THE University made an extremely unwise move in deciding to drop its appeal against the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers (HUCTW). President Bok now appears foolish after investing Harvard's reputation and moral weight against unionizing Harvard's more than 3500 pink-collar workers.
If Harvard is going to base its appeal on the value of defending democracy--namely by insuring that the 49 percent of the employees who voted against the union were not ill-served by irregular voting practices--then it had better follow through. In American society, universities alone have the luxury of pursuing goals based on abstract values and higher goods. Universities don't have to act according to some debased calculus that balances the chances of winning against the negative effects on union relations.
In fact, universities receive their hallowed place in our society precisely because they are perceived as places where absolute truths and values are taken seriously. They cannot go around changing their minds left and right because of very businesslike calculations on union relations. Universities will lose their legitimacy if they become self-interested players like any private corporation, which Bok basically admitted last week.
Alarger question which the staff has not yet considered--and probably never will--is whether big unionism is appropriate to the academic world. The relationships among professors, students, staff, and technical employees are all built on a measure of trust and informality. It's difficult to believe that a union will make the University as a whole a better place to study. Yale University was ripped apart as a striking clerical union shut down classes and paralyzed professors' offices.
Hail the arrival of big, powerful unions, and all the conflict they inevitably bring. Harvard's community will be split into power blocs feuding over mundane issues like pay, benefits and smaller things, while preserving and advancing this school's educational mission go wanting.