Faculty Op-Ed: A Hard Knocks Education
As a young research professor, working within a university research unit in which faculty were fairly judged by their accomplishments and potential, I could not understand why in the world faculty needed a union. After all, didn’t academics believe in truth and honor above all else? Why would one even need a contract in such circumstances? Over the last 30 years I have learned and discovered a lot concerning the role of vitamins in health, epidemiology of cancer, and the chemistry of tocopherols, but what stands out is my free and extensive continuing education relating to narcissism, greed, jealousy, sociopathy, and most recently, misogyny. This hard knocks education into personality disorders along with the passage of time has eroded my early perception that leaders and administrators base actions and decisions on fairness and what is best for the institution. Unfortunately individuals that lack moral integrity increasingly occupy positions of power, both within the university system and in our broader society, and the consequences can be devastating, particularly for those that are most vulnerable.
Although none of us like to perceive ourselves as “vulnerable”, especially when we are young, the reality is that students, staff, and untenured faculty are easy targets for exploitation, abuse, and mistreatment. Even tenure does not provide a guaranteed defense against the forces of darkness when they choose to attack. It usually is only at the point that one comes up against such an attack that one appreciates the value of having an employment contract and the strength of a cooperative organization behind you, such as UHPA. JN Musto one day made one of the best analogies I have ever heard to the UHPA Board of Directors that “UHPA was like health insurance, nobody likes paying for it but the day you need it, you are awfully glad you have it”. To further the analogy, health insurance cannot always save you from the ravages of an incurable disease such as pancreatic cancer, but there are many diseases that it can save you from and it certainly can help save your family from economic ruin as you fight the disease. As many without the benefits of union representation have learned, the cost and emotional strain of fighting for justice, finding the right lawyer, and taking the fight to a large and uncaring institution while collecting unemployment can be too much for most to handle and, indeed, many give up the fight early on because of the enormity of the battle.
While UHPA is often constrained by the limits of labor law and our contract, as an organization it has not been limited by lack of expertise or desire to fight on behalf of its constituents. On balance I have personally observed many success stories where UHPA has gone to bat for the rights of faculty and perhaps of greater importance is the deterrent effect that UHPA has on egregious behavior of administrators. At least the more enlightened administrators soon learn that behaving properly is better than taking on UHPA. Alas, as a researcher in the field of cancer prevention, I clearly understand the frustration that comes with preventing a problem – there are no grateful patients at the end of the road! The problems that a well-negotiated contract and a reputation for success save us from every day may never fully reveal themselves to our consciousness, however, it behooves us to consider once in a while what life might be like in a world in which there was no counterbalance to power in the workplace. I know that without UHPA I would not be where I am today. Now If only my health insurance only cost 1% of my salary!