The University as Students' Workplace?

*Co-authored by Lauren Gaydosh

Is the student-athlete an ordinary college employee? Yes, declared the recent and noteworthy decision by the National Labor Relations Board. Supporting a group of Northwestern football players' petition to organize as a union, NLRB regional director Peter Sung Ohr declared that players "fall squarely within the [NLRB] Act's broad definition of 'employee.'"

So why is this decision generating headlines and a great deal of controversy? Sure, dollars are involved in athletes' redefined status, making them more expensive players. But the threat transcends economics and involves moral concerns. What are some of the issues that worry critics and are they justified?

To start with, college is supposed to be a world apart, secluded from mundane economic concerns. Students may be involved in a rat race for high grades and popularity but are not, and should not, be concerned with real-world economic transactions. For some observers, the campus, much like households, constitutes a separate sphere, protecting its four-year residents from harsh economics. If student-athletes are reduced to the rank of employees, some worry, a crucial boundary between the sacred world of education and the crass world of the market will be irrevocably breached.

Why is this boundary important? Because ignoring it can, from this perspective, have dire consequences not only by undercutting students' education but more broadly by tarnishing the college's educational mission. This argument has emerged in other cases involving students' demands for unionization. Listen for instance to Marcellette G. Williams, University of Massachusetts, Amherst's chancellor's response when in 2002 the college's undergraduate residential assistants voted to unionize:

I fear that their unionization would inevitably lead to demands that we bargain over matters that are entirely inappropriate subjects for... negotiations, such as financial aid, academic status, student conduct and discipline, and dormitory conditions and regulations. (Chronicle of Higher Education, April 26, 2002)

Converting student work into organized labor might thus transform students into greedy negotiators losing sight of their education.

For the naysayers, the NLRB decision is one more step in what is already a slippery slope towards the commercialization of education. As Richard Pérez-Peña writes in his New York Times column (March 28), the decision is part of a trend in which higher education is becoming "a commercial transaction between school and student."

Really? While surely there are serious grounds to worry about the commercialization of universities, the tragedy of growing student debt and other daunting economic problems involving academic institutions, recognizing and compensating students' work efforts is emphatically not one of them.

Why not? Because a legitimate and vibrant labor market has long been a standard feature of college life. Students are already college employees, compensated with hourly wages and sometimes perks, like reduced housing costs or free food. And for the most part their labor becomes integrated into their education rather than corrupting their college experience. In colleges around the country, students work in a wide variety of jobs, in the libraries, dining services, computer centers, as residential, research and office assistants, as paid volunteers for psychology faculty experiments, raising funds for the university, and much more. Savvy student entrepreneurs run businesses, providing services to their peers, such as moving and storage, laundry, and more. Even Harvard has instituted a "Student Employee of the Year" award thus recognizing its students' labor contributions.

We therefore already have proof that education and labor can coexist without necessary mutual damage.

The key challenge is not adjudicating whether or not college athletes should be legally considered employees. Regardless of legal definitions all students engaged in campus-related work deserve proper protections and regulations. Whether on the football field or serving in a dining hall, whether they are producing extraordinary revenues for their institutions or earning small sums of spending money, colleges should guard their students' welfare. How? By ensuring work safety, regulating hours of work to avoid overworking, assuring fair compensation, providing proper medical attention, and offering academic guidance.

Does this mean that we can start treating colleges as ordinary workplaces? That would also be a mistake. College labor is not the same as work within a Wall Street firm, a fast food restaurant, or a department store. As educational organizations, colleges are distinct economic settings with their own systems of compensation and work categories representing and reinforcing that distinctiveness. Within that economic world, scholarships, fellowships and grants are suitable forms of payment. Indeed, in the Northwestern case, among other demands such as medical coverage and the establishment of an educational trust fund, players are demanding guaranteed full scholarships but are not pushing for "pay-for-play" salaries.

The NLRB ruling should not scare us but instead encourage careful thinking about how to avoid exploitative student labor and preserve a meaningful campus work experience. As employees, student athletes may gain sufficient protections to become better, not worse, students.

Viviana Zelizer is Lloyd Cotsen '50 Professor of Sociology and Lauren Gaydosh is a doctoral candidate at Princeton University. They are working on a project investigating undergraduate's economic activities, including money and labor.