Steve Vladeck has written up some thoughts spurred by the Town Meeting yesterday. When Students Strike Back — Some Reactions. Go read it. (The comments are well worth reading too.) I’ll wait.
Like Steve, I find myself taken aback by the size of the anti-strike faction among the students, and especially at the vehemence of a significant minority of the students who experience some of their professors’ decisions to move classes off campus as a wholly unreasonable imposition on their time (rather than as an understandable attempt to deal with difficult circumstances), or even as a cheap political stunt enacted by unfeeling hypocritical brutes.
I am lucky I am not teaching this semester, as it saves me the painful choices and the massive amounts of extra work that face my colleagues. So instead, let me ruminate out loud. It seems to me that there are two surprising things going on here: one is the lack of solidarity between (quite a few ) students and workers with whom they are in close proximity. The other is the lack of solidarity between (quite a few) students and the faculty with whom they are in close proximity. Indeed, one might go so far as to wonder at the hair-trigger anger of (quite a few) students at the faculty and administration. (The third thing going on — that so many people see their view as ‘neutral’ and the other view as ‘biased’ is unfortunate, but hardly surprising.)
I can’t help compare this to my memory of being a first semester 1L during one Yale’s many strikes. It may be that because I was off campus I wasn’t exposed to the full breadth of anti-striker and anti-strike-supporter sentiment, but my sense then, almost 20 years ago now, was that these views existed, were articulated, but were held by only a tiny minority. And while there was deep grumbling about individual faculty members’ choices, I don’t recall much hatred. I certainly resented my Contracts prof’s decision to stay on campus but it never felt terribly personal. It was just the way he was going to be.
So I’m wondering if it’s the times that are different, or the place?
There’s something to be said for the times: unions and strikes are much rarer now than they were when most of the faculty were students. Students are thus much less likely to have grown up hearing about respecting (or not respecting) picket lines, and also less likely to have a living family member in a union.
In one small but telling way it’s clearly the place: the Yale workers and their supporters did a much better job of pre-strike preparation than did the SEIU. This strike landed on UM very suddenly. Not only was there almost no well-publicized warning of the looming strike vote, but the time between the vote and the strike was short. At no relevant time did the union or its supporters do the hard work of explaining what might be likely to happen and why. That didn’t help make alliances.
But I think that’s only part of the story.
The other part of the story has to do with fear and resentment. There’s just a lot of it around here and now. It begins with the fact that for an appreciable fraction of our class, UM was not their first choice. Coming to class is not a source of joy and delight and the future seems clouded rather than necessarily bright. Almost all of our students got good to excellent grades in college. Not all do well here — the skill set the law needs is different from what makes a successful undergraduate, and people catch on at different rates (I sure didn’t get it my first semester). Those first term grades, and even some of the later ones, leave much of the class worrying that so long as they are not at the very top they may end up as losers. I graduated during a time of rapid expansion in the entry-level lawyer market. Today the economy is uncertain; students here and now have no less debt in real dollars, and have reasons beyond the relative statuses of the schools to be nervous about their futures. Add in the fact that many people find law school to be both hard and boring, and not all of them are actually here due to any great love for the law or related subjects (for many of the upwardly mobile, as for the scions of the upper middle class, law school represents a chance at a respectable, moderately interesting, and well-paid career), and pretty soon you have an explosive mix: a lot of fear, not all of it unreasonable, either, basted with resentment. Hard, hard work with an uncertain payoff beyond substantial debt.
It’s not a stretch to see how this fear translates into disinterest in the plight of janitors on the part of some: If you’re working harder than you ever have before and have more debt than ever before, and don’t have a job in hand for after graduation, it takes a pretty high degree of communitarianism to react well to the sudden announcement that your life is going to get harder and more complicated because people want you to spend some uncertain amount more on tuition. (The amount at issue may be quite small in the grand scheme of things but (1) no one in the SEIU has tried to explain that, if only because there are no specific demands other than unionization itself currently on the table; and (2) even a small amount rankles when that’s the reward for the end of the inconvenience.)
Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that these same fears cause anger at the faculty. It’s only human nature for students to internalize that they earned the good grades while blaming the faculty for issuing the bad ones, especially when they are used to doing well with less effort. Yet, like Steve, I am taken aback by the extent of the bitter resentment an appreciable group of students is directing at the law school’s faculty and administration. Neither group has any say in the University’s labor policies. To the extent that the law school’s contribution to university ‘overhead’ (which I imagine includes cleaning services?) is a fixed percentage of tuition, it’s not even obvious that a single dollar of any settlement will necessarily come out a single law student’s pocket, although obviously the law school administration can’t say that right now even if it’s true.
There are one or two faculty members who are notoriously insensitive in the first year. But I don’t think that’s the root cause for this anti-faculty animus any more than I’m going to blame the TV blowhards whose anti-intellectual and especially anti-academic rants so frequently fill the airwaves.
I’d expect that most of the faculty see students as junior versions of themselves and their friends. After all, we were (almost) all law students once. What the current fracas reveals is that many students not only don’t see the faculty as senior versions of themselves, but seem quite unaware that even when it doesn’t feel their pain, the faculty wants them to learn, and to go out into the world prepared to do good and to do well.
What we have here is a serious failure to communicate.
But it seems I got my halloween costume about right.