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Speaking Out

A Comment on the Fish

The University and the pro-union graduate students differ on various matters, but there is one fundamental disagreement. This becomes clear in a recent flyer posted by GET-UP, in which a big fish with an open mouth initially chases scattered little fish, but then gets pursued by an organized school of open-mouthed little fish. If they remain divided, the flyer shows us, graduate students eligible for the union will be eaten by the big fish of a university. Unionized, however, that subset of graduate students will turn the tables on the big fish and threaten to eat it instead.

What is a big fish? And is the University one?

The University is clearly big in various ways. But the big fish in the GET-UP flyer is more than just big. It is also trying to eat the little fish. This signifies not only size and power, but also hunger and a willingness to use others to satisfy itself. If this characterization does in fact apply to the University, then graduate students eligible for the union face a powerful, hungry institution and they might be justified in defending themselves.

The University presents an alternative view of its nature, as a nonprofit organization devoted to research, mentoring and teaching. The University must generate and spend revenue for this research, mentoring and teaching, but money is simply a means to a non-financial end. The big fish eats (a strictly vegetarian diet, I'm sure), but only so that it can take little fish under its fins and help them become the next generation of researchers and educators.

I, for one, agree with the University's claim. My faculty and administrative colleagues could be earning more money in a profession concerned with profit, but (whatever other neuroses we admittedly have) we choose to devote ourselves to research, mentoring and teaching. Furthermore, graduate students themselves, whatever they feel about the union, have also chosen this career path because of a commitment to something other than money.

That said, the pro-union graduate students are not completely mistaken in seeing the University as a big fish. The University struggles with tensions between the discourses and practices of financial gain and those of scholarly inquiry. Scholarly institutions have always been hybrid, in that they have always had to garner resources sufficient to support their scholarship. But over the last century discourses and practices of financial gain have increasingly penetrated areas of the University that used to be merely scholarly.

Ironically, the unionization drive may push the University away from being the sort of institution they want and toward the sort of institution the pro-union students fear. If a subset of graduate students does unionize, the University will be forced to adopt an adversarial, employer-employee relationship toward them. And thus the discourses and practices of financial gain will penetrate even further into our scholarly lives.

I would ask concerned graduate students to join in discussions and actions aimed at protecting the scholarly core of the University, instead of pushing us further toward profit-centered thought and action. A more collaborative discussion of graduate students' legitimate concerns would be the preferable alternative.

Let's all stop eating fish and find another metaphor.

--Stanton Wortham, associate professor, Chair, Educational Leadership Division, Graduate School of Education

  Speaking Out welcomes reader contributions. Short, timely letters on University issues will be accepted by Thursday at noon for the following Tuesday's issue, subject to right-of-reply guidelines. Advance notice of intention to submit is appreciated. --Eds

  Almanac, Vol. 49, No. 21, February 11, 2003