signed into law the 1862 Land-Grant College Act, which promised a “college in every State [resting] upon a sure and perpetual foundation, accessible to all, but especially to the sons of toil.” This legislation was just as much about helping hard-working citizens as it was about serving national needs and fledgling industries. Before the act was passed, America’s longstanding universities generally offered students a classical education—no doubt important, but not entirely practical for a country lacking the scientific know-how, training, and resources to reap the benefits and potential of its fertile land. Aiming to lift citizens, residents, and immigrants out of poverty, land-grant colleges offered courses in agricultural sciences, mechanical arts, and military strategies, alongside more traditional curriculum in the hard sciences and liberal arts.

In the Progressive Era, American higher education came to fulfill a practical purpose beyond the promotion of industry and social mobility. Educators in states like Wisconsin argued that schools were to give back “to the government in the forms of serving in office, offering advice about public policy, providing information and exercising technical skill, and to the citizens in the forms of doing research directed at solving problems that are important to the state and conducting outreach activities.” In short, the much-admired “Wisconsin Idea” promoted new public research universities as “laboratories for democracy.”

Yet there was not much room for state universities on the national agenda of either party until the 1930s, when, as part of their efforts to revive the American economy, New Dealers advocated “vocational education in junior and State colleges” and “technological research in universities.” Roosevelt appointees maintained that these state schools should do far more than just provide businesses with research, development, and workforce training. They recognized that public higher education could serve as the fulcrum of a reconstructed democracy; as New Dealers boldly proclaimed, “The leadership of a region is dependent in no small way upon the products of its colleges and universities.” On these grounds, they advocated “more scholarships to State universities, sufficient to cover minimum living expenses, so that qualified young people, remote from proper educational opportunities, can obtain a higher education,” both for economic opportunity and personal fulfillment. But of the utmost importance was “student and faculty self-government to foster a more responsible citizenry.”
 
New Deal dreams did not immediately yield the sort of sprawling democratic institutions that Roosevelt and his ilk had imagined—universities that would empower individuals to claim better jobs, foster groundbreaking research, or uphold civic values through the liberal arts tradition. Democrats only began to realize this vision after the Second World War, when veterans put pressure on the university system by using the educational guarantees in the 1944 GI Bill of Rights to go to school. (Furthering their education was a novel idea for the many returning servicemen whose class, racial, and ethnic backgrounds all but guaranteed that they would not be matriculating at the nation’s flagship schools, public or private.)

Still, the promise of the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act was partial: it gave soldiers a right to an education but did not earmark money to expand existing schools, and most legislatures didn’t either. Veterans consequently enrolled in overcrowded normal schools, state colleges, and land-grant universities that still lacked the kind of coursework demanded by well-paying defense and consumer manufacturers.

In the 1960s many of those underfunded institutions were transformed. They became “multiversities,” a term coined in that decade to describe the kind of mass state systems envisioned by University of California president Clark Kerr. Like so many other midcentury educators, Kerr championed centers of higher education centuries removed from the early European “academic cloister . . . with its intellectual oligarchy.” The new “universi-cities” would absorb, harness the potential of, and serve the needs of students ranging from farmers to policymakers and art historians. Universities sat “at the hinge of history,” Kerr contended, and indeed, they became a key part of the social infrastructure that would allow Americans to double their income within a generation, work a then (and now) unimaginable thirty-two hours a week, and benefit from a more equitable distribution of wealth.

But none of this would happen automatically. Kerr and his contemporaries stressed that this new American Dream—with markets and corporations the servant rather than the master of the citizenry—depended on citizens’ taxes and their votes. With their support, Kerr’s UC would provide, free of charge, “a place in college for every high school graduate . . . who chose to attend.”

Kerr essentially provided educators and policymakers with a blueprint for the modern research university. But it was students who exerted the muscle that forced fledgling American multiversities to realize their social democratic potential. In the 1960s, for example, students and faculty in universities across the country pressured administrators to start interdisciplinary Latin American and African American studies programs, linking the courses offered in departments throughout their universities into degree programs that would empower them.

At the University of Illinois Chicago, such student militancy, especially on the part of minority students, fostered broad forms of democratic participation. The university hosted free, public events designed to recognize and promote Chicago’s diversity: the 1968 Black Arts Festival, for example, raised money to defray college costs for needy African-American co-eds, and the first Indian Days observance in 1973 was jointly sponsored by UIC’s Native American Studies Program, the Field Museum, and the Newberry Library. Two years later, labor studies professors reached out to women unionists to offer them a special program on “Working Women: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow,” which focused on issues like health and safety, labor law, bilingual organizing, and unionism done in the name of democratizing workplaces.

As they took greater control of their institutions, college radicals increasingly despised administrators like Kerr, and with good reason. Hundreds of students in Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement, for example, were arrested during a famous 1964 sit-in; Kerr did not expel them but he did ignore their demands, a move that outraged students around the country. Moreover, Kerr had struck a Faustian bargain with corporations to get political and legislative support for California’s Master Plan for Higher Education. Business executives had considerable influence on the sorts of classes offered and degrees granted in the state’s three-tiered university system, even before CEOs turned against Kerr. Their about-face in 1967 enabled then-governor Ronald Reagan to dramatically fire Kerr, a seminal moment in the UC’s history. Thereafter, campus fees began to rise, state support began to decline, and public education became even more dependent on private enterprise, which put pressure on universities in and outside California to operate more like a business. UIC, under Chicago mayor Richard Daley, faced similar pressures. But all public institutions of higher learning would feel even more constraints once Reagan could advance this cause from the White House.


Today, it is clear that the United States and its public higher education system sit once more “at the hinge of history.” The University of California system provides proof that the labor movement can do much to protect what remains of the affordable, midcentury multiversity. UC clerical employees and maintenance workers have stood firm on wages and benefits. Meanwhile, solidarity between the Coalition of University Employees, lecturers organized with the American Federation of Teachers, and the staff represented by the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees has kept non-tenure-track faculty secure in their wages, benefits, and class loads. Students benefit tremendously from these workers’ economic well-being and their corresponding ability to offer top-notch instruction to co-eds. The teaching assistants affiliated with the United Auto Workers have also negotiated to stop class sizes from increasing and teaching loads from soaring—contract victories important to graduate students balancing teaching and research, but also to undergraduates who get the most out of large lectures when their discussion sections are kept small. These member-run unions made a difference during Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s years in office, when he took aim not only at the California labor movement but also the UC system. To be sure, fees did rise and cuts were made, but it would have been far worse had the UC’s unions not come together to stop the Governator from terminating what remains of Clark Kerr’s Master Plan.

Even the UC system, however, is not yet fully unionized. What might have been achieved had the faculty been organized, or had it come together with other UC employees who have long cried out that “the university only works because we do”? Only the Santa Cruz campus has a faculty union. There are now fledgling drives at campuses like Santa Barbara, where professors are just starting to organize in the wake of drastic changes to their health care benefits. One surely hopes it isn’t too late.

At UIC, it isn’t too late. But the clock is ticking. Tenured, tenure-track, and non-tenure-track faculty have spent more than a year trying to bargain for a better deal for themselves, their students, and by extension their surrounding communities. In the months leading up to a historic December 2013 strike vote, the University of Illinois Chicago United Faculty (UICUF) noted that the university’s finances were good and enrollment was up. Yet only the number of high-paid administrators have increased—not the number of teachers or classes. As an expert from the American Association of University Professors pointed out, “Students are paying more and getting less.” And that’s of principal concern to UICUF members who take seriously UIC’s stated dedication to teaching, research, and service. The compensation demands, transportation subsidies, computer support, and infrastructure needs on the table right now are all vital to ensuring that UIC doesn’t just keep serving Chicagoans adequately but preparing it to serve Chicago better than it ever has before.

UICUF, and other fledgling faculty, graduate student, and staff unions around the country, have much to teach students before they graduate and look for work in the so-called real world. The conflict at UIC and other state schools is real enough. Professors, teaching assistants, clerical workers, and grounds staff are defending their economic rights, the principles of civic participation, and the foundations of workplace democracy. They are reviving the sort of self-governance envisioned by New Dealers and nurtured by students and faculty in the 1960s.

Undergraduates are hence witnessing first hand the conflicts roiling workplaces around the country. That should surprise no one: as the public education system increasingly resembles big business, its workers—faculty included—will need to fight back accordingly.


Elizabeth Tandy Shermer is an assistant professor of history at Loyola University Chicago.  She has written extensively on labor, business, and urban politics, the subject of her 2013 Sunbelt Capitalism: Phoenix and the Transformation of American Politics. She is currently working on a reconsideration of twentieth-century higher education entitled The Business of Education: The Corporate Transformation of America’s Public Universities.


Harvell | University of California Press Gardels