Life and Tenure Among the Social Darwinians

1. Striving for tenure at a university is like gambling in a casino; the house sets the rules and controls the odds. From a university’s point of view, the granting of tenure is an enormous commitment. If one assumes that a newly tenured professor will work at the university for 30 years with an average salary and benefits of $100,000, granting tenure is a $3 million commitment, a substantial obligation for any institution to assume. Therefore, to protect the institution, university tenure guidelines include phrases stating that the granting of tenure shall occur when it is in the best interest of the university. Tenure is based on the university’s needs, not the achievements of those seeking tenure, and the university sets the rules and controls the odds. Changing budgets and administrations vary the standards for those receiving tenure over time, making comparisons with earlier cases potentially dangerous to current tenure candidates.

What I Wish I’d Known About Tenure, March 27, 2009, Leslie M. Phinney

Irony is one of the most difficult concepts for students. It’s not that they don’t have a sense of irony, it’s that they use the term in a very broad, sweeping fashion, almost as if it were synonymous with anything unusual and funny or humorous. Irony, though, is more specific; it always involves a kind of reversal of meaning.

When I read this piece on tenure I kept thinking that I was reading an ironic description. This is the way things are, Phinney implies, but it’s the opposite of the way things should be. I am fairly certain I am wrong. There is no irony in this text, and certainly it does not see anything it describes as unusual or funny.

This is a ‘realpolitik‘ depiction that tries to present the ‘hard truths’ that, it assumes, few young academics are willing to face. It’s accurate and, in the end, a little silly in the way it asserts what it calls the ‘institutional’ needs, as if that were a distinct ‘interest group’ separate from students, faculty, and staff.

It all sounds clean-cut and simple, like a character from a 50s sit-com. The truth peeks out from behind the rationality when Phinney admits that “the majority of those beginning tenure-track positions will end up in the gray or middle zone, and the outcome will depend on local departmental and university conditions.”

What Phinney doesn’t say is that the ambiguity or ‘gray area’ isn’t resolved ethically, as a matter of right and wrong, but as a kind of aggressive psycho-pathology. Typically, she defines it as “integration into the department.” Ask anyone who’s been through it; it’s a much nastier thing.

American Watch

US labor law currently permits a wide range of employer conduct that interferes with worker organizing. Enforcement delays are endemic, regularly denying aggrieved workers their right to an “effective remedy.” Sanctions for illegal conduct are too feeble to adequately discourage employer law breaking, breaching the international law requirement that penalties be “sufficiently dissuasive” to deter violations.

Unfair union election rules allow employers to engage in one-sided, aggressive anti-union campaigning while denying union advocates a similar chance to respond and banning union organizers from the workplace or even from distributing information on company property. If confronted with clear evidence of employee support for a union, employers can force a formal election and manipulate the often lengthy pre-election period to pound their anti-union drumbeat and, in many cases, violate US labor laws, confident that any penalties will be minimal and long delayed.

Workers who overcome these obstacles and successfully form a union may still be unable to conclude a collective agreement, in large part because weak US labor law provisions fail to meaningfully punish illegal employer bad-faith negotiating or to adequately define good-faith bargaining requirements.

Human Rights Watch: The Employee Free Choice Act, A Human Rights Imperative

Nothing spooks the U.S. managerial cadres more than unions. I have always been surprised, for example, at the money universities spend to prevent unionization or to fight an existing union. Administrators would cut their own salaries before they would stop paying a retainer to their union fighting law firm.

If you have never been around contract negotiations, or an organizing drive, you probably think this is just one of those lefty myths about the big bad Capital wolf waiting at our door. If you want a feel for the reality of the paranoia, though, you just have to do a quick search on the act. It’s very real.

What’s so interesting is that all of the fear assumes that people don’t really want unions. The law, then, won’t make it easier for people to make a decision about unions, it will make it easier for unions to manipulate people. Because, of course, no one in their right mind wants a union. I bet those law firms know better.

Balance of Power

Sen. John McCain wants to cut the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 25 percent; Sen. Barack Obama doesn’t. Obama wants to increase the minimum wage; McCain doesn’t.

It’s hard to mix up the economic proposals of the two presidential candidates. Likewise, when it comes to workplace issues, they tend to lean in predictable ways – Obama toward the employee, McCain toward the employer.

Yet regardless of who’s elected, employment lawyers and Washington-area lobbyists say labor laws could get reshuffled in areas as varied as union organizing and gay rights.

“Some people are saying this could be the most active 'workplace Congress’ in the last 20 to 25 years,” said Mike Aitken, director of government affairs for the Society for Human Resource Management, based in Alexandria.

Where do McCain, Obama stand on labor issues? Philip Walzer, The Virginian-Pilot, September 21, 2008.

Here’s a nicely summarized view of the prospects for some basic changes, most of which, oddly enough, are not fully dependent on a Democrat becoming president. It helps to read this sort of thing, if for nothing else, in order to get some prospective on the frightening prospect of a third Republican term, and the shadow of a fourth.

The piece downplays the role that Palin– or Palin’s politics, and the right wing of the Republican party, might play in any future McCain administration. The idea is that McCain’s “libertarian” side would resurface soon after the election and that he would have little reason to spend political capital fighting, say, gay rights legislation.

I’m not sure how persuasive I find that idea. McCain could also spend his entire term fighting to keep the margins of his party happy; he could be uninterested in governing, like Bush, and leave the messy policy details to his neo-conservative precursors. I doubt Palin would be as powerful as Cheney.

What’s exciting, of course, is the prospect of a Democratic president enabling the rapid passage of all of these bills, especially the Employee Free Choice Act, pushing the U.S. just a few more steps out of the past. That might mean the birth of a unionized and green economic expansion. That could provide the tools for real change.

The Real Class War

Average pre-tax incomes in 2006 jumped by about $60,000 (5.8 percent) for the top 1 percent of households, but just $430 (1.4 percent) for the bottom 90 percent, after adjusting for inflation, according to a new update in the groundbreaking series on income inequality by economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez. Their analysis of newly released IRS data shows that in 2006, the shares of the nation’s income flowing to the top 1 percent and top 0.1 percent of households were higher than in any year since 1928.

Average Income in 2006 up $60,000 for Top 1 Percent of Households, Just $430 for Bottom 90 Percent. Chye-Ching Huang and Chad Stone, Center for Budget and Policy Priorities

I was watching Fox News on Saturday, after Senator Obama’s vice-presidential announcement, and William Crystal, that weird rolly-polly gnome of the right, called Senator Biden the perfect candidate to start the class war. They mean, of course, that Biden is pro-union and pro-women, generally speaking, and can start hammering away at McCain’s “welfare for the rich” economic programs.

It’s classic right-wing rhetorical Judo, as Huang and Stone’s work shows. You take the truth– that there’s been a radical shift of wealth from the poor, working, and middle-classes to the rich– and you insist on the opposite. If you repeat it often enough, it starts to sound like the truth. The farther you get from the actual truth, you more you need to exaggerate. Thus, “The Audacity of Socialism.