Why do some people find the word “solidarity” so unnerving? Webster’s dictionary defines it as: “The state of being solidly united in support of common interests, rights, etc.” One colleague explained that solidarity made him feel uncomfortable because he values his individuality and doesn’t like the idea of being overwhelmed by a collective impetus. But he also admitted to never having attended a meeting of his faculty association. I urged him to go to the meetings. Anyone who has ever attended an association meeting quickly discovers that collective interests do exist, that collective rights need protecting and that these benefit many individuals.
Our colleagues in the United States are rarely exposed to expressions of solidarity. As Christopher Hayes of In These Times pointed out in an article last month on New York City’s transit strike: “Solidarity is the opposite of news you can use. No wonder the local media missed the real story. It hinged on a concept that is not part of its vocabulary.”
Perhaps this is at least in part why so many American college presidents opined so disappointingly in a recent survey of campus executives conducted by the Chronicle of Higher Education. Fifty-three per cent of them said tenure for faculty should be replaced by a system of long-term contracts. Presidents in the survey who had been in their jobs for more than 10 years (27 per cent) preferred contracts to tenure while those reporting from private religious institutions, and those who identified themselves as republicans, said they disliked tenure.
Of course, abolishing tenure would be more cost-effective in the short-term and would lead to greater administrative control. It would also lead to a lower standard of education. Learning can only flourish in a post-secondary environment in which there is freedom. Freedom of thought is necessary for quality higher education. The tenure system protects freedom of thought in the form of academic freedom. Tenure therefore also protects the reputation of the institution, where administrators also work.
If only the American college presidents who dream of doing away with tenure could think about the long-term well-being of their institutions. Those few American post-secondary institutions fortunate enough to house vital faculty associations constantly remind managers to broaden their perspective.
If we do not want to lose our rights, we need to resist the temptations of American-style individualism, which in reality can only deliver isolation and vulnerability. Our faculty associations are sources of solidarity, providing an alternate perspective to dog-eat-dog commercialism. Our associations are about equality, fairness, academic freedom and justice — the cornerstones of solidarity in an academic setting. They give in a world that is, more and more, all about the take.