Guest Opinion: The UI Labor Center and its educational mission for Iowans

UI’s decision to close the Labor Center was not the right one. The Labor Center meets UI’s core educational mission.

Shelton Stromquist

The UI central administration and the state Board of Regents have recently moved to close a number of centers and programs at the University of Iowa without consulting staff in the programs or the constituencies they serve. I cannot speak to importance or value of all the targeted centers, but I can say something about the UI Labor Center, with which I have worked for more than 32 years — as a tenured professor in the Department of History directly involved in teaching undergraduate and graduate students. The center’s impact on “student learning, research, and economic development” (President Harreld’s professed priorities) is without question substantial.

The Labor Center has, of course, had a preeminent and even pioneering role in the civic-engagement activity through which the university serves the people of the state and to which the university has given significant rhetorical preeminence. It has been doing vital educational work in the state for more than 60 years. I have witnessed firsthand the impact that Labor Center courses have had on the lives of working people all across the state. By attending the center’s short-courses, working men and women have had a chance to step back from their day-to-day work lives and reflect on issues essential to their health and safety, to the strength and vitality of their unions, their rights as citizens and union members, and the history of working people like themselves in this state and nationally.

If the university means what it has said about the importance of “engagement” and service to the people of Iowa, then it must recognize the centrality of the Labor Center’s work to that mission.

But the university claims it is the center’s contribution to the core educational mission of the university that is the fundamental issue at stake. I know from firsthand experience how vital the center has been and continues to be to that educational mission — the instruction of undergraduate and graduate students. What bears stressing is that the Labor Center, directly through its own staff and indirectly through the teaching efforts of faculty members such as me, has contributed significantly to undergraduate and graduate instruction.

As one example, the center, together with the Iowa Federation of Labor, collected more than 1,200 oral histories of Iowa workers that represent a treasure trove of documentation about Iowa history that is without peer nationally. I have introduced hundreds and, with faculty members in other departments and Labor Center staff, thousands of students to the rich learning opportunities that the oral histories and the attendant documentary collections that accompany them offer.

A volume of those oral histories that I edited, Solidarity and Survival: An Oral History of Iowa Labor in the Twentieth Century (UI Press, 1993) has been taught in countless undergraduate courses, as well as short courses for trade unionists. Students themselves have not only used the material for their research projects but have in turn conducted their own oral histories of parents, coworkers, and other community members, using the collection as a model. But beyond history, faculty members and graduate instructors have drawn on Labor Center expertise in public health, medicine, law, and education to enrich the curriculum for undergraduates, and, yes, promote state economic development that values the skills and promotes the well-being of workers.

To suggest that the Labor Center serves no core educational function of the university reflects either willful ignorance or cynicism. The boundaries between the Labor Center’s contribution to the university’s core teaching mission and its civic engagement work are porous. They cannot be separated. To lose the Labor Center would not only impoverish the learning opportunities for the children of Iowans who come to the university as undergraduates but also for their parents, including the adult workers who attend the center’s short courses. Its contribution to the core missions of the university — undergraduate instruction and civic engagement — are vital and must be preserved.

It is time for university administrators to do their jobs. Find the money to sustain this vital program. It is a miniscule part of the overall university budget. This decision makes a mockery of the university’s commitment to the people of Iowa.

Let’s get beyond saving university administrators’ face over a misguided decision. It is certainly possible for this decision to be reversed. I urge them to do so before more damage is done to the university’s reputation.

— Professor Emeritus Shelton Stromquist, UI History Department

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