Students: The university’s third wheel

While the strike was looming over Portland State—the faculty versus the administration—I noticed that the students seemed to be siding with their professors. One could suppose that it was mostly because they know their professors, and the administration is like some abstract entity—an impersonal force that is some kind of evil but for some reason is necessary.

As a student, I might have a personal preference as to which side I want the issues to be resolved in favor of, but mostly I want things to be resolved to my benefit. I do not care if it is to the benefit of the faculty or the administration. I am far more concerned with having a continued, uninterrupted and high-quality education. A strike threatened that.

Perhaps students, instead of throwing their support in favor of their professors, should have threatened to go to another university if the situation was not resolved. It would be inconvenient but better if we could have planned some kind of vacation term instead of one where we find out the hard way that the discord between the faculty and the administration is hurting us perhaps more than anyone else in the short run.

In a more typical factory worker type of strike, for example, there are pretty much just two sides: the workers and their bosses or company owners. But in a sense, in the case of education, the factory is like the classroom and the products are like the students. Normally products are inanimate objects. In this case, the students should have a voice of their own. We want to be treated as quality merchandise. Unfinished products are not as valuable.

What I continue to be disappointed in is that I do not see anybody willing to play hardball and voice the concerns of the students. During the negotiations, I saw posters that said “accept no substitutes,” encouraging students to walk out of class in the event that scabs were brought in. There are problems with that idea. By simply not going to class, we risk only our own education.

Furthermore, it gives the administration little incentive to change their minds just because some students do not show up for class. Once we sign up and pay for classes, a student walk out might cause them to lose face, but they will not feel an impact in their wallets.

The PSU Student Union is supposed to represent student interests to the university. But instead of taking a powerful independent position in favor of the students, they only supported the American Association of University Professors. This may be in part because of a lack of unity among students. Students are only here for a few years, and joining and being committed to a union and collective action is inconvenient. We are busy with classes, studying and choosing two of the following three: a job, sleep or social life.

We cannot normally take the time to be committed and involved in a union. Only a small percentage of PSU students vote or have meaningful involvement in their student government. We are, in fact, relatively insensitive to sizable changes in tuition costs because it rarely makes more than a small difference in how long it will take to pay the money off.

As it is, most students tend to benefit as “free riders” of what a few interested people do for all the students anyway.

The bottom line is that students should not care who “wins” disputes between the faculty and the administration as much as they should care that a strike did not happen. We are not paying the professors to not show up, and we are not paying the administration to provide whatever education is manageable for them.

In a political science class, I learned that some companies pay a lot of money to both of the major political parties. Students are doing something similar. We need what they offer, but they need us more since we are their source of income. Some companies or political action committees give a lot of money to both of the major political parties so that their interests are represented either way. Likewise, neither the faculty nor the administration would have jobs without
the students.

Students in higher education facilities around the world have more power to bargain with both the administration and the faculty than the two have with each other. Students are limited in their influence over their education only by how much money they can throw around.