The culmination of the months-long campaign to organize a faculty union at Duke University came far from the campus, in the nondescript offices of the National Labor Relations Board in Winston-Salem. It was, for anyone who cares about the state of American universities, a sobering scene.
This was the counting of mailed-in ballots to determine if 296 nontenured, nonrank faculty members at Duke had chosen to join the Service Employees International Union.
As the two sides huddled around a hearing room table—a half-dozen Duke officials and their lawyers on one end, a dozen faculty members, their lawyers, and organizers from the union on the other—NLRB officer Ingrid Jenkins directed the tedious process: first, determine whether each envelope received was from an eligible person; second, open and insert the ballot into a cardboard box to preserve anonymity; third, read each ballot aloud.
Yes. No. Yes. Yes.
In the two hours it took to complete this task, it was clear that this wasn't Duke and a part of its faculty tilting amicably. Rather, it was "the company" and "the union"—Jenkins's terms—staring across a great divide.
The outcome, on March 18, was a lopsided win for the union, 179–24, with thirteen ballots set aside because of contested eligibility.
Why did I find the clash so jarring? Because it burst my ideal of what university governance should be, with faculty at the center and the administration supporting them. For that matter, it was jarring to realize that an eclectic group of scholars, individualists for whom the uniformity of a union seemed an odd fit, wanted the SEIU nonetheless.
But there it was. The modern university isn't governed by its faculty, though in my memory administrators were drawn from the faculty, and they respected the tradition that a university was its faculty and students.
Its tenured faculty, anyway. But then, most faculty members had tenure.
Today, though, universities are run like a business—they've been "corporatized," critics say, and chase the almighty buck—while a majority of faculty members lack the protection of tenure or any hope of getting it. Instead, their employment is "contingent," dependent on fixed-term contracts that are typically one to three years long but may be semester to semester—and are often part-time. Those without tenure are constrained in their ability to challenge university policy. They're treated as workers who may or may not be retained.
Rann Bar-On is a Duke mathematics instructor with a contract. "We are workers," Bar-On told me after the votes were counted. "Especially those of us who focus on teaching, as I do." As opposed to doing research, he meant. "I do not consider myself as any different from workers in other industries," Bar-On added. "Because the university does not."
Across the country, contingent faculty workers are banding together: according to The Wall Street Journal, union drives have succeeded at seventy colleges and universities in the last three years.
Duke stands out, however, as a first in the South and, according to the Journal, "the first new private sector faculty union in a right-to-work state in decades."
The question ahead is whether unions can help stem the impacts of corporatization and reassert the centrality of teaching, learning, and inquiry on American campuses. Will unions play the role that tenured faculty once did to safeguard academic freedom? And, in North Carolina, will Duke's union spark an uprising on other campuses, in particular across a University of North Carolina system under threat from forces corporate and political?