The Illusion of Paradise Lost

seminaryprofsAre you following the labor situation at the Episcopal General Theological Seminary in New York?

No? Then you may want to at least read this first.

In a nutshell we have a situation where a large portion of the seminary’s faculty recently walked off the job to protest what they saw as their Dean’s inappropriate behavior and what they claim is his authoritarian style — doing so after repeatedly contacting the Board of Trustees with letters of complaint, but feeling like they were getting nowhere.

Where’s it now stand? According to the above cited New York Times article:

shockedfacultyWith the Fall semester already in full swing, the school is scrambling to staff its classes.

What I find interesting about this story is that so many people in academia find it interesting. While not wanting to diminish the significance of what is happening in the lives of these professors, I can’t help but wonder why this story stands out for so many — for it’s hardly the first or the only case in U.S. history of workers experiencing the heavy hand of ownership. So there must be something that can account for why this story has attracted so much attention, at least among some people I know.

My gut tells me it is two things: 1) a folk theory of religion, popular no less among scholars than the general public, as being something good and wholesome (and thus how could such a thing happen in a place like that?!) and 2) the not unrelated presumption that post-secondary teachers — or, more specifically, university professors — are not workers in the usual sense of the term (and thus how could the messiness of controversies over the value of labor happen in a place like that?!). We have a vocation, after all, and not just an occupation — right?

They’re “not unrelated” since both presuppose a set apart zone that’s somehow uniquely privileged.

For, without going so far back as, say early twentieth-century union-busting practices, or the host of contemporary examples of manufacturing owners deciding to look for cheaper labor overseas, we could cite the 1981 case in which striking air traffic controllers were fired en masse after they refused to return to work (when then President Reagan declared the strike illegal under the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947) — all as an example of what happens when workers misjudge the place powerful others think they ought to occupy in the pecking order. While there’s an obvious number of differences between unionized air traffic controllers and the case of the eight theology professors, I simply want to ask why the latter story seems to be so shocking — i.e., why anyone would think that higher ed (whether a theological college or not) would somehow be set apart from basic contests over ownership and access?

While those of us who work in this profession may have once had the luxury to think we were removed from the bump and grind of the workplace, it should by now be painfully apparent that we do not — which doesn’t mean one ignores the situation of those General Theological Seminary faculty; but it does mean that one should pose a tough question or two about why the host of similar labor disputes that take place every day are not also peppered all over Facebook walls of colleagues.

[It occurs to me that there might be a third reason why this story of class conflict in a seemingly quiet little Episcopal seminary stands out: as confirmation that the privileged paradise that academia once might seemed to be has indeed been lost — for if it can happen there…]

2 thoughts on “The Illusion of Paradise Lost

  1. Well said and well done. Theological colleges can be horrible places to work (and to be dismissed from – as I well know). Labour disputes have existed in the academic workplace for generation, and have been swept under the rug of propriety and power. “Ordinary” universities at least have a pocket or corner where the “off-centre, ” more marginal folks have a certain cachet, and one expects a rumpus now and then because of it. Theological colleges carry a different odor – sacred, not mundane, and somehow people are supposed to be different in them. They’re not.

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