Yale’s ‘Starving’ Grad Students, Stuffed with Nonsense

On the Yale University campus (Reuters photo: Shannon Stapleton)
But don’t blame snowflakes; blame bureaucrats.

Last Tuesday, eight Yale graduate students began an indefinite hunger strike on Beinecke Plaza, just a stone’s throw away from the university’s administrative offices. The graduate students’ union, Local 33, which organized this “protest fast,” said in a statement that they would not leave until Yale initiates contract negotiations with the union.

Or until they start to feel light-headed.

According to the New Haven Independent, “if not eating endangers a student’s health, that individual will sub out and another union member will assume their place in renouncing meals.” And should low blood sugar cloud the strikers’ judgment, a team of medical professionals is standing by to monitor the fast’s progress. Such safeguards were of little comfort to Robin Canavan, who compared the physical toll of the strike to that ghastly feeling of “exhaustion after pulling an all-nighter.” An all-nighter without any coffee.

But even this crippling fatigue won’t deter Local 33 chairman Aaron Greenberg, a Ph.D. candidate in Yale’s political-science department and a self-styled civil-rights activist. In his recent op-ed in the New Haven Independent, Greenberg invoked the words of Martin Luther King to condemn Yale’s abhorrent treatment of its graduate students:

King explained that his campaign sought “to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.” This is what we did yesterday in Local 33 when we began our fast.

He goes on:

So let’s not have any mistakes about what Yale means when they say they “respect the process” of the law. . . . It’s the dynamic Dr. King described when he wrote, “‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’”

Yale should up its admissions standards. Greenberg’s civil-rights analogy displays an astonishing level of historical amnesia, which trivializes the struggles of King and other black leaders. But more than that, it reflects a new and worrying trend: the corporatization of higher education.

To characterize Yale’s unwillingness to begin contract negotiations as an assault on human dignity is to reduce the relationship of students and administrators to that of employers and employees. On this view, Yale’s obligations to its graduate students are just like a company’s obligations to its workers. In forestalling collective bargaining and, by extension, in opposing Local 33, the administration functions as an oppressive corporate entity, more than willing to sacrifice the welfare of its employees to maximize profit. Indeed, the concept of graduate unionization makes sense only when it is presented as a response to precisely this sort of dynamic — the proletariat against the plutocrat.

Greenberg’s views thus rest on a grave category error, in that they apply the framework of labor relations to what is fundamentally not a labor-relations issue. When Bernie Sanders said that American workers were burnt out, I somehow doubt that Yale graduate students were the people he had in mind.

When Bernie Sanders said that American workers were burnt out, I somehow doubt that Yale graduate students were the people he had in mind.

Yet it would also be a mistake to pigeonhole Local 33’s “fast” as a case of runaway entitlement and historical illiteracy — though it is certainly that. More than anything, this escalation represents the disappearance of an older pedagogical model premised on apprenticeship and hierarchy. Graduate students originally understood themselves to be engaged in an essentially teleological enterprise, working alongside academic mentors to produce knowledge and distribute it to undergrads. Stipends were a way of ensuring that the material preconditions for this kind of transmission would remain in place throughout one’s sojourn through graduate school. Treating such allowances as a source of income thereby misapprehends their original purpose and signals a move away from a traditional vision of liberal-arts education.

One might object that since Yale could afford to increase graduate stipends and could provide extra maternity benefits, it really ought to do so. Collective bargaining would then appear to be a perfectly legitimate strategy for improving the welfare of graduate students, who already teach courses on behalf of the university and who could be made much better off at relatively little cost.

But that argument hardly justifies a hunger strike. No graduate student at Yale, not even the ostentatious “fasters,” is actually starving. Each earns substantially more than the average American if you count tuition fellowships and other grants ($70,000 per year), and each receives comprehensive health care to boot. Yet Local 33 continues to speak of “resistance” as though TAs are prisoners and bland ramen noodles are prison food. Elevating the plight of “hungry” graduate students to a civil-rights crisis isn’t illuminating or noble. It’s shortsighted, self-absorbed, and, frankly, stupid.

This deficit of proportionality is by no means confined to the university’s doctoral programs. In the past two years, Yale has become the site of several high-profile incidents related to free speech and political correctness, most notably the highly publicized conflagration between Nicholas Christakis and his students in Silliman College. Many commentators rightly pilloried those protests as an example of the hypersensitivity on college campuses, yet they also overlooked an important cause of the unrest: Students believed that Yale had an obligation to care for their well-being, prioritizing psychological and emotional comfort over scholarship and argument. In other words, they saw themselves more as corporate consumers than academic apprentices — hence the expectation that their demands be met by an obliging cadre of bureaucrats seeking to maximize customer satisfaction.

Local 33’s tortured equation of graduate unionization and human dignity should therefore come as no surprise. If undergrads have taken on the role of the neoliberal consumer, then graduate students have taken on the role of the working-class service worker, fighting for collective-bargaining rights in the face of an abusive corporate behemoth. The hunger strike is thus symptomatic of a much larger disease: liberal education’s gradual unraveling. Without a coherent sense of scholarly identity and purpose, American universities lack the vocabulary to oppose graduate unionization. Would-be strikers, meanwhile, lack the conceptual resources to contextualize themselves within a broader pedagogical framework oriented toward the production and dissemination of knowledge.

In that vein, Yale’s recent statement on graduate unionization contends that Local 33’s actions display an “apparent disregard for longstanding university policies and principles regarding the appropriate time, place, and manner for exercising freedom of expression.” But Yale — whose administrative bureaucracy has ballooned over the past ten years — bears some responsibility for this situation. The reason graduate students have such an easy time portraying themselves as victims is that they are victims under the university’s own premises. A recent episode of the Simpsons caricatured Yale’s bevy of administrative deans — “multicultural empathizers” — and its obsession with “safe spaces.” Such trends evoke the fawning doublespeak of a human-resources department, and that isn’t an accident.

Over the past two decades, college campuses have undergone a radical transformation, blanketed by increasingly thick layers of bureaucracy that authorize administrators to micromanage every aspect of student life.

Over the past two decades, college campuses have undergone a radical transformation, blanketed by increasingly thick layers of bureaucracy that authorize administrators to micromanage every aspect of student life. Title IX coordinators hand down arbitrary, ad hoc diktats that seal grievances behind administrative red tape. At some schools, “bias reporting” systems have taken root, allowing undergrads to anonymously register complaints against anyone or anything perceived as creating a hostile learning environment.

Given these developments, is it really so shocking that graduate students have gone to such drastic measures to protest their alleged mistreatment? If you run a university like a company, students will naturally begin to see themselves as disgruntled employees caught up in the gears of a cruel corporate machine. Local 33 should of course stop quaffing communism and start quaffing coffee. But at the same time, American universities should really try feeding their students some common sense.


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