Unionization Beyond the Trees of Vanderbilt Univeristy

Throughout this semester and last, I’ve heard from graduate students across disciplines tell me and my fellow organizers which aspects of graduate life are of highest interest and concern. Although at times there have been department- or area-specific issues, university-wide concerns are largely the same: stipend increases that reflect the increasing cost of living in Nashville (Expatisan in 2017 has listed Nashville as #27 in its list of cities with the highest cost of living in North America); improved health care that includes more comprehensive benefits for leave and for dependents, as well as the fan favorites: dental and vision; and general calls for greater transparency, a seat at the table for administrative decisions that affect us directly—and here people frequently mention the increase cost of parking passes that occurred at the beginning of the fall 2016 term (which was ultimately and quite quickly reversed) and, especially, the elimination of Buttrick’s third floor as graduate student space and concomitant reduction in size of graduate student carrels at the end of the spring 2016 term—and mechanisms that hold all parties accountable to agreements reached between different strata of the university hierarchy.

Most striking, however, is that these concerns are not really Vanderbilt-specific, nor do they express or suggest any sort of unbridge-able antagonisms dividing the Vanderbilt community. These concerns, in other words, show us that desires for unionization do not reflect an “us” versus “them” mentality, but rather reflect a larger trend that has been quietly permeating higher education for decades.

Many of us—student, faculty, and staff alike—are concerned with the direction in which higher education is moving: some call it the ‘corporatization of the university’, increased emphasis on proficiency over growth, or general profit-motive pressures on the institution of education (as more often than not, and as is the case here at Vanderbilt, university board of trustees do not hold doctorate degrees but rather come from backgrounds in law and business). These trends have certainly intensified over the last 10 or so years, and Vanderbilt University, although one of the most prestigious universities in the country, is not immune to these external pressures by any means.

To be frank, we need only look at the political situation of the U.S. right now: we are a country run by business-minded oligarchs who have little regard for or believe in the importance of education. Trump’s executive orders restricting immigration from (now) 6 Muslim-majority countries, too, has already had tangible effects on higher education. According to Suzanne Ortega, president of the Council of Graduate Students, 40% of universities have seen a drop in applications from international students—and these students bring more than $32 billion a year into the U.S. economy. The Trump administration’s preliminary budget proposal for 2018, released on March 16th, has outlined alarming cuts: to pay for increases in defense spending, the proposal reduces funding for 19 federal agencies, two of which are the Department of Education (by more than 13%, or, $9 billion) and the Department of Justice (by about 4%). To put this in perspective, the Department of Education oversees the implementation of IDEA, the Individuals with Disabilities and Education Act, and the Justice Department oversees the implementation of the 1972 Education Amendments Act, one of which is Title IX.

The proposal also outlines the total elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities, as well as decreases in agencies that award funding for research such as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. Vanderbilt hospital chief Dr. Jeff Balser has himself expressed concerns over the roughly 20 percent proposed cut of the NIH’s budget: In 2016, the NIH granted Tennessee researchers $512 million in grants, including $353 that went to the VU School of Medicine. Additionally, MTSU’s Business and Economic Research Center direct Murat Arik warns that “we all need to be concerned about it. This is the next generation of medical research. This is the next generation of health care, the next generation of medicine and treating disease.”

On March 16th, the same day that the budget proposal was released, the Chronicle of Higher Education published an article titled “What Trump’s Budget Outline would mean for Higher Ed.” The authors write that the cuts in the Department of Education are aimed at “several programs that aid primarily low-income and minority students” and which will “sacrifice the possibility of year-round grants.” The budget also proposes to eliminate funding for 19 independent agencies, including the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the U.S. African Development Foundation, and the Appalachian Regional Commission, as well as reduce spending for the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, which oversees the Critical Language Scholarship Program and the Fulbright Program. Cuts in research spending would, according to university leaders, launch “a dangerous assault on the United States’ pre-eminence in science and technology” and, according to Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, these and similar cuts “signal the end of the American century as global innovation leader.”

The budget proposal is not set in stone, and there is no hard and fast guarantee that the cuts will end up being as severe as they’ve thus far been outlined; contrarily, there's no hard and fast guarantee that they will not be more severe. What is true, though, is that this is a problem that goes beyond Vanderbilt University and goes beyond our tenure as graduate students. For those of us who plan on staying in academia—about 25% of enrolled PhD students here at Vanderbilt—and for our friends and colleagues in the Vanderbilt faculty, these policies have the potential to drastically reshape (or raze) the landscape of higher education, and Vanderbilt will have no choice but to ride the wave when it comes.

One union at one prestigious university is certainly not enough to reverse the overarching aims of a nation’s government, but it can serve as a symbol that the anti-intellectual, anti-creative, and anti-innovative mentality that so often accompanies far-right demagoguery is something that we do not support and will not tolerate. The National Labor Relations Board ruled in August 2016 that graduate workers at private institutions have employee status, joining the ranks of graduate workers at public institutions where many have been unionized since the 70s and 80s. There are two empty seats on the NLRB right now, and the Trump administration has the power to fill them. We can expect with near certainty that its nominees will not be friendly to unionization, and we should anticipate the possibility of the August 2016 ruling being reversed. Governments only restrict the freedoms of its people when it knows it has something to fear, and history has shown us that the freedom to think is one of the most terrifying adversaries of social, political, and economic oppression that there is.

I am one graduate student among over 1200 brilliant minds here at Vanderbilt University. But unionization is bigger than me, and it’s bigger than all 1200 of us. I can only speak on behalf of myself, but if you share the same commitments to education, free speech, and freedom of thought as I do, I hope you, too, see that unionizing is a way not only to protect ourselves, our colleagues in graduate programs, faculty, staff, and administration, but to protect all of the things that we represent and hold dear as scholars.

With love and solidarity,

Sabeen Ahmed, 2nd year PhD student, Department of Philosophy