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LG10: Solidarity

I’m taking a bit of a break from my official job-related duties this week, which is allowing me to think a bit about the path forward for Leading Generously. As this process has unfolded, I’ve come across several keywords that I want to add to the project. I’ve also confirmed my sense that I need to conduct some interviews with folks whose experience of institutional challenge and change run deeper or in different directions than my own. I’ll post more about that process as it takes shape.

In the meantime, here’s the tenth section of the draft. Wishing all of you a peaceful and joyous new year.


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“Solidarity is more than acts of generosity, important as they are; it is the call to embrace the reality that we are bound by bonds of reciprocity.” —Pope Francis

Right off the bat, I want to acknowledge that “solidarity” is a challenging term — in at least a couple of different ways. I’ve chosen it purposefully here, however, and I’ll explore why in what’s ahead. I hope you’ll allow yourself to sit with any concerns that the term may create for you as you read.

In the introduction, I noted that crises such as those being faced throughout higher education in 2020 often produce invocations of the idea of “shared sacrifice.” At times this idea is invoked with a kind of generosity in mind: if we all take a small pay cut, we can help some of our colleagues avoid furloughs or layoffs. But the term “shared sacrifice” is often heard differently than you might expect. Not only does sacrifice inevitably roll downhill, affecting most heavily those who are least well-positioned, but the idea begins to suggest that we are in fact the sacrifice, offered at the altar of the institution and its financial reports.

The notion that our sacrifice is shared — that it is part of a collective determination to sustain the community we together form — depends on a deep understanding of what it means to be a community, and an equally deep faith on the part of those being asked to sacrifice on its behalf that the community will in turn sustain them. It requires believing that those above are as committed to the notion of community as those below. And that belief is very hard to come by, for very good reasons.

In fact, the concept of “community” is too often used to suppress dissent, to persuade those with concerns and grievances to put them aside in favor of a a conflict-free norm. That norm, unsurprisingly, usually favors the interests of those in charge, who benefit from maintaining the status quo. Moreover, where the community is encouraged to take action, it’s often to fill gaps or meet needs for which institutions and governments refuse their responsibility. This is how we end up with school bake sales rather than proper education budgets.

In much of my prior writing on the future of higher education, I’ve leaned fairly heavily on the concept of community, whether in reference to the connections we build within our institutions or to the connections we create between our institutions and the publics that we serve. However, my growing recognition of the problems with what Miranda Joseph has referred to as the “romance” of community has led me to seek a more active term. What I want from community — what I think many of us want — is a sense of belonging and a sense of shared commitment. I want to know that my community has my back, and I want those in my community to know that I have their backs as well.

And it’s that shared commitment that leads me to the notion of solidarity. Solidarity implies, to my way of thinking, not the descriptive blandishment that community risks falling into, but active relationship-building and mutual support. Solidarity requires action.

It’s crucial, however, to be very clear about solidarity with whom, and for whom. As Mikki Kendall has argued, too often White feminist calls to solidarity are issued in order to ask Black women, Indigenous women, and other women of color to put their own particular concerns aside in support of some ostensibly more generalized sisterhood. To say that such calls miss the point is an understatement. There can be no solidarity when the privileged insist that the marginalized support them. Rather, solidarity requires us all to recognize that fighting for the most challenged among us is all of our responsibility. And it’s this form of solidarity that can create a genuine community, that can transform community into action: placing the interests of others in front of our own.

What does this mean in the context of the organizations and institutions I’m focused on in this book? First, it means returning to the claim I made early in this project, that people are the most important component of our institutions, and revising it slightly: all of the people that make up our institutions are its most important component, from the least powerful to the most. All of those people must be considered crucial to the institution’s operation.

Second, we need to take a hard look at the ways that categories of employment are used to divide us, to pit our interests against one another. In institutions of higher education, discussions of these divisions often focus on the tensions between the tenured faculty and the not-yet-tenured, or those between the tenure-track faculty and the fixed-term, or the full-time and the part-time. But we need to pay attention to the divisions and hierarchies within the staff as well, and between the faculty and the staff. And then there are the divisions between faculty and staff on the one hand and student employees on the other. All of us know that there are enormous differences in the benefits and privileges that these different categories of employment provide, and yet every position held by every employee is equally necessary to the functioning of the institution.

So how can we ensure that every employee, in every category of employment, is able to function as a full member of the institution? We must begin by shaping a notion of shared governance in which each member of the institution is a fully enfranchised participant in the processes that most matter to them. This means that all of the members of a department, regardless of position type, should have the right to participate in most department, college, and university processes. This suggestion will no doubt trigger a lot of resistance; in a lot of departments, opening up the vote to non-tenure-track faculty, to post-docs, to staff will leave the tenure-track faculty outnumbered. That points directly to the problem: a small, and in fact diminishing, number of highly secure employees who have the ability not just to determine their own working conditions but to profoundly affect the working conditions for the rest — and who too often use that ability not to lift others up but instead to shore up what they see (not incorrectly) as eroding protections for their own roles.

I’ll say it bluntly: defending the privileges of tenure worsens things for everyone else, and winds up undermining the best of what tenure is supposed to be.

This is not to argue for doing away with tenure — not at all. Rather, it’s an argument for looking closely at what we expect tenure to do and extending its most important benefits to all categories of campus employment. Those benefits include, after a reasonable period of probation and evaluation, job security, intellectual freedom, and governance rights. Each of those benefits comes with restrictions — there are ways to lose your job, even with tenure, and there are limits to academic freedom — but each is crucial to an institution of higher education’s capacity to advance knowledge and serve its publics. And each should be considered crucial throughout the institution, and not just for an elite subset.

We need all members of the campus community to be able to reach their fullest potential in order for the institution to operate. Faculty members with active research agendas cannot achieve their goals without the work of teaching faculty who bear the weight of larger course loads, post-docs and graduate assistants who work in labs and support research efforts, staff who ensure that the budgets and buildings function as needed. Faculty members who teach cannot do so without the work of their colleagues at every level, from the dean’s office to housekeeping and dining services. And all of us — and the “us” I’m talking to at this point is my most privileged colleagues, who like me have succeeded within a competitive system that promises to elevate us above the rest — all of us need to recognize that the concerns of every group on campus are concerns that we should all share. We are deeply interdependent, and creating a genuine collective out of a campus requires us to be ready to step forward on one another’s behalf, to ensure that all of our needs are met.

Solidarity, in other words.

Does solidarity mean establishing a union? Not necessarily, though unionizing does provide some key benefits for structuring the relationships between labor and management. Management often agrees: George Justice reports in How to Be a Dean that many deans prefer unionized campuses. The process of collective bargaining can be challenging, and the resulting contracts can be complex, but they are contracts, with legal standing, that define the terms of a productive working relationship.

Of course, the existence of that union and the contract it negotiates isn’t enough to provide genuine solidarity. That requires organizing above and beyond the union itself. And it may require cross-union connections. In my own institution, during the current budget crisis, the administration has negotiated furloughs and salary changes with each union independently. Given that each has a separate contract, those distinct negotiations are inevitable. But ensuring that the many unions on campus are in agreement with one another, and willing to defend one another, requires a kind of collectivity that operates at a different level from the union.

Most importantly, there came a moment in this process when the continuing faculty, both tenure-track and clinical, realized that everyone on campus was represented in these bargaining processes except us. The faculty have resisted unionizing, in ways similar to many other campuses around the country, insisting that we aren’t labor, we are professional, and even mistaking the authority that we have on campus for management. In these negotiations, however, it became clear that, as a friend of mine is fond of saying, if you’re not at the table, you’re the meal. The faculty were not engaged in a negotiation of the salary and benefit cuts that we would take; we were informed of them. And worse: I have heard through the grapevine that our inability to refuse those cuts was treated as if it were acceptance, and used as a bargaining chip with the unions. The faculty, they were told, have agreed to take this cut; you have to give us something comparable.

In other words: our refusal to organize, to understand ourselves as part of the collective of workers on campus, not only hurts our own ability to affect our working conditions, but also undermines those abilities of those have organized and are trying to work together. If we are to transform our campuses, if we are to create better working conditions for everyone on campus, we must all be in it together. We have to ensure that the secure, the empowered, the privileged are fighting on behalf of everyone else, rather than interfering with their ability to fight for themselves.

So where I’d like to end this call to solidarity is with a strong “one faculty, one union” argument. We are all workers in the same enterprise, if with different responsibilities, and ensuring that we are all mutually supporting requires us to refuse being divided into categories and appointment types. Shifting to this kind of collectivist thinking is no easy matter, however, and especially not for those of us who have long been trained to believe that we operate within a functioning meritocracy (and that that’s a good thing), that our achievements are individual and that our rewards should be individual too, and that we’re best off when we can negotiate special deals — a course release here, an augmented budget there — by and for ourselves. But building habits of collectivity will not only help us create a more equitable, caring community within our institutions, but will press us to focus the institution’s efforts on its broader social responsibilities.

Developing a strong sense of solidarity is no simple matter, especially not in institutions and cultures that thrive on competitive individualism. But leading the way toward a more just and equitable world requires that we start thinking about one another’s needs and perspectives with the same urgency that we consider our own. As the authors of Secrets of a Successful Organizer note, “Solutions are collective, not individual.” Working toward those collective solutions, especially under challenging circumstances, requires a solid foundation in the ability to think generously.


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