I don’t know where to start.
The University of Iowa is closing the Labor Center, transferred a year and a half ago to the College of Law. It is scheduled to fade into oblivion July 1. More than 60 years of instructing, educating and advocating for Iowans who work for a living gone in the turning off of a light bulb.
Sixty years of the recorded and documented history of Iowa’s labor movement, 60 years of explaining to people who work for someone else, or some distant corporation, of what rights they have and how to obtain them, wiped out. Done by the president of the university who has no academic experience, a Board of Regents headed by a CEO, and a governor and Legislature bent on destroying organized labor.
Done even though the Labor Center explains to businesses across the state how to comply with complex state and federal regulations and requirements of laws like Occupation Health and Safety Act or Family Medical Leave.
The reason given is the state and the university can’t afford it. It costs about $600,000 a year to maintain. To which I reply: bullroar. If the Board of Regents can approve Iowa State University getting $90 million to build a training facility for a football team, the hundreds of thousands of Iowans who go to work every day ought to get at least this crumb from the table.
But the problem, and my perplexity in addressing this decision, also comes from two directions: The concept of academic freedom and the opportunity presented to the College of Law, from which I graduated.
The concept of academic freedom is rooted in the notion public universities and colleges have an absolute right to teach both prevailing thought but also to explore alternatives to conventional perceptions. This is the foundation of these educational institutions and is defined as giving scholars the freedom to teach or communicate ideas of facts including those that are inconvenient to external political groups without being targeted for repression, job loss or imprisonment.
The reality is our universities are struggling for funding and they have turned to business organizations as an alternative source. The problem is many are very conservative, and if capitalists are going to contribute they want to control what is taught.
For example, Iowa State University, another regents institution, recently noted it has significantly increased corporate participation financially. The institution recently obtained $17 million to allow undergraduates to take courses “related to entrepreneurship.” I very seriously doubt the funds would have been gotten if the courses were about how to form a union.
Academic freedom can be suppressed by prohibiting instruction, but suppression can also be achieved by not providing the funding and facilities to teach certain courses. This is what is happening now at the University of Iowa.
I admit I was more than a little dismayed by the fact the Labor Center can been transferred to the College of Law, known somewhat as that monastery on the hill in Iowa City. Then I remembered the remarkable work the Iowa Supreme Court has been doing under the leadership of Chief Justice Mark S. Cady. The court has been holding actual hearings across Iowa, allowing the general public to see how it functions, how arguments are made and how the law is both interpreted and applied.
The Labor Center could provide the College of Law the same great opportunity, a chance so show lawyers do more than write car finance agreements that take an advanced degree from Harvard to understand. It affords the college the chance to let people who work for a living know lawyers are more than just adversaries but also advocates.
It could continue and enhance the good work of labor educators by informing people they don’t have to punch a press on a dangerous machine, that laws governing overtime pay can’t be circumvented and, yes, unions can still be formed.
There is a fight here to be made to protect academic freedom and an opportunity to make better the lives of those people who rise before light and return from their labor after dark.