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Social Text 20.4 (2002) 47-64

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Tenure Denied:
Anti-unionism And Anti-intellectualism In The Academy

Joel Westheimer

It was supposed to be a dull day downtown. On 28 September 1999, I rode the subway to the court building where I was to offer testimony to a hearing officer from the New York regional office of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). I was to testify, of my own volition, on behalf of New York University graduate students who were seeking to join a union, then return uptown to teach my afternoon class in NYU's School of Education. When I entered the room where the hearing was to take place, it was easy to tell that the stakes were high. I already knew that NYU had hired the same high-profile law firm used previously by Yale and presently by Columbia University. But to my surprise, not one but three lawyers for the university were present, along with two high-ranking university officials, each dressed in carefully pressed suits and ties: the vice dean of my school, Tom James, and vice president of NYU, Robert Berne. Then there was me: a young untenured assistant professor, dressed in rumpled khakis. I was called to the stand, and lawyers for both sides began with prepared questions. The hearing room grew increasingly tense, the questioning increasingly fierce.

Ten months after the trial, I would submit my application for promotion and tenure. Soon after, Ann Marcus, dean of the School of Education, would overturn the unanimous recommendation (of both my own department faculty and all seven outside experts chosen to judge my case) that I be granted tenure. By August of 2001, less than two years after testifying against the university's interest in denying graduate students the right to form a union, I would be fired.

This essay is related to my academic research on democratic communities in education. Studying the democratic purposes of schooling, in elementary and high schools as well as in colleges and universities, has always been compelling to me because the gap between rhetorical and substantive democracy can be so large in these institutions. But while I have always felt strongly about issues of democracy and community in education, this essay is personal and difficult to write. It is an essay I could never have imagined writing. This essay concerns how my academic freedom and, indeed, my legal protection under the National Labor Relations Act were both violated by the administration of New York University. I write this account because I believe it is important to examine the [End Page 47] ways university administrators—who are increasingly modeling themselves after corporate executives—respond when grassroots efforts to reassert democracy and pursue just working arrangements on campuses begin to gain strength. The focus here is on my case at New York University, but the implications reach farther: campuses across the country— like Columbia, Brown, Yale, Penn State, the University of Maryland, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Illinois, and the University of North Carolina—all have active organizing campaigns for teaching assistants and sometimes adjunct and even tenure-stream faculty. This essay is as much about their struggles as it is about those at NYU because, while particular circumstances vary, one disturbing trend remains constant: as university administrations increasingly look to the bottom line and displace educational goals with economic ones, the democratic ideal of the university will suffer, and so will our faculty and students.

The graduate student organizing drive that ended in an embarrassing defeat for the NYU administration was a victory, I would argue, for the university as a whole. NYU graduate students are now affiliated with the International United Automobile, Aerospace and Agriculture Implement Workers of America (UAW) and have recently negotiated their landmark first contract, which included higher salaries, health benefits, paid professional development courses, proper appointment procedures, and fee waivers. All of these were unimaginable until their successful organizing drive, labor board suit and, finally, union representation. Now adjunct professors at NYU are also preparing for a major organizing drive to...


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