Job Security = Academic Freedom?

By April 19, 2005

Graduate Student Employees United (GSEU) at Columbia University and the Graduate Employees and Students Organization (GESO) at Yale University
started a week-long strike yesterday, demanding that the universities’ administrations recognize the groups as workers unions. The Yale Daily News reported that in New York students carried signs that said: “Job Security = Academic Freedom.” The Columbia Spectator reported, “Today strike organizers are planning a noon speak-out with graduate students, undergraduates, and faculty members on academic freedom and collective bargaining.”

Linking academic freedom with job security and unionization seems to imply that graduate students have a fear of losing their teaching assistant positions or other forms of retaliation if they engage in provocative or controversial expression. But in this case, it looks like the “freedom” is more financial than expressive: students complain that they don’t receive enough funding and benefits to effectively balance teaching, research, and caring for their families. Thus, financial constraints are the “censors” of the students’ academic freedom.

This is an interesting take on the issue of academic freedom. Though not directly related to FIRE’s mission, the outcome of this unionization movement at Columbia and Yale may end up having some implications for freedom of expression and academic freedom on those campuses. In the tenure debate, professors have long argued that job security is directly related to academic freedom. Ironically, the same academic establishment that vigorously protects tenure for the entrenched elite also uses mass numbers of untenured, at-will employee graduate students to do much of the teaching and research that tenured faculty members are no longer willing to do. It will be interesting to see how the establishment responds to its own argument.

Schools: Columbia University Yale University