July 3- 9, 2003
Show Us Your Zits
Judith Rodin was not as “all-that” as she was cracked up to be.
On June 20, self-proclaimed University of Pennsylvania CEO Judith Rodin declared she would be step down in 2004. Since the announcement a series of flattering articles have surfaced trumpeting the fantastic accomplishments of Rodins administration. Undoubtedly, according to a narrow set of criteria, she was a success. However, if we bring other measures to bear, it becomes clear that her leadership marked a radical departure in the management of university affairs, away from the traditional values of knowledge building, education and public service. Becoming an innovator in a national trend, Rodin reorganized Penn around a new set of priorities focused on growing the endowment, downsizing, making strategic investments and organizing university life around a corporate ethos. To appreciate the impact of this shift it is important to look at Penn from a different perspective. If we focus not on the endowment, but rather on how the university treats employees, its role in Philadelphia and its ability to fulfill the mission of research and education, we get a more troubling picture of the Rodin regime.
First, how have Rodin's policies impacted Penn's work force? At more than 25,000-strong, Penn is the largest nongovernment employer in Philadelphia. Under Rodin's stewardship Penn eliminated and outsourced more than 3,000 jobs, according to Matthew Ruben, who contributed a chapter about Penn to Campus Inc.: Corporate Power in the Ivory Tower (Prometheus). Downsizing the Penn labor force is one of the major "accomplishments" of Rodin's administration.
More recently, Penn's graduate workers formed Graduate Employees Together-UPENN (GET-UP) to push for workplace democracy. We organized a majority of Penn's nearly 1,000 teaching assistants, whose labor provides a majority of contact hours with undergraduates in introductory courses. Despite graduate students' 30 years of collective bargaining on dozens of campuses, Penn's administration decided that its "best and brightest," as Rodin has called us, were incapable of deciding on unionization. Penn hired Ballard Spahr Andrews & Ingersoll to fight us, appealing the decision of the National Labor Relations Board to hold a union election. Penn's strategy was simple. The result, when 60 percent of us voted "union yes" this February? Our ballots were impounded indefinitely.
Further, the new corporate university Rodin has championed relies not only on an increasingly marginal and contingent pool of labor, but also on for-profit schemes such as outsourcing, real estate development and gentrification. Case in point, the outsourcing of the campus bookstore to Barnes & Noble in 1996, resulting in the loss of more than two-thirds of bookstore employees, according to Ruben's article. In place of independent businesses, low residential rents and idiosyncratic food vendors Penn has ushered in corporate giants such the Gap, Urban Outfitters and Barnes & Noble. The corporate sterilization of University City may have created a "safer" and more "attractive" consumer landscape, but not without displacing several blue collar minority businesses. Is this the sort of behavior residents want to reward with tax breaks, and an annual commonwealth appropriation topping $40 million?
Where does this leave us? Is this a story of good versus evil? No. The issues involved are messy, as decisions research universities make are bound up in a complex web of relationships between government cutbacks, privatization and corporate influence. However, in assessing the future of Penn, it is important to keep in mind that university priorities will have a chilling effect on the quality of education and the role this or any university plays within the country. As for Rodin, political pundits have prophesied a future for her in politics. Consequently, citizens must reflect on her record of service and the decisions she's made as a leader to assess with a more critical eye the successes and failures of the Rodin regime.
Todd Wolfson is a UPenn Ph.D. candidate and GET-UP member. If you would like to respond to this Slant or have one of your own (850 words), contact Howard Altman, City Paper editor in chief, 123 Chestnut St., third floor, Phila., PA 19106 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.