Education, Labor, Politics

Guest post by tf

Blackboard is an online system used by many universities, in the United States and elsewhere, to animate classroom discussions beyond the classroom, through forums and other web-based tools. Administrators at New York University (NYU) are pioneering a new use of Blackboard: to spy on faculty and graduate teaching assistants.

Graduate students who work as teaching or research assistants at NYU have been on strike for almost a month because of NYUs having ceased to recognize their union, GSOC, and because of NYUs ongoing refusal to negotiate a new contract to succeed the one that the university and the union had signed in 2002. Shortly after the strike began, faculty found that their online classrooms had, without prior notice, been opened to a number of administrators. With such access, administrators could monitor interactions between faculty and students. The administration tried to justify its actions, as Scott Carlson reports in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

Richard Foley, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and Matthew S. Santirocco, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, explained to professors in a letter that administrators were added to management sites for courses in which graduate students were teaching to ensure continuity of instruction” during the strike. The letter said that some departments had been consulted on the move, but acknowledged that it would have been better if there had been complete consultation and advance notification.”

Nonetheless, over two hundred NYU faculty signed a letter of protest addressed to NYU president John Edward Sexton. This is but one stand that has been taken by a faculty group called Faculty Democracy that has come out strongly on the side of the union.

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Faculty support for the graduate employee union is not strong across the board. Professor Paul Boghossian, Chairman of the NYU Philosophy Department, proves himself a master of the slippery slope argument in an opinion piece in The New York Daily News that rivals Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus for its ingenious use of numbered propositions:

  1. Only persons who are primarily employees are entitled to form a collective bargaining unit, in order to be represented by a labor union. 2. Our graduate students, even when they serve as graduate assistants or teaching assistants, are not employees. Should we then allow the parents of our undergraduates to unionize?

Boghossian does go on to admit a series of failings” of the system at NYU:

  1. More teaching is required in [some departments] than could be justified by the requirements of doctoral training; (b) The teaching that is required is not sufficiently continuous, and, finally, (c) The teaching is not sufficiently mentored by the faculty.

While his own propositions get numbers, the failings get lower case letters; they are clearly not important enough to justify collective bargaining. We live in the best of all possible worlds, so the graduate employees should be content.

However, even if Boghossian’s opinion typifies that of the majority of the faculty, the NYU administration will have its work cut out for itself if it tries to punish the striking graduate employees. Such retaliation is imminent, as David Epstein reports in Inside Higher Ed:

Since November 9, striking New York University graduate assistants have still been getting paychecks. But Monday, NYU let the picketers know the cash flow will soon be squeezed off.

Graduate assistants who do not resume their duties by December 5 or the first scheduled teaching assignment thereafter … will for the spring semester lose their stipend and their eligibility to teach,” reads the e-mail from President John Sexton to all graduate assistants. Later in the letter, Sexton says that students who do not report for duty will actually lose their stipend and assignments for the next two semesters, not just the spring.

NYUs President Sexton extended this deadline to December 7th based on the wheeze of an emergent company union, as Brittani Manzo reports in the Washington Square News:

Last night the Graduate Affairs Committee proposed the establishment of a new university organization to speak on behalf of graduate students in an effort to end the graduate assistant strike, now in its fourth week.

My own reading, as a former graduate employee union shop steward, is that the NYU administration knows that it will have a tough time carrying out its threat. Who will police whether graduate employees are at work or not? The graduate employees are, by the administration’s own reasoning, under faculty supervision. And a significant number of faculty may follow Faculty Democracy’s call to not cooperate with the administration in a number of ways, including covering for teaching assistants (TAs):

A section canceled by a faculty member cannot legitimately be held to have failed to meet owing to the absence of a TA or preceptor. We therefore encourage faculty who hold classes with sections taught by TAs to unilaterally cancel all section meetings for lecture courses this week and indeed for the remainder of the semester.

I see the spying on the Blackboard system as an attempt by the administration to bypass the faculty whom they cannot trust. Actions such as these risk rallying more faculty to the side of the graduate employees.