Columbia Grad Students Striking, University Striking Back (updated)


Graduate students at Columbia University went on strike last month, for the second time this year, as they attempt to negotiate a labor contract with the university.

According to one striking student, “our core demands are compensation that allows us to survive in NYC, independent arbitration for harassment and discrimination, vision & dental, and recognition for casual academic workers (largely undergrads and MAs).” You can learn more about what the students are asking for at the website of the Student Workers of Columbia, where they detail their bargaining framework.

Meanwhile, the student writes:

Columbia is withholding *all* of striking students’ compensation, including stipends, despite claiming that stipends are not compensation for work. (This August Columbia unilaterally and without warning changed the stipend structure from a lump-sum at the beginning of the semester to biweekly payments, and have argued that because they aren’t compensation they could do this without consulting with the union.) While we receive strike benefits from the union, this is insufficient to cover cost of living. As such, there is a supplementary hardship fund, and we are looking for donations.

You can donate to supplementary hardship fund here.

Last week, Columbia University Human Resources Vice President sent out an email interpreted as threatening to deprive striking graduate students of their appointments (and, presumably, funding):

In response the Student Workers of Columbia issued a statement to their members:

Tonight we received an email from HR threatening to withhold some appointment letters for the Spring semester if we do not end our strike by December 10th. Make no mistake that this threat is a form of retaliation and intended to break the power of our strike. This threat is illegal, and it demonstrates that the university is bargaining in bad faith. It also shows that our strike is working and the university is desperate to end it…

We are participating in an ULP (unfair labor practice) strike, which legally protects us from permanent replacement… If the University doesn’t withdraw its threat, we will be filing a third ULP charge for their numerous attempts at unlawful retaliation. 

You can read their full statement here.

UPDATE (1/10/21): A tentative agreement is reached, with some wins for the students. Inside Higher Ed reports that the agreement includes:

  • access to full arbitration or mediation for students’ claims of discrimination and harassment
  •  transitional funding for up to one semester for students who say their relationship with their academic adviser is unhealthy or characterized by discrimination, harassment or other inappropriate behavior
  • retroactive pay increases of no less than 4 percent this academic year, plus an additional 2 percent intended to cover union dues. That’s followed by 3 percent raises in each of the next three years. 
  • minimum pay parity among Ph.D. students across academic programs
  • the university will pay 75 percent of dental insurance premiums for Ph.D. students and their dependents and offer vision coverage.

 

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John
11 months ago

It’s difficult not to overstate the extent to which universities are among the most right-wing institutions in society. I mean ‘right-wing’ in a specific sense.

In addition to their inherent conservatism (the status quo has an iron grip and its beneficiaries are exceedingly covetous of their privileges and gatekeeping responsibilities), this is an institution the labour practices of which rival the Amazons and Ubers of the modern gig economy.

Stipends, not wages; fellows, not employees; students, not workers; contracts, not careers; on and on.

What’s different–and is as interesting as it is alarming–is that universities have managed to pull off this Owellian doublethink more successfully than its rogues’ gallery of fellow labour exploiters.

No doubt this is partly due to the overemphasis on a university education in the so-called knowledge economy. But it’s also due to the monopoly on individuals’ sense of meaning, purpose and identity that universities enjoy: here, our members have callings, vocations; out there, well, you might as well be another nameless worker alienating yourself to fulfill someone else’s dream.

Focusing just on the humanities for a moment, it is staggering to sit across a PhD-cum-administrator who will in the same breath extol the humanities’ capacity to inculcate public virtue while insisting dental care is an utterly absurd request from students who have fewer rights than privileges.

Witnessing first-hand that cognitive dissonance perpetuate itself through sheer institutional power is a lesson in adulthood. The only thing you can really do as faculty is vow never to become such a gutless, craven shitbag of a human being.Report

Paul Prescott
Paul Prescott
Reply to  John
11 months ago

Well said John. Having recently resigned my “adjunct” position at Syracuse University, I could not have described the conditions I encountered, or my tenured colleagues complicity in them, better. There is no adult excuse for this behavior.Report

Jason Brennan
Reply to  Paul Prescott
11 months ago

Amazing. Based on their Facebook declarations, I thought the Syracuse philosophy faculty were all super duper champions of social justice. On FB, they are always saying how nice and good they are.Report

Alex Hughes
Alex Hughes
Reply to  Jason Brennan
11 months ago

It is not amazing that a person can affirm some value – indeed promote in in lots of contexts – but not promote it in others. It is pretty much what you ought to expect of anyone.

But why mention the obvious? Does the hypocrisy of faculty at Syracuse entail that social justice is not worth promoting?Report

Jason Brennan
Reply to  Alex Hughes
11 months ago

Lulz, Jesus Chris, Alex.Report

Paul Prescott
Paul Prescott
Reply to  Alex Hughes
11 months ago

Agreed Alex. The hypocrisy of the faculty at Syracuse does not entail that social justice is not worth promoting. But I do personally find it painful and galling. (In case it’s worth mentioning, my point stands quite independently of my own personal experience, and appears to be true everywhere, including Syracuse.)Report

Jason Brennan
Reply to  Alex Hughes
11 months ago

Parody of our conversation:

“This right wing Christian minister is always talking about the sanctity of marriage but he had a ton of affairs and watches lots of porn.”

“Eh, cut the guy a break. Does the hypocrisy of this pastor entail the sanctity of marriage is not promoting?”Report

Alex Hughes
Alex Hughes
Reply to  Jason Brennan
11 months ago

At least you’re pretty consistent, Jason.Report

Sam Duncan
Sam Duncan
Reply to  Alex Hughes
11 months ago

So I know I’m violating the very good don’t feed the trolls rule of internet discourse but here goes…. By this same reasoning if any self-professed libertarian ever had voted for much less publicly supported or funded obviously authoritarian candidates because you know tax cuts it would conclusively prove that libertarianism is self-serving, insincere, bull****.Report

Dova
Reply to  Jason Brennan
11 months ago

One wishes that prominent academics were as riled up about exploitative practices at universities as they are in examples of hypocrisy among their milquetoast liberals colleagues. Report

Jason Brennan
Reply to  Dova
11 months ago

One does wish that, which is one reason I’ve done stuff like working with various schools to help eliminate their Gen Ed requirements or with NATVAC to reduce Canada’s reliance on student evals. Since I walk the walk I get to talk the talk, too. You?Report

E d
E d
Reply to  Jason Brennan
11 months ago

And you know that folks at Syracuse haven’t made similar efforts, right? Please.Report

Paul Prescott
Paul Prescott
Reply to  E d
11 months ago

FWIW, in my experience, folks at Syracuse made no such efforts, even when I begged them to. (Thus my sympathy for the conclusion that they, like so many tenured faculty members, are “gutless craven shitbags of human beings.”)Report

Last edited 11 months ago by Paul Prescott
Dova
Reply to  Jason Brennan
11 months ago

Jason, it doesn’t look like you are walking any walk, so much as you’re being led by the nose regarding culture war squabbles du jour.

Report

E d
E d
Reply to  Dova
11 months ago

But he gets points for being very, very consistently led by the nose, right?Report

benjamin s yost
Reply to  Jason Brennan
11 months ago

I’m (honestly) curious why Gen Ed requirements are potentially exploitative.Report

Dova
Reply to  benjamin s yost
11 months ago

Benjamin, it’s because Jason believes that Gen Ed requirements are a way of forcing students to waste their time and money on courses they learn little to nothing from and then quickly forget. And he thinks these requirements stem from departments have their own interests in mind rather than the interests of students. He’s tried defending that view with Phillip Magness in *Cracks in the Ivory Tower*. Report

DoubleA
DoubleA
Reply to  John
11 months ago

The flagrant hypocrisy galls as much as the material impact. If people involved would just admit they are need you to work in crap conditions so they can be a affluent, or that they won’t do shit to help you because they only care up to the point where it could potentially harm themselves, then at least they could say they treated the adjunct/TA/whatever with some degree of respect, as a creature that deserves to hear the truth.Report

Evan
Reply to  DoubleA
11 months ago

I agree that adjuncts deserve to know the truth. But at the same time, I’m perplexed that a lot of people (adjuncts) are so naive that they expect these professors to not be hypocrites about these things.

As somebody who is lower class and first-generation, I‘ve learned the hard way that most people aren’t ready to give up many of their privileges and power to help those at the bottom.

Maybe I’m being too Stoic here, but I don’t think we should expect too much from economically privileged people. We should strive for a better society/world, but we shouldn’t be naive or oblivious about these people’s character.

At best, such hypocrisy may be a sign that social justice is extremely difficult to achieve. At worst, it’s probably a sign that it’s futile.Report

Last edited 11 months ago by Evan
Adam Rigoni
Adam Rigoni
Reply to  Evan
11 months ago

Where did he say he didn’t expect it? What part of being expected is inconsistent with be irritating? Perhaps your stoicism isn’t the problem.Report

Evan
Reply to  Adam Rigoni
11 months ago

I never said that he didn’t say it. I made a general statement about a particular state of affairs. I was speaking for myself and hence the word “I” in there. Please read better. Every word matters.Report

Last edited 11 months ago by Evan
Adam Rigoni
Adam Rigoni
Reply to  Evan
11 months ago

So your remark about the naivety of adjuncts was just a general statement and not about the post you were responding to. Got it.

I’m often perplexed people who produce bad writing blaming the reader.

And as I’m sure you realize that’s just a general statement and has nothing to do with your post.Report

Evan
Reply to  Adam Rigoni
11 months ago

Is my view compatible with John’s or DoubleA‘s views? Yes.

Have I ever denied it? No.

Offering another perspective =/= I’m denying/critiquing theirs. The fact that you can’t understand such a basic thing says a lot about your comprehension skills. Seeing how you’re the only one who has responded to and misread me are evidences of that.Report

Last edited 11 months ago by Evan
Devin
11 months ago

If anyone is in NYC there’s a MASSIVE picket happening at Columbia today until 6PM, allies are very much encouraged to join!Report

Jon Light
Jon Light
11 months ago

I’d be curious, from someone familiar with the administration at Columbia, what its position is and why.

This post seems sympathetic to the students (e.g., citing students, offering to support them, etc.), without painting a fuller picture of whatever’s going on at Columbia. I don’t feel well-positioned to have an opinion on this topic, unless I have a non-caricatured view of the other side. Thanks!Report

Tim O'Keefe
Reply to  Jon Light
11 months ago

I’ll let others with more knowledge fill in the particulars of the admin’s position and arguments, but it’s worth keeping in mind that Columbia has an endowment of $14.35 billion. (See https://www.finance.columbia.edu/content/imc-ceo-statement-fy21-endowment-returns). This is greater than the GDP of countries like Armenia, the Bahamas, and Nicaragua. (See https://worldpopulationreview.com/countries/countries-by-gdp.)Report

Jon Light
Jon Light
Reply to  Tim O'Keefe
11 months ago

What would that have to do with anything? You’d have to know a lot more things about the endowment for that to be a useful data point: liquidity, existing commitments, future planning, capital development, legal restrictions, obligations to donors, and so on.

If I have $100 long-term bond, for example, that doesn’t mean I can actually “spend” $100, nor does it take into account that I might also have $5k in credit card debt. You’d need a lot more information for that to be meaningfully informative, right?Report

Last edited 11 months ago by Jon Light
tenure track
Reply to  Jon Light
11 months ago

Plus, GDP represents annual output, but endowment does not represent anything annual. This doesn’t mean that Columbia can’t afford to pay more–I suspect they can–but the comparisons of endowment with GDP really need to stop.Report

DoubleA
DoubleA
Reply to  Jon Light
11 months ago

Presumably knowing that they have a large endowment is part of acquiring meaningful information, which would also include debts, income, and restrictions on expenditures. It’s seems pretty obvious that he wasn’t presenting the endowment data as the end all piece of information about the university finances. Even your own discussion seems to admit that the size of the endowment is important— what the fuck good is knowing just the debt load without knowing the endowment? So you do know what the size of the endowment would have to do with anything.Report

David Wallace
Reply to  Tim O'Keefe
11 months ago

It’s absolutely right that we shouldn’t compare a quantity measured in dollars to a quantity measured in dollars per unit time. (My savings measured in in dollars exceed the US GDP measured in dollars per millisecond; so what?) If you want to do a direct comparison, you want the annual return on the endowment: I think US universities typically target 5%, so for Columbia that’s about $710M/yr. (If you then find it helpful to say that that’s higher than the GDP of Tonga or Micronesia, go for it.)

But the bigger issue is that endowment income is just a part of a university’s overall income, which in turn is equal in the long term to its overall spend (since universities are non-profit) – and the sources of income don’t obviously matter much to demands for more pay.

If you look at Columbia’s online finances, you see they have a turnover of c.$5 billion/yr, including $600M/yr of investment return (not far off that $710M/yr estimate). Is anyone seriously saying that if we learned that magically the endowment income was $0/yr while the turnover remained $5 billion/yr, that that would suddenly mean this strike moved from justified to unjustified?

Economically, increasing grad student compensation means finding additional income to cover it (e.g. increasing tuition), and/or moving expenditure from somewhere else (e.g. putting less money aside for capital projects). I’ve no idea whether that’s a reasonable demand or not (I don’t know nearly enough about the facts in the particular case, e.g. whether Columbia provides or subsidizes housing). But the question of what part of Columbia’s income comes from endowment rather than, say, tuition or medical income seems irrelevant to whether or not it’s a reasonable demand.Report

DoubleA
DoubleA
Reply to  David Wallace
11 months ago

David, your right that endowment income isn’t a special concern, but it’s not quite accurate, in my view, to suppose that non-profits budget revenues equal to costs (even long term). Non-profits are allowed to and often do generate profits (money left over net costs). At least in the U.S., the legal restrictions only require that they don’t pass that profit along to ownership. The profit goes into a reserve fund (likely back into the endowment in this case). You can trivially say that that money is being saved to address potential future expenses, but since potential future expenses are potentially infinite, that imposes very little constrain on how budgeting proceeds. It’s not a closed system where annual expenditures = costs.

I have no idea how Columbia approaches this, but the point is that they do have a choice in how risk adverse they want to be and hence are not forced to adopt a tight revenue/cost fit just because they are a non-profit.

A second and related point is that almost no endowment is 100% restricted (meaning the principle isn’t held in perpetuity, it can be spend by the institution at its discretion). It appears Columbia’s endowment distribution was 25% unrestricted in 2016, but that is not the same as a quarter of the endowment itself being unrestricted. They pool their endowment and the report the distribution numbers and I’m not digging out the details. But so long as some part of the endowment is unrestricted, then that is really money the university can spend. Hence the size of the endowment really does matter. It’s not as simple as a pile of money that gets invested and then universities can only spend 5% of the return. Again, the university has choices to make about how risk tolerant they are with unrestricted funds, just like with “profit.” They also have freedom to be more risk tolerant with much of the restricted funds as well. As far as I know, the 5% value corresponds to no legal nor economic “law.” 5% is the federal minimum for endowment expenditure for private foundations. The universities expend, roughly, what federal law declares as the bare minimum for private foundations. Different university may have different internal rules, but those are the institutions’ own rules, not rules imposed by the nature of endowment-hood.

It does get even more complicated since some restricted parts of the endowment are restricted in more ways than just requiring the principle remain untouched. Universities are certainly more constrained by the terms of the endowment than perhaps some people realize. However, I think they have more legal freedom than people here seem to think. One has to keep in mind that it’s always in the the institution’s best interests to tell people asking for money that they have less freedom than they do.

There are other more exotic reasons that the endowment size matters— you can even sometimes borrow from it or use it as collateral. This probably gives trustees at universities the vapors, but it happens when non-profits need to meet operating expenses (like when COVID-19 shuts down the art museum and all the revenues fall through the floor). But, to put the point generally, yes, the size of the endowment does impact the ability of the university acquire cash to spend in the present. It’s not irrelevant.Report

David Wallace
Reply to  DoubleA
11 months ago

@DoubleA: Thanks for this: interesting, and possibly showing up differences between the UK and US systems (at the admin/fundraising level, I know the UK better, and might be overgeneralizing).

On the issue of profit/loss, I don’t *think* it’s true that long-term surpluses can just flow back into the endowment: that would be an audit red flag (as well as violating the federal mandate you mention). What is true is that universities can and will run an operating profit to cover capital expenses and contingencies: Columbia apparently ran an operating surplus of around $150K in 2020-2021, which is actually much lower than I’d have guessed (COVID contingency costs, possibly?) and describes it as (inter alia) “provid[ing] funding for capital construction projects to maintain and improve our campuses.” It’s of course perfectly possible to argue that Columbia ought to be doing fewer capital projects and spending the savings on remuneration (that was one of the possible expenditure shifts I noted in my original comment).

On the broader issue of endowment income: as I understand it the difference between an endowment and a spend-down fund is that the endowment is supposed to cover the cost *forever*. (When Bill Miller gave Johns Hopkins $75M to add nine faculty lines and provide support for grad students and post-docs, the idea is that he’s done it *permanently*, not just for a delimited window of time). Now granted that becomes a fiction on really long timescales, but in the medium term the idea is to draw down on the endowment at a rate that preserves its real value (at least against inflation increases, but probably against predicted above-inflation increases in academic costs too.) 

In my Oxford college (Balliol) we normally targeted 3.75% as the rate at which we could draw down on the endowment while preserving its real value and being insulated against big hits to operating budget in financial downturns. I had been thinking of the US 5% target as just reflecting the fact that US institutions are more optimistic/aggressive about their investment strategies than Oxford is, but it sounds from your email as if it’s actually coming from a federal requirement. (Do you have a reference?) If so, it might be that US institutions are already drawing down too much to sustain the endowment’s real value, in which case they’d be unwise to increase it.

Alternatively, maybe they’re drawing down too little, and the real value of their endowment is increasing well ahead of costs. If so, that’s bad financial planning and they should definitely draw down more. Or more radically, maybe the “endowment” model of thinking about funds is mistaken and universities ought to intentionally draw them down over a 10-20 year timescale by taking more out than they can build back up through investment – maybe through optimism about future philanthropy, maybe through skepticism about the value of financial planning on timescales longer than 20 years or so. (Balliol, which was founded around 1265, tends to prefer a longer time horizon than that!)

But neither of those possibilities seems to have much to do with either the size of the endowment, or the justice of the Columbia students’ strike. If you’re letting your endowment build up to no good purpose, you should stop it, whether or not graduate students deserve more money (there will always be other things you can do with the money, like increase facilities or reduce tuition). Conversely, if your overall financial strategy is based on preserving the endowment in the long term, you shouldn’t change that strategy because you realize you need to increase your costs by paying grad students more; you should find the money through some other income increase or cost saving.Report

David Wallace
Reply to  David Wallace
11 months ago

150M, sorry.Report

ajkreider
ajkreider
Reply to  David Wallace
11 months ago

I don’t know the particulars here either, but there has been a real debate for a while now about non-profit universities not spending a great enough % of their endowments. In the US, I believe there has even been a move to tax endowments that don’t reach a certain threshold.

This kind of issue would be relevant if the university is claiming poverty (but again, I don’t know the particulars).Report

Devin
Reply to  Tim O'Keefe
11 months ago

Columbia had an aggregate operating surplus of $150 million in FY21, with a return on endowment of ~$3.5 billion in that year alone.

For comparison, the last time the university costed one of the union’s proposals it was around $170-200 million for the entire 3 years of the contract, if I recall correctly – and of course that’s a very liberal estimate, the union itself costed it at $100.2 million. That was a couple months ago: the union’s current package makes significant cuts.Report

David Wallace
Reply to  Devin
11 months ago

Okay, now this is financially relevant information.

So, splitting the difference between university and union estimates, we’re talking about 40-50M p/a, or about 30% of the university’s operating surplus. So, not unaffordable, but not trivial either.

(I don’t think the endowment return is directly relevant, for the reasons I give above.)Report

Prof L
Prof L
Reply to  Jon Light
11 months ago

The annual (9 month) stipend is 31k. It looks like they also get a 4k summer stipend, judging by individual department pages.

Is vision insurance a sticking point here?

I don’t know what independent arbitration means, and how that would work with the legal framework surrounding Title IX.Report

Lee
Lee
Reply to  Jon Light
11 months ago

You want to know what the bosses think? …why.Report

Hunter
Reply to  Lee
11 months ago

Because it is potentially quite possible that the reasons for the strike are unjustified. If we had the relevant positions and information from both sides we could make a more objective decision here. Not that complicated to understand why…Report

Jon Light
Jon Light
Reply to  Lee
11 months ago

Because we’re philosophers who want to think critically about these issues? Because we teach our students to seek the strongest versions of all arguments, including the ones they disagree with?Report

Devin
11 months ago

I would like to note that the demands listed in the bargaining framework are not the union’s current proposals – there have been moves since bargaining resumed, and during mediation yesterday the union dropped a full package that makes significant moves on all these issues (while still holding to our bottom lines).Report

Lee
Lee
11 months ago

In the eleventh hour, my union’s bt (of which I was a part) managed to score three unexpected wins in our last bargaining session, despite the admin team having removed them many sessions earlier. Fiery testimony from members helped keep the pressure on. We didn’t get all we wanted, by any stretch, but we held our ground when they pushed us. A grad union should not have to demand things like accessible bathrooms in our contract, but when we get the university to publicly commit to taking action on such an issue, everyone benefits. I wish people would stop sympathizing with “the university”; it is, in the 21st century, akin to sympathizing with Walmart or Google. The bosses (admin, CEOs, different names for the same thing) will drive their Teslas home after bargaining and not lose a wink of sleep over disenfranchising workers, even when those student workers are sleeping in their cars.Report

Last edited 11 months ago by Lee
Hunter
Reply to  Lee
11 months ago

We aren’t necessarily “sympathizing” with the university, rather instead some of us are interested in a fuller, less one-sided picture of the situation. So we might make a more thoughtful and informed decision about the situation. One should never just blindly accept the position of another without any critical thought out into it.Report

Mike
Reply to  Hunter
11 months ago

Critical thought to form a decision regarding a particular/token instance need not require ever more specific details about that particular instance. I think it is disingenuous to read political calls to side, by default, with striking workers in any such particular instance as blindly accepting a position without critical thought.Report

Last edited 11 months ago by Mike
Adjunct_Instructors_Of_The_World_Unite
11 months ago

Anyone else find that there is, in general, more sympathy for the plight of graduate students than the plight of adjuncts? Adjuncts have it far worse; they are many; and their labor seems even more necessary than that of graduate students, at least in the humanities. I feel like there is a kind of disdain for adjuncts among the TT and (at least lower year) graduate students, a disdain which I do not understand.Report

Jon Light
Jon Light

Yeah, probably more sympathy for graduate students than adjuncts. The adjuncts are against the view–fair or not–they they have other options and could have made other choices (e.g., get a “real job” with their Ph.D.’s, whether academic or otherwise). Whereas the graduate students haven’t gotten to the decision point yet on whether to become adjuncts. See Jason Brennan’s stuff on this; I’m not necessarily endorsing the tone of it, but the argument is worth looking at.Report

Jason Brennan
Reply to  Jon Light
11 months ago

Pretty much this. In *Cracks and the Ivory Tower*, we argue that schools systematically exploit students even though the case that they exploit adjuncts fails.Report

ehz
ehz
Reply to  Jason Brennan
11 months ago

It’s Cracks in the Ivory Tower (have you even read it?). Cracks and the Ivory Tower sounds like a different kind of book.Report

Insert Name Here
Insert Name Here
Reply to  ehz
11 months ago

Just to be clear, are you taking the stance that one must be able to perfectly recall conjunctions in a title in order to have knowledge of the meaning of a work?Report

ehz
ehz
Reply to  Insert Name Here
11 months ago

It was a joke. Jason co-authored that book.Report

ShirleyIcan'tbeserious
Reply to  ehz
11 months ago

No jokes allowed here. I was nearly crucified on this site a few months back for telling one myself. Now let’s all get back to reconstructing anti-union talking points as charitably as possible so that we can’t possibly be accused of blindly endorsing unions. After all, it’s quite possible – mathematically possible, at any rate – that workers are making unjustified demands. They seem to be demanding vision coverage so they don’t have to pay for their own monocles. What’s next? Demanding that Columbia pay for a gold watch & chain for each graduate student, too? Free top hats? PhDs in Finland receive a free sword with their degree. Has anyone ever thought to ask why they get swords and we don’t?Report

Adjunct_Instructors_Of_The_World_Unite
Reply to  Jon Light
11 months ago

Graduate students could also have made other choices (e.g. get a real job with their B.A.’s instead of going to grad school), so I don’t see how they’re different in that regard. I think it boils down to the fact that profs used to be graduate students, but most of them were never adjuncts. Ergo, no sympathy.Report

John

I’m unsure how much of your post is off-the-cuff and how much is polemical. A few examples:

‘Get a real job’: I’m unsure why being a graduate student is not a real job. Sure, on one hand it’s because you’re a student. But this can’t be the whole story. Students are pupils, yes, but a lot of what I see graduate students doing looks like work that keeps the university running.

‘… .Ergo…”: does this inference hold water? If I was once a car driver, but I never had an accident, does it follow that I can have no sympathy for a driver who has had an accident–say, in a moment’s inattention? More generally, just because an F never became a G, do we want to say Fs should never sympathize with Gs?

The car driver example can be questioned. Perhaps the difference is that professors who were graduate students deserve their position; adjuncts who were graduate students do not deserve that position; and so /accident/ really plays no role here. It’s just desserts all the way down.

If that’s the view, then you might need a crash course in academic politics.Report

Derek Bowman
Reply to  John
11 months ago

The ‘ergo’ is clearly meant to indicate a descriptive explanatory relation, not a deductive inference or a normative claim. The claim is that it is predictable that people are more likely to sympathize with those in positions they have been in than those whose positions they have not been in. As an explanation of differential sympathy, this is surely plausible, at least as an initial hypothesis.

The accident example is helpful, since it suggests that it is also easy to sympathize with those in positions we know we could easily find ourselves in. But of course AIOFWU would presumably say that this condition also does not apply to many tenured faculty in top departments – they never really saw adjuncting as something they might find their career stuck in.

The claim is not that it is impossible for someone to sympathize without such an imagined personal connection, only that this would explain the alleged differential patterns of sympathy.

Of course there are many other avenues for producing sympathy, such as seeing one’s friends or one’s students or others one cares about in, or in danger of falling into, such positions. That’s one reason I have been (sometimes obnoxiously) open about my own adjuncting experiences in these spaces. (Currently I’m in a pretty sweet VAP, but the part-time adjuncting I did before was pretty miserable).

Re: ‘real job,’ I think you’re missing the dialectic of this particular subthread of argument.Report

Adjunct_Instructors_Of_The_World_Unite
Reply to  Derek Bowman
11 months ago

Yeah, Derek has my meaning right. I’m sympathetic to both adjuncts and graduate students. To add to it, the “real job” bit was just to say that graduate students and adjuncts can both be evaluated in the light of having had alternatives (brought up by earlier in the thread, where the “real job” phrase was first used) — I didn’t mean to endorse the claim that working as a grad student is not a real job, nor to endorse the claim that adjuncting is not a real job.Report

Last edited 11 months ago by Adjunct_Instructors_Of_The_World_Unite
Sam Duncan
Sam Duncan

For a lot of tenure track folks to admit for one second that they should have any sympathy for adjuncts would require they admit that the situation adjuncts find themselves in is not their fault. That leads dangerously close to the thought that the successes of the tenure track folks might not be totally due to their own merits. For all the prattle you hear about Rawls, luck egalitarianism, or the disadvantaged they aren’t going to go pulling on that thread. On the other hand they can sympathize with graduate students with little or no cognitive dissonance. They too were once underpaid graduate students, and despite their obvious genius!Report

John
Reply to  Derek Bowman
11 months ago

Hi Derek–points well taken. I too now think my comment above is mistaken.Report

Scott Hill
Reply to  John
11 months ago

Sorry. I saw that Adjuncts of the World Unite had already the point I just tried to make.Report

Evan
Reply to  Jon Light
11 months ago

Here is a recent paper critiquing Brennan’s and Magness’ argument about adjuncts.

Hill, S., Klocksiem, J. Adjuncts Are Exploited. Philosophia (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11406-021-00425-4Report

Scott Hill
Reply to  Evan
11 months ago

Thanks for the link to our paper Evan! A free version is here: https://philpapers.org/archive/HILAAE-5.pdfReport

Scott Hill
Reply to  Jon Light
11 months ago

Seems like grad students have exit options and could have made other choices too. A big exit option for adjuncts is supposed to be that they can go work for GEICO. Grad students can do that too. So I don’t think that is a plausible basis for distinguishing between adjuncts and grad students.Report

Devin

Just wanted to chime in to say, as a graduate student, that I think adjuncts deserve at least as much sympathy as graduate students. For what it’s worth, there’s deep and longstanding solidarity between the Columbia student worker union and the Barnard contingent faculty union.Report