February 28, 2019

GUEST ROOM | A Call for Transparency and Labor Focus in the ILR Dean Search

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Five months after Kevin Hallock stepped down from the helm of the School of Industrial and Labor Relations to lead the newly formed SC Johnson College of Business, the nation’s premier institution of labor education and research continues in its search for a new dean. While the search committee has voiced desire for student input, we fear the opinions of those most impacted by the management of this program will not be made a central concern. In fact, the Provost has made no commitments to transparency in this process, and has indicated to faculty members that he may be departing from well-established norms by not giving faculty and students the ability to comment on candidates being considered for the position. The Provost would require the select faculty members who meet the finalists to sign confidentiality agreements, agreeing to refrain from discussing potential candidates with their colleagues.

The fact that the previous dean was so easily able to transition to leading an institution of management is indicative of the corporate bias of the search process to date. The administration’s initial choice for Mr. Hallock’s predecessor was so far removed from the interests of the ILR school that students were driven to reach out to him directly to let him know ILR was the wrong place for him. Ultimately, that candidate decided not to come to the school and the position was offered to Harry Katz.

This time can be different. ILR was founded to improve labor relations in a post-war economy and serve as a resource for both firms and the labor movement navigating the changing trends of work. To honor the history of the labor movement, the ethos of which is built around solidarity and shared governance, the process of seeking new leadership must be as transparent and democratic as possible. This entails shared responsibility between the faculty who run the school and the students who define it.

Over the past several months, a broad network of undergraduate and graduate students have been holding formal and informal conversations in the corridors of Ives Hall and through the “Future of ILR” Facebook and Instagram pages to explore our hopes and aspirations for the future of our unique academic program. We are hosting a student-run forum on Thursday, March 28 to keep student voices central to the process. We seek a dean who could more easily find a job leading a nonprofit than a business school. The business school is a formidable and necessary institution in its own right, but also one wholly distinct from the field of industrial and labor relations.

ILR needs leadership that recognizes the rapidly changing world of work and its impact on communities and individuals. At a time when a four million American families are both poor and have at least one working family member, it is clear that employment is no longer a guarantor of a decent standard of living. The gig economy accounts for 36 percent of American workers, meaning 57 million people and their families live without a traditional steady source of income. Even those not directly affected by the shapeshifting economy experience the social and political consequences of widespread job insecurity and income inequality in both local and national elections. We are lucky to be members of the institution best equipped to tackle this brave new world; we need a dean who will make labor a top priority.

Entering Ives Hall on the side of the building next to the ramp — the accessible entrance an emblem of hard-won victories for Americans with disabilities — you pass between framed black and white photos of marching strikers, a working machinist and “an unemployed man sleep[ing] with his shoes under his head so that they won’t be stolen.” Labor’s inextricable connection to civil rights and wider issues of social justice necessitates its continued presence at the heart of the school. The ILR School’s influence can be felt in the countless advances in quality of life that we now take for granted. To allow these reminders on the walls of this hallowed institution to become relics of a bygone era instead of inspiration for a renewed push to defend and uplift the worker of the 21st century would be an affront to our history, the cherished rights we enjoy today and the hope of continued progress advancing the world of work into a more just and equitable future.

ILR is not without its systemic problems. While 50 years ago one’s declaration that they are studying Industrial and Labor Relations might be met with respect and support, today, it frequently elicits bewilderment. While of the motto “one major, endless possibilities” appeals to thousands across the country and world, driving high rates of application and low rates of acceptance, it betrays an identity crisis within the school: many do not know what it stands for. Without an “Intro to ILR” course comparable to PAM 2300: Introduction to Policy Analysis, students can advance through all four years without fully understanding the purpose of their major.

The students deserve a voice in the future of ILR, and ILR deserves a dean who will advance its mission. We seek leadership that recognizes the crisis of labor driven by automation and globalization and has a vision for the school to address it. A dean who can modernize ILR while honoring its identity and role in the world of work would ensure that upon graduation, students of Cornell’s most specialized college would embark on their journeys toward endless possibilities with an appreciation for the labor they both encounter and perform in whichever field they choose.

Elijah Fox is a sophomore in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at etf25@cornell.edu.

Chad Rosenbloom is pursuing a Master’s degree in Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at cjr266@cornell.edu.