The Arizona Desert Lamp

Looming graduate student walkout?

Posted in Politics, UA Transformation Plan by Evan Lisull on 17 September 2009

Today, Citizen reporter Renee Schafer Horton pens a cautiously optimistic post:

I hope the faculty and disgruntled department heads will get more of a hearing from Shelton than they feel they’ve gotten so far, but mostly, I hope no one calls for a faculty (and/or student/staff/adjunct) walk out. My daughter is a UA junior working 1.5 part-time jobs and majoring in anthropology with minors in art and French. Her anthropology classes are eating her alive with required work. She needs every second of her professors’ time in those classes.

She may have spoken too soon. At tonight’s GPSC meeting (about which more information is forthcoming), the graduate representatives discussed openly the idea of staging a walk-out, along with the “nuclear option” of an outright strike. After all, they reminded the audience, graduates teach the majority of undergraduate classes. An organized walkout would leave a bevy of undergrads baffled and angry, and their response would translate into angry phone calls from their parents, demanding that President Shelton solve this problem.

It’s a powerful and idealistic vision; and while it reflects sentiment that has been simmering for some time, much of the impetus came from a listserv email that soon became a Facebook group entitled “Arizona Student, Faculty and Staff Solidarity.” From the group description:

Goals: (1) Establish a unified voice amongst those concerned about budget cuts to higher education at the UofA. (2) Plan a universitywide [sic] day of action in solidarity with the faculty, staff and students of the UC system, who are staging a walkout on September 24th.

Over 600 UA jobs have been lost due to budget cuts. Hiring freezes and layoffs are undermining the integrity and functioning of departments and spreading work around to already over-burdened faculty and staff. In some departments, Graduate Teaching Assistants have seen their salaries slashed. In others, course loads have been expanded overnight, with little explanation and no accountability. And the decisions about whose budget is cut, by how much, and why have been anything but transparent and accountable, let alone “participatory”. All of this while new fees and “tuition surcharges” reduce access to and affordability of higher education, redistributing the burden of budget shortfalls onto the backs of students.

As long as we remain divided in our individual colleges and departments we will have no power or voice as our colleagues lose their jobs, as the conditions of our labor and the quality of our institution deteriorates, and as the legislature and administration continue to pull the rug out from under our feet.

*** Meeting this Friday, September 18th, to discuss solidarity strategies with UC, as well as to promote linkages across campus. Location: Old Main 2pm ***

Seeing how ex-GPSC President Bieda commended our site on the group’s wall, it feels bad to rain on their parade. Yet it’s hard to see how exactly such a walkout/show of solidarity can be successful.

For one, coordination problems are already apparent. While several speakers alluded to the “September 18th walkout” at the GPSC meeting, the Solidarity site only mentions a Friday meeting – the strikeout is planned to coordinate with the one occurring through the U. California system next Thursday. The GPSC was broadly ambivalent about such a display, citing concerns over undergraduate reaction (who will mostly be glad to get out of class) and messaging (what exactly do the graduates want?). In spite of calls for unity, the liberal arts v. science divide came alive during the meeting, when Jim Collin’s (Non-Degree Seeking) assertion that “the role of the public university is to teach” was immediately answered by Brenda Gonzalez’s (Engineering) retort that, “[the UA’s] name comes from being a research university … . We have top scientists, not top students.” Rep. Lucy Blaney (Humanities) urged everyone to avoid internal squabbles that would abet the administration.

More troubling to the graduates is the scenario in which they are cast as the villain. Rather than being martyrs of an incompetent administration, they become whining rabble-rousers. Perhaps times are tough, outsiders – most importantly, parents – will reply. But I’m working two jobs/taking out a mortgage/walking uphill both ways in the snow to put my kid through school, and there damn well better be a teacher for my kid’s class if I’m paying an arm and a leg for it. We’re all suffering, so cut the petulance. The accuracy of this perception is irrelevant – if public perception turns against the protesters, then they will probably lose everything. Like the call for a vote of no-confidence, it’s a move that should be avoided unless the organizers are certain that they have critical mass.

This issue is compounded by Solidarity’s push to ally this protest with the one occurring in the UC system. If the issue is, in fact, with the handling of the transformation plan by Shelton and Hay; if the complaints of these graduates relate to specific demands that aren’t being met, rather than vague desires for “justice”; then the state of California has nothing to do with it. Yet this conflation suggests that the walkouts are in response to budget cuts as they are coming from the state of Arizona’s Neverending Budget, rather than to the dispersal of those budget cuts within the university. This perception from Solidarity conflicts with the rhetoric of the GPSC, which emphasized the specificity of their complaints.

Finally, of course, is the numbers issue. As of publication, the group had 76 members, several of which were undergraduates. Perhaps it makes the front page of the Wildcat, but earth-shattering it ain’t.

5 Responses

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  1. Stephen Bieda III said, on 17 September 2009 at 5:37 am

    The walkout option has been brewing for some time, this being mentioned every year that I was a GPSC Representative or Officer. At this point, given how Representatives have been split each year, I do not see a sudden groundswell of support for it as of yet. However, with TA salaries being cut by some departments with concurrent workload increases, I don’t think it is going to take much to change that.

    The final straw may come down over the next few months as the Spring 2010 funds are being allocated for teaching. I’d also be keeping a close eye on tuition and fee proposals, which the Regents will take up in either the December or January time frame.

  2. Jesse Gunsch said, on 17 September 2009 at 7:52 am

    Facebook group link fail

    • Evan Lisull said, on 17 September 2009 at 9:26 am

      D’oh! Link should be up and running now.

  3. Evelyn B. Hall said, on 17 September 2009 at 9:09 pm

    You don’t wait for critical mass, you make critical mass by acting. You guys need to break out the history books. Social movements like this have never waited for a safe level of numbers first, before they act. It’s by acting that critical mass accrues to those who take the plunge. Which is not to say it’s not risky. Bad planning is always riskier than good planning.

  4. Stephen Bieda III said, on 18 September 2009 at 5:08 am

    Sometimes the public disclosure of discussing the act of walking out can be as effective as the act itself, without the major consequences of a walkout. Late last night, President Shelton agreed to meet with the GPSC on extremely short notice. Now it is a matter of whether the differences that suddenly came about at the 9/16 meeting can be resolved.

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