Throughout the last year of labor struggles at Goddard, I’ve been repeatedly struck by the degree to which this union fight is really a fight for the heart and soul of a college so many of us love deeply, even passionately. Looking back to the beginning of 2013, I remember the ugly anti-union campaign mounted by the administration during the staff’s union organizing drive, which ended with a decisive vote of “Union, Yes!” As the year wore on, both faculty and staff unions engaged in grueling negotiations while the administration badgered us with demands for draconian cuts to pay and benefits, saying as long ago as last summer that if we didn’t concede, they would simply declare that an impasse in bargaining had been reached and impose their own terms. Remembering all this, I’m more than ever convinced that the union fight is about so much more than pay and benefits, important as those are.
In 2010, I resigned my long-time job teaching writing at the New School. I was worn out by that supposedly “liberal” institution’s version of the corporatization that has beset academia in recent years–an assault that had basically destroyed the wonderful writing/teaching/learning community I had been part of there since 1990. I decided to concentrate on my half-time Goddard job, which had its own version of the warmth, collegiality, democracy, and creative community I’d enjoyed during my early New School years. Not that Goddard was a perfect place–I was well aware of that–but it was a place where creative connections could happen, were encouraged. It was a place where the overall vibe was about supporting each other and exploring together, not about glitz (which faculty member has the biggest name) or the latest academic fad (“student learning outcomes,” “learning management systems”). It was a place, too, where the intersections of aesthetic adventure and agitation for social justice that have meant so much to me in my writing life were valued and cultivated by many of my students and faculty colleagues.
Imagine my feelings over the past several years, as I watched a new Goddard administration methodically–implacably–install a corporate-style governance approach. This administration seemed obsessed with power and perks for the President’s Office, determined to remake the institution in ways that had little to do with its historic strengths, indifferent to the erosion of supports for academic programs, and zealous in creating an atmosphere of fear and intimidation such that many in the community became afraid to speak critically. It felt like the moment in the horror movie when the victim realizes that the space she assumed to be a safe shelter is actually the lair of the monster.
Amazingly, after so much destruction, what happens inside Goddard’s programs–what happens between students and students, faculty and students, staff and everyone else–still seems largely intact today. But I ask myself: how much longer can that remain the case if we don’t strenuously revise the ways in which power circulates at Goddard?
That’s where the union comes in. The union space is one where we as faculty and staff actually have some rights that are legally enforceable. It’s because I have a union behind me–that is, because my “fellow workers” are organized, which really means we’re pledged to have each other’s backs–that I’ve felt I could speak out without immediately risking my job. With the striking exception of a few people with fancy titles and fancier salaries–several of whom have recently moved on, unlamented by most of us–Goddard is full of people of goodwill, but my experiences in academia over the past 25 years have taught me that this isn’t enough. Absent structures (like the union) that redistribute power, it’s too easy for a few unscrupulous individuals to manipulate the system in order to impose their own vision or simply further their own interests. Most fundamentally, for me, this is a fight about whether it’s still possible, in 2014, to hold onto the Goddard I have known as a flawed, evolving, but genuinely democratic learning community. Stay tuned.