This morning at 7:45 I was on the University of Illinois campus for a graduate student employee rally. After a bargaining update, we moved in groups to begin picketing key campus buildings. The Graduate Employees Organization (GEO), an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), was going on strike after contract negotiations with the university administration had broken down. The one remaining issue was the university’s refusal to sign a statement assuring that the current system of tuition and fee waivers would remain in place. Given that the administration had already eliminated them for research assistants in the sciences, there was good reason to fear administration interest in cherry picking humanities or social science sub-disciplines for similar treatment.
Despite a heavy rain, there was a significant turnout. At issue for many graduate programs is their ability to recruit out-of-state, minority, and foreign graduate students. Tuition payments would absorb almost their entire wages. The diversity that is the lifeblood of campus intellectual life is at stake. GEO has already made major concessions in the area of future compensation. Giving in on this key issue, however, risks transforming the character of campus departments, as areas capable of winning outside grants to fund tuition payments would get the maximum support, while others might face downsizing or elimination. The corporate university would trump the faculty’s role in shaping the curriculum. Once again an activist union is working to keep higher education’s core values in place.
This statement was issued on 16 November 2009 and published on the Web site of the American Association of University Professors under the title of “Supporting Diversity.” See, also, Robert Naiman, “Illinois Grad Employees Strike for Education Security” (16 November 2009).