Academic scientists and NIMBY: unionization, sexual harassment, “aspirational peers,” and other regressive 2015 moves

Academic scientists: Not in my backyard!

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2015 was an exciting and activist year in the USA, with campuses alive once more with students and faculty campaigning against racism, and for divestment of endowments from fossil fuel companies and from the Occupied Territories.

But with progress comes pushback and regression. Science is a conservative behemoth, and while academics are generally considered to be liberal, academic scientists and clinicians are often the most socially conservative members on campus.

How discouraging to see how few scientists see themselves as citizens of the world, but rather as individuals out of an Ayn Rand novel.

The University of Washington: no union for us.

One example is the unionization campaign going on the at the University of Washington, where the 750 or so faculty are debating the pros and cons of joining the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). As universities have relied more and more on adjuncts and other non-tenured faculty (tenure and tenure track make up less than 25% of university faculty ) , and have ignored the input of university members in favor of the desires of donors and trustees, the need for unionization and collective bargaining has become more and more apparent. Non- academic university workers, students, postdocs, and faculty members at universities all over the country have unionized or are considering unionization as a way to weather the current climate of corporatization .

Some of the 42 campuses that have unionized the last couple of years are Georgetown University, Howard University, and the University of Chicago…..but the University of Washington anti-union movement says that  “No premier research-intensive university in the U.S.- no true peer of the University of Washington, and no institution of a quality to which we aspire- has a unionized tenure track faculty.”  And they refer to the lack of unions among their “aspirational peers” of further proof that unions are not a good idea.

Led by spokespersons Paul B. Hopkins (Chemistry) and Ed Lazowska  (Computer Science and Engineering), the anti-union campaign is heavily, heavily weighted with basic and medical science signees of the Statement of Opposition .

There are several recurring threads running through the Statement of Opposition – entitlement, exceptionalism,  and not- in- my -backyard (NIMBY) being the most obvious. Basically, the statement complains that SIEU, the Service Employees International Union, represents caregivers in hospitals, janitors, bus drivers,etc,  not people with the same cares that we have. There is no evidence that our salaries would be higher with unionization. And unions in general try to get better salaries across the board and if that happens, we the signers, won’t have the money to attract great faculty and it won’t be a good university any more. We would have to follow union rules, such as limited out-of-cycle raises.

“Many of the undersigned recognize the positive role played by labor unions in our country. But…..”  Yes, unions are, in principle, a great idea, but we don’t think it helps us right now- and us is a small, special group. There is no mention that some faculty are profiting by the lack of benefits, pay, and security that others function under.

The statement of opposition ends with a fantastic thought- that unions are historically associated with the Democratic Party in the USA, and many of the signers are not democrats and don’t want to be to be part of this political activity.

A comprehensive view of the pros and cons of unionization with a focus on the perspective for unionization from Amy Hagopian (Public Health) can be found here.

The University of Maryland: more postdocs at less pay for us.

Another regressive move spearheaded by scientists this year took place at the University of Maryland, College Park (incidentally, the most militarized university in the USA). Norma Andrews ( Cell Biology and Molecular Genetics) and Iqbal Hamza ( Animal and Avian Sciences ) wrote a letter which was signed by 131 tenured/tenure-track life science faculty) to explain why some postdoc positions should not come with the same benefits of other postdoc positions- that is, to allow lab heads to pay less so they could have more postdocs . At a time when many senior scientists are trying to help postdocs, the University of Maryland faculty, as are the University of Washington faculty, are trying very hard to better themselves at the benefit of others.

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Of course, they don’t put it that way, but explain that it is better for Science, you see. And, interestingly, the bizarre phrase “aspirational peers” that appeared in the University of Washington letter made an earlier appearance in the University of Maryland letter as a reason to not better fund all postdocs…because it is not done by their “aspirational peers”.  Jonathan Dinman’s (chair of Cell Biology and Molecular Genetics) reiterated the aspirational peer defense at a University Senate meeting. Postdocs, seeing that faculty will not help them, may look to the success of postdoc unions  to find fair labor treatment.

Mike the Mad Biologist has an interesting blogpost on postdoc pay, with comments from postdocs- and you can see how against the grain the faculty at the University of Maryland are going in their quest to take care of themselves, first.

The University of California at Berkeley: He is ours, he is famous, and what he is doing isn’t that bad.

Through the years, women complained of harassment by Geoff Marcy (Astronomy), colleagues turned a blind eye , and while the University of California investigation of sexual harassment claims declared Marcy guilty, it also determined that Marcy’s actions warranted only a warning and strong parameters.

Social media from faculty, postdocs and the public started a wave of judgement, and finally, Marcy was forced to resign .

It was a victory, but it was a disturbingly hard-won victory. For at least 20 years , first at San Francisco State and later at Berkeley Marcy felt entitled to do what he wanted, and the silence of his colleagues, and the powers that be at San Francisco State and Berkeley protected him only until public and academic outcry made his forced resignation inevitable.

Harvard University: More recognition for me.

Being able to stand up for yourself is an important part of being a successful person and scientist. But when your reverence for yourself becomes your main task, it might be time to advocate for others. George Church tried to correct the mistake of the world in not giving enough recognition to- George Church.  Petty, and pathetic, to see a well-known and well-awarded scientist scrabble to get more for himself.

Perhaps Church is politicking to be one of the probably CRISPR Nobel laureates. His case is certainly one of the lighter cases of  2015 regressive scientist behavior, and won’t need to inspire the wonderful activism that is associated with unionization, reduction of post doc benefits, or sexual harassment.

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