Voices of Labor Day: Academia needs unions now more than ever


Like so many on campus, I was shocked by the recent Los Angeles Times investigation into Dr. Carmen Puliafito, the former dean of USC’s Keck School of Medicine.

The Times’ bombshell report outlining Puliafito’s behavior while at USC — from partying with prostitutes and criminals to his documented drug use in the dean’s office on campus — is troubling, to say the least. But even more upsetting has been the University’s response, or lack of.

Even after he stepped down as Keck dean after the overdose of a female companion in a Pasadena hotel room, Puliafito remained at the Keck School, treating patients and teaching students for well over a year after his substance abuse and dangerous behavior was reported to University leadership.

While University leaders continue to dispute the details of what they knew about Puliafito and when — with Provost Quick maintaining that “the first time we saw such information firsthand” was shortly after the Times report — the one thing that isn’t in dispute is Puliafito’s incredible fundraising ability.

And therein lies the problem.

By all accounts, Puliafito had a preternatural ability to fill University coffers with high dollar donations. And while Puliafito’s behavior and the University’s continued inaction represent what I hope is an extreme example, where a lack of accountability for those at the top carried potentially deadly consequences for faculty and students, the story itself illustrates a much more common truth in higher education: The money comes first.

To be clear, the prioritizing of fundraising goals over student and faculty needs runs contrary to our educational mission and undermines our credibility as an “elite” institution. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

In early 2016, I came together with colleagues from schools across the University to organize a faculty union at USC. And despite intense opposition from University administrators — including breaking federal labor law to discourage a union vote — we won our union election. In doing so, we won a real voice to advocate for our University’s mission and our students, and to fight back against the growing corporatization of higher education.

Already, we have exercised our collective power to hold University leadership accountable and prioritize student learning over University profits. We’ve fought to protect the integrity of our programs by prompting the resignation of an abusive director. We’ve won technology upgrades for our classrooms, ensuring that our students receive the best possible learning experience. And this is just the beginning.

As we enter our fall semester, unprecedented numbers of faculty and graduate students are organizing across campus to build a strong, diverse union that will hold our University accountable to its mission.

It’s simple, really. Strength in numbers gives us the power to advocate for our programs and the students we teach. It gives us the power to fight back against disturbing corporate trends in higher education. It gives us the power to demand transparency from University leaders when their inaction puts student and faculty lives in danger.

Academia needs strong unions, now more than ever. Join us.

Kazuya Shida is a Lecturer at the University of Southern California and a member of SEIU 721.


USC Faculty Forward Labor Day Video


In tomorrow’s final entry in the “Voices of Labor Day” series, SEIU 721 E-board member Sharonda Wade shares her story of growing up with humble beginnings and how having a position that’s supported by the Union has made all the difference for her family.