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Learning – and Teaching – the Dynamics of Higher Education: An Interview with UC-AFT Local 1966 President Ben Harder


This interview was conducted during a union social on February 16 at the Getaway Café in Riverside, Calif. James Anderson, a UC-AFT Local 1966 member, interviewed Ben Harder, president of Local 1966. The interview has been edited, minimally, for clarity.

***Disclaimer: The views expressed by Ben Harder in this interview are his own and are not official UC-AFT positions.***

James Anderson: Could you share a little bit about yourself and your background?

Ben Harder: I was born and raised in a small town in Minnesota. I was a farm kid. I went to college where my grandpa and my father had gone to college – a small Christian school in Kansas, and then I came out to Riverside for graduate school and stayed. 

What academic field do you work in?

English. I teach first year writing. I have a PhD in English literature.

What are your scholarly interests?

Mostly composition. I enjoy thinking a little bit about science fiction and speculative fiction and fantasy. My dissertation is actually on modernist James Joyce and Hilda Doolittle and an American poet named John Berryman who doesn’t get much play anymore. In terms of scholarly interests, it’s really just more the craft of teaching rather than research projects.

How did you get interested in the union?

Management. The first thing was I joined the union because I wasn’t in a tenure track position so I had no other way of influencing my job. I’ve always been surrounded by communities that allowed for input from everybody. The UC doesn’t do that unless you’re a professor. So not being a professor, I at least wanted to be in the union. But I got a push into it when we were organizing for our contract which was settled in 2003. This was a contract that got us continuing appointment. In the old days you had to reapply for your job every one year for six years, and then after that you had to reapply for your job every three years for the rest of your career. And if they didn’t want you they could just simply say, ‘Nope, you’re gone.’ There was no layoff provision. They could just send you a letter saying we don’t need you for the next three years and you were out. Or they could decide that you weren’t good enough as a teacher anymore and you were out. I saw older lecturers lose their jobs through this process. It’s really valuable to have, you know, a job, right? At the bargaining table the UC said, ‘You want tenure like professors,’ and one of the people on our side said, ‘No, we want a job – like the groundskeepers have.’ We had a blistering two-day unfair labor practice strike. We went out in conjunction with the clerical staff at the time. The strike was in 2002. So we got this appointment, and the other thing that went along with that is in 1999, when I started, the base salary was $28,000/year, and it was $35,000/year when we got our new contract in 2003. That got me into it – just being part of the local strike campaign, and then in 2004 the composition department decided that all of the lecturers who were not continuing should be let go. I was given notice that I didn’t need to apply again and [that] I was never going to have a job. I went on unemployment and then got called back in because it was a silly decision. There was no one to teach the classes, and they had to teach the classes. Then I just decided that fear was no longer a reasonable option, and being good was no longer particularly helpful. So I became president of the union my first year back. That was my sixth year. I went up for continuing status and got continuing and was president of the union. Since then I’ve been increasingly more involved through things like negotiating contracts and getting onto the state-wide e-board. I’ve been involved since 2005. I’ve been involved in contract negotiations, [and] a couple of times I’ve been the chief negotiator. So basically I’ve been involved in the union because it was the safest way to secure that I would continue to have a job and to have a job that I was proud to be at.

Did you come from a union background?

No – from a Midwestern farm family. There’s no labor history in my family at all that I’m aware of.

Did you come from a family of educators?

No teachers. My mom did some teaching, but again, she was basically a farm wife. She went back and got a master’s degree for secondary counseling, and so she did education through the counseling for a while. She really ended up being a social worker for the last part of her career.

What did your family think about your career decision to go into academia?

It’s funny. They were really supportive in terms of anything I wanted to do for a career. It was pretty clear that I was never going to continue the family farm. My younger brother was sort of on track to do that. … I’ve always been supported by them for education. I don’t talk a lot to my dad about my union work, but [the] education was fine.

Why did you come to Riverside for graduate school to begin with?

Well, I didn’t want to stay in the middle of the country anymore, and my mom grew up in Fresno. So I was interested in California, and I wasn’t going to go to any of the CSUs because I wanted a PhD. So then I checked out the different PhD programs and didn’t know anything about the relative strengths of the campuses. But Berkeley and LA were way too big. And I wanted SoCal rather than Nor-Cal. And Irvine annoyed me for some reason. So I went to Riverside. I applied and they accepted me, and I got money for out of state tuition – fee waiver – which was instrumental in my being able to afford to come here.

What would you tell folks who have reservations about unions?

I’m not really apologetic about it. I’m kind of cold blooded. Unions are ways for employees to effectively get a bigger piece of a pie. That’s really what they sort of are to me. Collective bargaining is stronger bargaining than individual bargaining.

What would you tell folks who fear retaliation for joining [the union]?

On our campus we’ve worked really hard to prevent that, but also UC Riverside has not been a kind of retaliatory campus. The way that you [prevent retaliation] is by winning grievances, and exposing that kind of injustice. You name. You shame. You protest. You grieve. You pushback, and you make it untenable for the departments that try that kind of stuff. … Adjunct faculty get let go all the time with no reason, with no control, with no justification. It’s really not like you have anything to lose. It’s not like being good – being a model citizen doesn’t guarantee you everything. I tried that route. I was a model citizen. Yeah, I was involved in the strike. But I was a model citizen, volunteering for extra stuff, doing all the stuff that you’re supposed to do. That didn’t protect my job at all. It made me one of the earlier ones to come back – maybe. But that was no guarantee. In a situation where being nice and meek and gentle doesn’t get you anything – it doesn’t guarantee you anything, it doesn’t bring you any real advantage – it doesn’t make any sense to be afraid of being assertive. Being assertive sometimes makes people uncomfortable, but it’s never as counter-productive as people sometimes think. … It’s not about idealism. We’re making the world a better place, but it’s not about that. It’s self-defense. It’s about taking care of ourselves and taking care of each other. A union is a community. People think about organizations as being somehow distinct from communities. I know businesses try to push this notion of being a family. They tried to replace family with the business. Businesses try to be false families, whereas unions function as real communities. In a community you’ve got to be equals. So you fight against (false) family dynamics and dictatorships with community and organization.

Why do the lecturers have a union at UCR but the tenured and tenure-track professors don’t?

When HEERA [the Higher Education Employer-Employee Relations Act] was being developed – and that’s not that old; that dates from the 80s – our union was organized in the mid-80s in the wake of that legislation. In that determination there are exceptions for categories of employees who cannot be unionized – employees who are managers, who are supervisors and who are exempt. Senate faculty – tenure-track faculty – were sort of deemed to be exempt, at least in part. Unions put out feelers for organizing the UC faculty and the UC faculty has been resolutely against collective action. If you’re familiar with the Cal State or with the community college districts, faculty in both of those are unionized. But neither of those until very recently had substantial research components. And a research component means that once you put that into a higher education model you get rewarded for your research component and not for your teaching, which means it’s actually in some ways a lot easier to separate the stars from the other people. The person with the award winning book or the award winning research is a star. And no one cares at all how that person teaches. Some students do. But generally that person is rewarded entirely for his or her individual work – and “individual” in scare quotes because of course labs are all communal – but for research rather than for educating. And then there are some times which tenure-track [and tenured] faculty in Riverside are actually really managers, right? The big thing really is that professors at the UC would be too good and too powerful and too sort of upper-class to need a union. And then you look at the way the funding was going, especially when all three divisions in higher education were fully funded; so you’re looking at large salary for senate faculty members, for tenure-track faculty members. The University of California has its own site where it publishes everybody’s annual salary. If you look at the top 100 earners, well over half of them are professors in medical schools. They earn more than the chancellors. Along with coaches. Coaches are also at the very top. It’s not uncommon for a non-med school professor – it’s not uncommon for a professor with a long career – to retire with $250 - $450,000 as a salary. That’s not the income bracket where people think about unionizing. The people who do get the notions of unionizing are all, for the most part, assistant professors. They’re not yet tenured. They’re untenured, and when you’re untenured you essentially have zero job protections. [But] you’re not going to start a union movement when all you have to do is be a good child for seven years and get that monograph published and then you have a guaranteed salary for the rest of your life with a reasonable expectation of it topping out at a point at which you can retire at 60 and do nothing. [Though] they don’t choose to do this because so many are dedicated to scholarship. In universities and in states where the conditions for professors are less good and less well-funded you have more unionization. The other part of it is that for all the talk about liberal professors, there’s a certain way in which academia is always conservative. The whole purpose of a teacher is to pass on existing knowledge. So everybody who’s teaching has this idea of passing on existing knowledge. Even if it’s knowledge that is supposed to upend the hegemony and be revolutionary, you’re still deeply invested in this knowledge as something to be cherished and protected, and that’s not something that makes one a radical. So even radicals become sometimes conservative as they’re teaching. As radicals age they’re increasingly wedded to the perfect positions they had as young people which perforce makes them [conservative]. This is just a theory of mine. [Higher] education doesn’t produce revolution. It can produce progressive change.

To what degree do you think tenured faculty are concerned with the trends in higher education – especially within the UC system – like the increasing reliance on lecturers?

This is really complex to me. This is what I think has been going on: If you go back to the idea that you’re rewarded for your research in higher education – almost exclusively anymore – that creates a certain star system. So the giants in media studies go and they get paid a ton of money. It’s entrepreneurial and it makes one rich. We have this increasingly built academy. I’m using a building metaphor. The construction for knowledge and thought has become really dense. If you look at James Joyce, every year there’s something like a thousand or two thousand articles written about James Joyce. What the hell am I going to say about James Joyce that has not already been said? So I can try branching into new fields of study. Intellectually we’re kind of weirdly in an age like scholasticism right before the sort of start of the printing press. It’s increasingly angels on the head of pins in the humanities. People have to carve out little territories of scholarship. And it’s wonderful. It’s flowering. There are millions of things to do. But to stand out in the sheer number of brilliant people doing brilliant analyses of small things you have to be a little bit lucky. You also have to be hugely entrepreneurial in the sense you’re working all the time on your stuff. You have to hustle. Tenure-track academic in a research, R1 institution is a hustle. You have to be out there, you have to give papers every year [at conferences], you have to publish an article or two every year, you have to get a book out and another book. As soon as you get ‘publish or perish’ it becomes a matter of quantity. Honestly, how many people in the world are capable of accurately judging the quality of your research? There might be a couple of dozen, maybe, right? Because things become so fragmented. So how do you establish quality if nobody else in your university understands what you’re doing? Well, it’s got to be refereed juries. It’s got to be within this community. It’s got to be building these networks. So between networking and producing you’re spending, I don’t know, 40 to 60 hour weeks? Eighty hour weeks, right? Which is great. Everybody humble brags about how busy they are and how hard they’re working. And yea them. But when quantity becomes an issue and you’re producing so much, then 100 percent of your job is researching and networking. But according to the basic UC guidelines I was always taught, 40 percent of your job is research, 40 percent of your job is teaching and 20 percent of your job is service. Well, senate faculty, tenure-track faculty have outsourced the service to professional administrators. If you want to know why there’s administerial bloat it’s because the entire notion of shared governance has been weakened. … Sometimes tenured professors are very much the friends of adjuncts, but sometimes they are the adjuncts’ worst enemies. You’ve outsourced your service to professional managers. Now you need to outsource your teaching. You’re going to outsource your teaching to your TAs, but for a lot of things it makes more sense to outsource your teaching to adjuncts. And that’s kind of what’s happened. You can get a weird sense what becomes important in an organization. The worst paid sub-contractors in higher education are the teacher sub-contractor(s), which is interesting. Increasingly there are senate faculty who worry about this creep of non-tenure track. They worry about the loss of tenure, the loss of academic freedom. I’m not discounting that at all. But at the same time – and it’s like the $200,000 salary – people are benefiting because they never have to teach those classes that they don’t want to teach. You want to keep your mind sharp and you only want to deal with graduate students? Well, lucky you. There’s someone who will teach all the undergraduate classes at a relatively inexpensive rate, freeing you up to do research. So that’s part of the dynamic. That’s why I don’t rely entirely on tenure-track [professors]. With academia you can never, ever get past status. The status difference between having a PhD and not having a PhD. The status difference between being declared worthy of a tenure-track and not being worthy of a tenure-track. Everybody absorbs this, and everybody gets touchy and or defensive and or arrogant. … The arrogance is such a big deal. At UCLA there’s a kind of attitude at times. If someone is famous and qualified and talented we can’t call them a lecturer because that would be insulting to them.

How severe is the “publish or perish” phenomenon in your discipline?

100 percent. Essentially now – with some exceptions, and I haven’t been in the market for a long time – there’s no way I could go into an R1 institution now unless I published a monograph. The only way I would even feel comfortable applying for an entry level position is if I had a book out. My dissertation is now 15 years old. So it’s essentially useless. The rule of thumb now in English studies and literature studies is you have to have three or four serious, juried journal articles, or a monograph or a dissertation sort of accepted for publication to get yourself a job. Because other people will have that. And then you have to do at least one more monograph to get tenure and then a third monograph, minimum, to get full professor. I don’t think you can get a CSU position without a strong publication record.

What would you say to adjuncts who are still interested in that elusive tenure-track position and still interested in researching and publishing? And how do you see the connection between research/writing and teaching, especially given that some say that adjunctification has meant the dumbing down of higher education because the connections have been somewhat severed?

I’m contemplating it; I haven’t heard that argument before, but it’s not a surprising one. I think it’s not so much the writing that helps the teaching as it would be keeping abreast of the research. But I – and Jen (Ramos) too – have a weird situation because what’s important in teaching first year writing is not knowing the latest theories in first year writing. Although I’m sure it doesn’t hurt. There’s clearly a discipline of writing. There’s clearly a content there. But it doesn’t have to me the same kind of research function that – if I were a historian. If you’re studying the 18th century in France, then you need to keep up with the latest discoveries and theories about the 18th century in France. And if you stop doing that, eventually your teaching becomes far enough behind at various levels that it becomes less effective. Because of the way we were all taught, we research when we write. It’s rare for people to do a lot of research without a notion of a project behind it. I could be completely wrong about that. It could just be me. [But] so writing is sort of the cattle prod of the research necessary to keep one up to date with the content that one is teaching. And I could see if you never did the thing – if you never did history, if you never did biology – your teaching would eventually become less effective. But that efficacy is – and this is one of the issues too: Nobody cares if someone teaching first year people anything is slightly less effective in the modern university system. Because all of those introductory courses are taught in classes of 400. If you care about the education for beginning scholars you don’t put them in classes of 400. So let’s call it a “stagnance”. This is really offensive, and I’m exaggerating on purpose. Let’s say you have someone who’s teaching Introduction to American History who has in fact become stagnant. That loss of teaching quality because you’re 20 years behind the scholarship is negligible compared to the reduction of the quality of the educational experience that the students suffer for being in a 400 person class. So it’s a rounding error. If you want to talk about this as being a decay, it’s probably a decay that’s circular, right? You have bigger classes with less engaged instructors. By “engaged” I don’t mean engaged in a class or even engaged in history, but less hooked into the university. That’s the other reason why tenure-track faculty are less likely to unionize – because they’re so hooked into the loyalty with the institution. It doesn’t feel like an agonistic relationship. I mean, everyone grumbles and everyone bitches. But they hate their colleagues more than they hate the institution. Actually, you know, if you’re in a research position and all of your worst enemies are other professionals in your department and in the field, why would you want to unionize with those assholes? I’m just being flippant, but I’m not entirely wrong here. And here’s the thing. The way in which research works now is so weird. And publishing. Because theoretically the dollar bar, the money bar to being an active scholar is not high. You need a computer and a library card with digital subscriptions. And if you’re in the humanities you can be more productive than you could’ve been writing in the 60s. There’s just more there to do and more there to learn. And more sources. The heavy teaching load [and the bad] pay – if you paid adjuncts more they could do research. There’s also the idea of who gets heard. The 17th and 18th and 19th centuries are full of these weird nutters who make scientific discoveries, or collect arrowheads, or for the first time get lightning to strike a key. They’re doing like 18 different things in their lives at all times, but they have a little bit of time for playing with this stuff. But again, as knowledge grows, all of the low-hanging fruit is harvested. Increasingly sophisticated tools, and time to think, especially for science – you can’t be an amateur scientists anymore. OK, yes, you can. You will find me an amateur scientist. It can happen. But just in terms of access and possibility… Now I’m way behind where I feel comfortable saying that I’m right about this stuff. It’s all speculative, what I’ve been doing. … But I thought about this. What would be stopping my brother – well now he’s working a lot of hours – but my brother who’s a CFO, what’s preventing him from doing intellectual work that’s valuable? I mean the great example in American letters is Wallace Stevens who was a freaking insurance executive and wrote arguably the best poetry in the American 20th century. But I think part of that is the generally overworked nature of Americans anyway. CFOs, you know, back in the day, had their three martini lunches. This was until the 60s and 70s. There was a pace to business, and then it got frantic. And it’s never stopped getting frantic. That work speed-up has ruined scholarship for not just academics but everybody.

What would you say to an instructor who’s trying to explain to a family member or friend – someone outside academia – what the lecturer situation is like?

You have the duties of a high-level manager with the salary of a low-level hourly employee. If you think about high-level managers, they have meetings that they have to be at. But they don’t have to clock in. It’s not a clocked thing. So in theory they could work from home, and everybody thinks of that as a joke – like you’re not really working when you’re working from home. But when you’re grading, when you’re preparing, when you’re thinking about your class – right, it’s like being a salaried employee because you’re never not thinking about your work. There are all sorts of jobs – I worked at a convenience store; I worked at a mental hospital. You go. You do your work. You come home. And then when you’re at home you’re not at work. I’m not ever not at work. And I would expect high-level managers, not to be too arrogant, but everyone from Elon Musk to various high government appointees – all of these folks are never not at work. But we’re not paid like that, especially adjuncts who are freeway flying. Someone who’s adjuncting is working two to three jobs for $40,000 a year. That is not much different from somebody who’s got a gig at Target and a gig at a gas station and a gig someplace else. And with those two to three jobs there’s no insurance. So you really are compensated like you’re an entry level worker, and you’re always thinking and you’re always doing this work even if you’re not always in the classroom. It’s the worst of the salaried position plus the worst of the hourly position. Here’s the worst of the salary: You get paid for the time that you’re actually in class. So if you’re in a community college, you get paid for four hours a week and you’re expected to do 12 hours a week of work. It does get different at the CSUs and the UCs. The UC is – we’re – doing pretty well in terms of our contract. And so the people who are doing the multiple appointments and multiple campuses – it’s a combination of a traveling salesman and hourly entry appointment and the very worst of being a salaried employee.

Can you comment on the relationship between the quality of education and schools’ reliance on lecturers and then the relationship between unionization and the quality of education?

One of the trickiest things about that argument is that if you say the students suffer because they’re being taught by lecturers you’re essentially saying lecturers are less good teachers than professors. That always disturbs me. But if you say that people who are stable and well paid and have the ability to invest in the institution are always going to better teachers? [That’s different.] And it’s not just a faulty sense of ethics. I’ll tell you straight up. When I was freeway flying I learned all sorts of bad habits that I’m still trying to unlearn in terms of designing classes at the last minute, and not keeping people the entire time and shortcuts for grading. You do all sorts of things that are bad educational practices. It’s not the status of whether you’re tenure track or not that makes a difference in the quality of your teaching. It’s the status of your comfort and your security and your relationship with the institution. Every time when I’ve been feeling comfortable with my relationship with the institution I’ve taught better. It’s just that simple. I think unionization helps that because unionization is all about protecting the employee’s rights and bringing some stability. Like at UC Riverside – and UC in general – but at UC Riverside lecturers who are here for a career cost more. I’m on track to be getting close to six figures by the time I retire, and that’s a lot of money. The thing is, what that gets the university is somebody who’s deeply invested in the institution. If I had been continually dinked around for my entire career at UC Riverside I would be here because I had to be here to eat, but I would not care about providing quality education. I would be doing just want I needed to do to get paid. It’s not a guarantee, but there are people who are working at not a high appointment percentage, right? They’re not even benefits eligible, but they’ve been at the UC for a number of years. And if they’re treated fairly they have more invested in this campus than they would have invested in other campuses that don’t treat them as well. It’s just, again, building a good relationship. The institutional memory and the knowledge that people have is valuable to an institution.

Why should lecturers who are on the fence join the union?

Because the union ultimately cares more about the success of the lecturer than the management does. Because your negotiating power is always better when you have friends with you. Because – well for our union – because when I started in 1999 I was paid the equivalent of $40,000 in today’s money and now the starting salary is $54,000. Our bargaining power has brought the starting annualized salary up at one percent above the rate of inflation since 2000 when most Americans, if you do your studies, have not been keeping up even with inflation. It’s just that practical stuff. And here’s the other thing. If you’re an academic, you believe deeply in being involved with the running of your institution, right? The academy is entirely obsessed with shared governance and a community of people making decisions collectively, and the union is the best form of that.