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Dignity in the Workplace

By       Message Robert Fuller     Permalink
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Of course, academic and political freedom must be guaranteed. But as McCardell points out, there are now more effective ways to do this than by bestowing lifetime job security. Until an alternative is implemented, colleges and universities will resort to the appointment of so-called adjunct faculty to avoid making long-term commitments.

Adjunct professorships carry a fraction of the pay, no benefits, no role in governance, no job security, often not even parking privileges. Many of the people in these positions are as well trained and as capable of conducting research as tenured faculty. Their ranks are further augmented by poorly paid graduate student teaching assistants. To have two categories of teachers working side by side--one privileged and secure, the other exploited and expendable--with the underpaid group subsidizing the prerogatives of the other is reminiscent of segregation in America and apartheid in South Africa. Those who are marginalized--adjuncts and teaching assistants--are hamstrung in fighting this injustice by their own reluctance to take on the real culprit, the tenure system itself. The forlorn hope of joining in the spoils of rankism--in this case, the privileges of tenure--often functions to keep downtrodden individuals from teaming up to oppose the institutionalized rankism that keeps them down as a group.

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Another hidden cost of tenure is to students and taxpayers. Since pay goes up with seniority, the institution of tenure results in an increasingly expensive faculty or civil service. The result in academia is to price higher education out of reach of the middle class, let alone the poor, and in society as a whole, to make our bureaucracies far more costly to taxpayers than they need to be. Without tenure, there would be more young faculty with junior-level salaries and fewer older professors with senior-level ones. The resulting savings could be used to increase the affordability of higher education. Some senior teachers are important as repositories of experience, wisdom, and institutional memory, but lifetime tenure for, typically, two-thirds of the faculty results in top-heavy, overly expensive institutions.

Likewise, without tenure there would be fewer civil servants with decades of seniority and correspondingly high salaries. When certain jobs, and the individuals who hold them, are exempt from market forces, the people those workers serve invariably end up having to pay too much.

The burden of keeping a university solvent and affordable to students should not fall disproportionately on its adjunct faculty and teaching assistants. Their cheap labor is an involuntary gift to tenured faculty and long-term administrators in the same way that the nonacademic working poor subsidize entire societies. Forced benefaction is indentured servitude by another name.

Ridding academia and the civil service of rankism presents all teachers and all civil servants with the same challenges: earn your job; re-earn it periodically in fair, open competition with other aspirants; remain accountable to your peers and customers.

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What deserves and needs protection is not peoples' jobs, but their dignity. Since a loss or change of job can leave one vulnerable and subject to disrespect, attention needs to be given to protecting the dignity of people making such transitions. As this kind of support is institutionalized, pathways will be established from the academic to the business world and vice versa, and from one specialization to another. In-house faculty placement offices will spring up alongside those that help students find jobs. And retraining programs will be created in the recipient institutions.

Universities can undertake to design alternatives to tenure and institute placement programs that would protect the dignity of their present faculty and staff before the growing crisis hits them full force. That it will do so shortly is not in doubt. To glimpse the future, one has only to look at the soaring costs of the traditional college degree and the growing enrollments in Internet-based education.

Nations that manage to remove rankism from their civil service and their educational and business institutions and establish dignitarian workplace environments will gain a competitive advantage over those that do not. Dignitarian environments are good for the bottom line because as rankism is reduced, the commitment and energy that individuals bring to their jobs increases. Eradicating rank-based discrimination and injustice pays dividends in the form of greater loyalty, higher productivity, and fewer days of sick leave. Negative motivations such as fear of ridicule, demotion, or dismissal are dwarfed by the positive incentive that comes from being recognized as an integral part of a skilled, flexible, and responsible team. As the hidden costs of rankist management become clearer, an anti-authoritarian model will spread through all our social institutions.

An Example from the World of Dance

One might think that dancers, as stars, are immune to workplace abuse.

But in an e-mail dated October 1, 2005, Claire Sheridan, founder of Liberal Education for Arts Professionals (LEAP), an innovative program to address the problem, noted that this has not been the case.

The workplace culture of ballet has a sorry history. Traditionally, dancers are expected to tolerate abuse and insults from artistic directors and choreographers, work in pain, and live in poverty. They routinely sacrifice their education. Adult professionals are still called "boys" and "girls."And when injuries end their career (usually by age 30), most dancers, ill-prepared for the future, are simply dismissed with no pension.

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One way to address this kind of rankism in the ballet world is to make it possible for dancers to get a college education. Having one changes the way professional dancers see themselves. While developing the skills needed to succeed in life after dance, they learn that they can be successful in other areas, and as a result, they are not as willing to put up with workplace abuse because they know they have options.

However, dancers usually join the professional ranks before they are 18, and many are employed by companies that require them to work six days a week as well as go on tour. In this extremely competitive field, these artists can't take four years off to attend college during their prime dancing years.

In 1999, I founded a bachelor of arts degree program called LEAP (offered by Saint Mary's College of California) to address this problem.

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Robert W. Fuller is a physicist, a former president of Oberlin College, and author of The Rowan Tree: A Novel. He has consulted with Indira Gandhi, met with Jimmy Carter regarding the president's Commission on World Hunger, worked in the (more...)

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