Without you, I’m nothing

By Robert Jensen

Published in Rally speech · March, 1999

[Speech to the University Staff Association’s Virtual Walkout rally, March 10, 1999.]

I’m here in solidarity with the staff members at the University of Texas, the people who make it possible for me to teach, to do the job I love. When I think of the the work of the 12,000 classified staff on the UT campus, one thing becomes clear quickly:

Without you, I’m nothing. When I stand up in the classroom and try to teach, it’s easy to believe the illusion that I am the university, that my teaching is what it’s all about. But that’s wrong, on every level.

We are what it’s all about. We make this happen, in collaboration and connection. Take away any of us, and the whole operation runs aground. It’s pretty obvious: We all need each other, for the simple reason that no one can do anything alone.

So, if that’s true, why do some people end up getting treated as if they are so much more important? Because we live in a culture that tells us some kinds of work are a lot more important than other kinds. We live in a world that equates length of educational training with ability. We live in a world that equates the cost of the suit you are wearing to the value of your contribution.

But I’m here to say that advanced degrees and expensive suits don’t make a university and don’t make a decent world. People make a world, and decent people realize how important every one of us is to building a decent world.

I’m not sure the folks in the Tower understand that. What we have to make the administrators understand is that a university is more than a professor standing up in a classroom. The creation of knowledge and the shaping of students takes place in every interaction. This entire campus is a classroom, and we are all teachers, and we should all be teaching each other. And if we don’t value equally every one of those teachers–if we don’t value each and every one of us the same–then we all suffer.

Right now, what the administration is acting on a different set of values. Those values suggest that some people are more important than others. That some people deserve to be pampered with big salaries and regular raises and, in some select cases (it would be impolite to mention names, and as everyone knows, I’m an extremely polite fellow), car and housing allowances and club memberships and big fat expense accounts to spend on expensive dinners with other people with big fat expense accounts, so that the only problem with the expensive dinner is figuring out which big fat expense account will absorb the bill.

The administration is trying to tell us that all those advantages that elite folks get are not only necessary, but deserved. Other people, they want us to believe, can and should get by with less–without a living wage, without the dignity that comes with fair treatment, without a sense of control over their own lives, without the recognition of a job well done. And, needless to say, without big fat expense accounts.

Well, I think the administration’s values stink. I think we need to teach them some things. It’s true that part of the USA struggle is about pushing the university to adopt a more sound compensation plan for practical business reasons. But I think this struggle also is about something more. It’s about an age-old demand that comes from people who are told their work isn’t as important and, therefore, that they aren’t as important. There are different names for that demand–justice, fairness, equality. At the heart of those demands is a simple truth that we need to tell today. We need to make sure the administration learns this lesson:

Your slick suit doesn’t make you special. Your country club membership doesn’t make you better. Your big inflated title doesn’t make you more important to what happens on this campus. And, Lord knows, a Ph.D. doesn’t automatically make anyone smart.

So, without you, I’m nothing. Without our collective work and our shared commitment, UT is nothing. Without us, Bill Cunningham and Larry Faulkner are nothing but night watchmen guarding over a collection of virtually empty buildings. They had better watch out, lest those buildings empty out for real.