Salovey Gets It Right: On Fasting in the Ivory Tower
Yesterday afternoon, President Peter Salovey sent an email to the entire Yale community regarding the Local 33 Graduate Student Union hunger strike. He rightly pointed out that the union itself is anti-democratic. The union claims to legitimately represent all graduate students, but only 228 out of current 2,600 Ph.D. students cast ballots.
As Salovey wrote, this union represents only 8.7 percent of all graduate students at the University. Should Local 33 prevail in its strike, this 8.7 percent of graduate students will have “collective” bargaining rights on behalf of all graduate students. As if 8.7 percent of students represent any meaningful collective. Any rudimentary theory of representative democracy would assert that 8.7 percent of a group cannot claim to represent the entire group.
Not only is the union undemocratic, its self-harming hunger strike is antithetical to “productive, rational debate,” in Salovey’s words. While Salovey was right to reject their method of protest, he should not have appealed to the protestors by calling for said productive, rational debate, seeing as their complaints have little basis in reality.
In an op-ed for the New Haven Register, Local 33 leader Aaron Greenberg compared the students’ struggle to that of Martin Luther King. Protesters in front of Woolsey hall later quoted King, saying that Yale is hiding behind its “institutional power and prestige to deny us our basic right.”
Since we are dealing with TAs on strikes, I’m going to do as they taught me and analyze this quote by each piece.
First off, I’d like to point to their excellent use of rhetorical techniques here. It is both hyperbolic and ironic that it is a group of students protesting from their ivory tower about the establishment’s oppression. Within just a few years, these very students will land teaching jobs at top universities, join the faculty, and thereby join the establishment they so loathe. In the past election cycle, coastal elites at top colleges universities were roundly criticized for being out of touch with the average American. The average American does not ever attend bastions of privilege like Yale. Those Americans who do attend Yale are part of the privileged class, whether Local 33 believes it or not.
What is truly appalling is that this group of privileged protesters dared to liken their “struggle” to the Civil Rights movement. This narrative of victimization is played out among the exalted and heroic hunger strikers, which include only one person of color and no women of color. It does not seem right that a group of largely white folks can lay claim to defending Martin Luther King’s legacy while it is likely that none (save perhaps one person) has ever actually experienced institutionalized racism. Why is it that a group of largely white individuals are on a hunger strike to demand racial equity, but this same group is not giving visibility to black or hispanic students?
Now let’s talk about these allegedly violated basic rights.
According to an article in the New Haven Register, Local 33 Chairman Aaron Greenberg said “Local 33 seeks job security in teaching assignments, as well as ‘access in affordable health care and child care, race and gender equity and a grievance procedure.’”
Affordable childcare is not essential to maintaining human dignity. According to the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “Everyone is entitled to an adequate standard of living including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services.” That the “adequate standard of living” is followed by commodities necessary for survival should indicate that affordable childcare is not a human right. Affordable childcare and affordable food encompass different kinds of needs. Unlike a lack of food, a lack of affordable childcare does not lead to certain death.
While the university should provide affordable childcare in the interest of gender parity, behaving as if the university has committed a grave injustice is exactly why the Americans who voted against the ivory tower (read: Hillary Clinton) believe college students at prestigious universities are whining snowflakes.
Is it a basic right to have a spouse’s health care covered? No.
Why can’t spouses buy healthcare from the Affordable Care Act’s exchange? Has this Democratic pet project become unpopular among its core constituent agitators? If a right to spousal health care is so universal, then why is Yale surpassing its peer institutions?
Yale pays for all graduate student health care and will cover half the cost of a spouse’s health care. At Brown, students must pay $3,615 per year plus a $850 health services fee. Spouses are not covered. At Harvard, students are required to pay $1,088 per year. Spouses are not covered. At Stanford, health care costs $9,360 per year.
And yet, Yale students are on a hunger strike.
Have no illusions about this hunger strike: this is not a struggle to achieve these “basic rights.” In fact, Local 33 seems to be doing just fine. Their base of operation is not a tent city populated by impoverished students but rather a repurposed boat shed covered in opaque white plastic. Inside the tent are muted gray couches; they look lovely next to the folding orange accent chairs. There’s even a sitting area fake grass and fairy lights. The picnic tables are set up for visitors to discuss why they’re protesting in the first place.
The first day I walked by the encampment, I was gravely disappointed. The decor seemed to be advertising free food from a hip vegetarian market. What kind of snowflake am I if I don’t eat the free avocado toast on quinoa crusted bread? To my dismay, all they had to offer were leaflets.
Invoking historical examples of human rights abuses is wrong; there are no human rights abuses here to be found. If the students are truly concerned about unionization, they should stop the self-aggrandizing exhibitionism, eat some food, and sit down with Salovey for a real discussion.