The economist Albert O. Hirschman once wrote that there are three sorts of arguments used to “debunk and overturn ‘progressive’ policies and movements of ideas.” This response will argue that the progressive action will produce the exact opposite of that objective; that the effort to change something won’t make a difference at all; or that the effort will put in danger good things that already are in place. In short, negative reactions to progressive change boil down to the perversity thesis, the futility thesis, and the jeopardy thesis.
Uncreative and repetitive, responses to efforts at positive change tend not to operate in good faith, but rather through predictable rhetorical pirouettes. Hirschman developed this thesis while a permanent member of the faculty at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and so it is doubly fitting that his typology so neatly describes the University administration’s ongoing reaction to graduate student efforts to form a union. While we understand that the Graduate School is entitled to its own views on unionization, we are disappointed that our efforts to seek better working conditions and a voice in university governance have been met with such undisguised hostility. Last week many graduate students received a document prepared by the Office of the Dean of the Graduate School, titled “Fact-Checking Graduate Student Unionization Claims.” Right away, it is impossible to ignore the implication: what comes from the University administration is fact, while what comes from graduate students is nothing more than claims to be debunked.
One would hope that, having admitted each of us to our respective graduate programs here at Princeton on the basis of our merits as scholars and our abilities to think critically, the administration would engage with us on this issue in good faith. If we are to, in the words of the Graduate School’s goals, “become stewards of [our] professions and contributors to the improvement of [our] societies, cultures, and the world at large” then we must be allowed to engage in unfettered dialogue with our colleagues without the heavy hand of the administration placing its thumb on the scale. If an election is called on the issue of graduate student unionization, and a majority is not reached, then we will not be able to form a union — we understand that, and accept it. In the meantime, we consider it our responsibility to speak with as many of our colleagues as possible about their concerns regarding their academic work environment and living conditions, and move forward in our efforts to improve that environment.
The “Unionization Claims” listed by the Graduate School are deliberate distortions of our arguments. The administration’s pointed refusal to refer to our organization by name — instead referring to us as some shadowy group of “organizers” — is more than a little silly. The people involved in Princeton Graduate Students United (PGSU) are your colleagues and academic collaborators, your students and mentees — some of us are often behind you in line for coffee. We’d appreciate the chance to engage in conversation on our campus without having to navigate alarmist communiqués in our inbox every month.
The University “Fact Sheet” asserts, somewhat ominously, that “the union’s focus is on the interest of the collective.” Somehow, advancing our common interests as graduate students appears here as a bad thing. For all the particularities of our work in different disciplines, we have a great many things in common as graduate students at Princeton, and our aims in working towards unionization are protecting what we like about our lives here, advocating for what could be better, and accommodating for our diversity while acting as a group with shared interests.
“There is no guarantee that engaging with a union will make things better,” the document claims. Hirschman would call this a classic example of the futility thesis in action. There are never any guarantees in political or academic life — in fact, without legally recognized and collectively organized representation by a union, there are already no guarantees. Under the current system, students have no tangible recourse if the University’s priorities change, or if an individual’s or department’s conditions shift. Relying on the goodwill of the University might appear to work for some, but it doesn’t work for everyone.
We applaud Princeton for having taken a stand against the alarming executive orders coming from the White House in recent weeks, but in our current political climate, it is at best, counterproductive, and at worst, actively destructive, for our University to paint a view with which they do not agree as less than fact. It serves no one to assemble a set of “claims” that the PGSU has not made, purportedly coming from a group of “organizers” that are not identified. It does even less good to separate these unsourced “claims” from “The Facts,” with the Olympian definite article announcing that the administration’s view is the only legitimate view.
Graduate students do not have the kind of voice here at Princeton that our unionized colleagues at peer institutions have. Instead of appealing ad-hoc for meaningful representation and incidental changes — appeals to which the university is in no way bound to respond — we would much rather represent ourselves through a union, so that we can get on with what Princeton invited us here to do: our work.
The Organizing Committee of Princeton Graduate Students United
Richard Anderson, History
Edna Bonhomme, History
Murat Bozluolcay, Near Eastern Studies
Eden Consenstein, Religion
Robert Decker, French and Italian
Eugene Evans, Plasma Physics
Kay Gabriel, Classics
Disha Karnad Jani, History
Elias Kleinbock, Comparative Literature
Mikey McGovern, History
Felice Physioc, History
Kimia Shahi, Art and Archeology
Hrishikesh Somayaji, Chemistry
David Walsh, History
Mochi Liu, Quantitative and Computational Biology
John Colin Bradley, Philosophy
Thomas Davies, Classics