The Future of the Academic Work Force

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Image: John W. Tomac For The Chronicle

It’s been a rough summer for the nearly four million people who work at colleges. The coronavirus pandemic has pummeled budgets, leading to hiring freezes, furloughs, layoffs, and uncertainty about what’s next. How bad is it? The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the sector has shed tens of thousands of jobs since February.

Among other consequences, the turmoil has heightened distrust between administrators and faculty and staff members, a fraught relationship even in the best of times. In the view of some faculty members, anti-intellectual administrative bean counters are using the pandemic as an excuse to enact changes the faculty has long resisted. Some administrators, on the other hand, feel that they are in survival mode, scrambling to keep their institutions afloat in unprecedented circumstances. In their view, the faculty has revealed itself once again as clueless when it comes to the economic realities of running an institution of higher learning.

Heading into a fall in which the pandemic shows no signs of abating, we asked administrators, professors, grad students, and university staff to peer around the corner and speculate about how the coronavirus will change the academic work force. What has the pandemic revealed about the campus workplace — and how will that change it going forward? What jobs will be most in demand? Which roles are most imperiled? What sort of shared governance will survive the pandemic? When this is all over, what should the composition of university work forces look like?

A Lodestar for the Future

When rebuilding, we must do better.

By Carolyn M. Dever

I write this from a place of grief and fury. As Covid-19-related deaths in the U.S. stairstep gruesomely to the next round number — 200,000 at the time of this writing — with no end in sight, we doomscroll through images of loss and reports of the criminal failures of leadership that have claimed lives and livelihoods, childhoods and futures. Betrayals of trust and hope have brought us to this terrible fall of 2020.

By definition, higher education looks toward the future. To devote oneself to learners of all types and ages is inherently hopeful, optimistic. Our ideas, theories, scientific and humanistic discoveries — all stake a claim to tomorrow. Call it progress: Our work harvests the raw ingredients of what’s next.

The pandemic has crushed this orientation on almost every level. And it has done so in a way that threatens to pit us against one another in the name of institutional survival. Make no mistake: The financial crisis that administrators face right now is formidable in every case, and existential in many. Even before the coronavirus upended the business of learning and discovery, we were facing an unprecedented public mistrust of universities — and of the very concept of expertise for which we stand. Now, twin public-health and financial crises have upended every aspect of our work.

At a moment like this, it would be no surprise if faculty and administrators were to turn our dismay and distrust toward one another. But there is something unique at the heart of academic culture, and it has to do with giving a damn — as a matter of professional identity — about the future.

Perhaps that principled commitment to the future can re-emerge as a lodestar for the culture we choose to build now, and for how we choose to build it. The pandemic has exposed dehumanizing practices throughout our society. We must not be tricked into perpetuating those practices within our institutions.

I write this in memory of my father, who died on July 22, 2020, from complications of Covid-19. Dad was not an academic, but he understood to his core the importance of education to a hopeful future.

Carolyn M. Dever is a professor of English and creative writing at Dartmouth College, where she was formerly provost.

A Logic of Disposability

Universities are not islands of ideas.

By Zach Schwartz-Weinstein

Forty-nine years ago, during a particularly long and bitter strike of food-service, maintenance, and custodial workers at Yale, the legendary 1960s and ’70s labor leader Vincent Sirabella dismissed the university administration’s famed liberalism as belying the brutally exploitative nature of its HR practices. “Yale’s alleged concern for the poor of New Haven is a farce,” Sirabella proclaimed at a strike rally. “The employees of the university are the working poor of this city.”

Sirabella wasn’t just excoriating the deep hypocrisy at the core of President Kingman Brewster of Yale’s vaunted liberalism; he was also making a point about how the university’s racialized, blue-collar service work force was embedded in a larger system of exploitation and control. That point is one we would do well to remember now.

Universities are not free-floating agglomerations of ideas or marketplaces of free exchange. Rather, they are fully enmeshed in circuits of capital accumulation that have never not been organized by race. Food-service and clerical and maintenance and custodial and medical workers are as central to the university’s core project as faculty, students, and administrators. If these employees are (still) the working poor of the city, then we can understand universities’ cavalier attitudes toward employees’ survival to reflect a hierarchy of disposability, with university workers and the communities where they live at the bottom.

That logic of disposability has never been more starkly visible than in the time of Covid-19. The current moment is not an exception to universities’ long histories of complicity with racial capitalism, but their product. That means that a return to normalcy is neither possible nor desirable. But it also means that there is a rich history of struggle within, against, and beyond the university for us to build on and learn from.

Zach Schwartz-Weinstein is a historian of university labor. He is a member of the Abolitionist University Studies Collective and an adjunct teaching professor in upstate New York.

A Breakdown of Trust

Administrators must stop imitating CEOs.

By Rafael Walker

Shared tragedy either sutures communities or sunders them. If you have been reading The Chronicle, you’ve probably witnessed the widening fissures as faculty have deprecated their administrators’ responses to Covid-19 and the serial murders of Black Americans. While some bemoan their institutions’ incapacity to adapt to an altered status quo (one that renders dorms and classrooms lethal), others lament those same institutions’ unwillingness to reject an iniquitous status quo (one that abets systemic racism).

One recurring question, especially at elite institutions, has concerned spending. People have been justifiably puzzled by the drastic cost-saving measures taken despite multibillion-dollar endowments — nest eggs that leaders guard like dragons atop the hoard. The questions surrounding university endowments have inspired spoof after spoof—from parodic letters to GIFs of MC Hammer dancing to his classic “U Can’t Touch This.”

How, many have wondered, can academic leaders justify sweeping layoffs — which entail the loss not only of income but also of health benefits — during a pandemic? I have watched this drama unfold at my own institution, the City University of New York, a multicampus system that has long been lauded for its track record of propelling students from the least-advantaged backgrounds into the middle class. At the beginning of July, the president of our union notified us that the union had filed a lawsuit against CUNY in an attempt to halt a suspected wave of layoffs threatening nearly 3,000 employees, potentially leaving more than 400 employees without health insurance — in the city hardest hit by Covid-19, no less. Here the twin evils of the year, the pandemic and racial injustice, converge: On the one hand, scores of academic employees face being left even more vulnerable to illness while, on the other, Black and Brown students could see one of their greatest avenues to economic prosperity gutted.

Almost a month later, our chancellor wrote to explain that they had been postponing a final vote on the budget until it was clear whether or not more federal aid would come, and this is why they had not yet made any commitments to jeopardized staff and contingent faculty. This made sense. But why had this explanation not come sooner? Why had the chancellor not gotten ahead of the union and communicated these sensible plans as soon as they were made? Why the utter lack of transparency? It savored of the sort of response that we’ve come to expect of private-sector executives.

If we are ever to restore trust between faculty and administrators, the latter must stop imitating CEOs. They must commit, not just in word but in deed, to transparency and open communication, not the obliquity and opacity we have all witnessed during this pandemic. For what will become of a society whose colleges — its centers of knowledge production and dissemination — refuse openness and honesty? A world that would make the year 2020 look like an episode of The Wonder Years.

Rafael Walker is an assistant professor of American and African American literature at Baruch College of the City University of New York.

The Faculty Needs to Get on Board

Change is coming to higher education, and standing in the way is a poor strategy.

By Donald E. Heller

One thing that’s clear is that if the pandemic goes on much longer, many colleges will soon be fighting for their survival. Faculty members need to understand that this may require drastic measures, many of which have rarely been seen in higher education in recent memory — a large reduction in the size of faculty and staff, a winnowing of academic programs, and a permanent transition from in-person instruction to online and hybrid.

The role of faculty members in helping to manage these changes is not just to resist the actions of administrators responding to financial peril. Instead, they need to be involved in designing and delivering academic programs that are consistent with the institution’s mission while taking into account the new financial constraints. A faculty that is unwilling to recognize these constraints and espouses the attitude of, “We know there’s enough money there, the administrators are just hiding it for expediency’s sake,” is a faculty that is derelict in its duties and by default will transfer the bulk of its authority to the administration.

I’m still optimistic about the state of higher education post-pandemic, but it is going to take active work on the part of all parties to survive. No group can afford to sit on the sidelines.

Donald E. Heller is vice president for operations and a professor of education at the University of San Francisco.

A Grim Future Beckons

The pandemic will bring capitalism to the heart of academe, hollowing it out in the process.

By Adrianna Kezar

The pre-pandemic gig economy made it acceptable, to administrators at least, to render faculty, postdocs, graduate students, and staff increasingly contingent, changes that have resulted in a “gig academy.” In managementspeak, academic workers have been “deprofessionalized” and “unbundled.” The pandemic will only make matters worse.

First, there will be increased adjunctification. When financial hardships hit higher education, campus leaders have traditionally responded by boosting reliance on their most flexible employees. Semester-to-semester appointments with no benefits are a cost-effective short-term option for administrators uncertain of what the fall and spring will look like.

Second, we will see increased entrepreneurship. Contingent research faculty are growing in number. At the same time, campuses will very likely be dipping into indirect funds in an attempt to make up for budget shortfalls. This means that funds intended to support campus facilities and infrastructure will be unavailable. All faculty will be encouraged to support their salaries — not just through research, but via training grants and applications of all types. The number of postdocs will grow — they provide cheap labor and can pad department budgets through research.

Third, and perhaps most obviously, there will be cuts that offload expenses onto employees. As most academic labor is now happening from home, colleges will see what campus-based expenses they can cut. Do faculty really need to have their own offices? Why not shared office spaces or no office space at all? Can office supplies like printers and copiers be done away with? What about landscaping, cleaning, and building maintenance?

Finally, automation and technology will become central to the academic experience. As colleges shift courses online, recording and repackaging lectures will prove irresistible. Content-delivery and learning-management systems will flatten the classroom experience, prioritizing efficiency and evaluation over a professor’s personal approach to lecturing or a student’s individual approach to learning.

The costs of these four trends will be severe. Colleges will face reduced student success, reduced learning, the de facto destruction of the campus community, the lowering of already poor staff and faculty morale, and a decline in academic freedom and shared governance.

But this grim future can be avoided. Faculty, staff, postdocs, graduate students, and administrative and tenure-track allies must work together to preserve what is best in higher education. Maybe, just maybe, the pandemic will provide our troubles with enough visibility and generate enough collective action to counter these devastating trends.

Adrianna Kezar is a professor of higher education at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education. She is a co-author of The Gig Academy: Mapping Labor in the Neoliberal University (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019).

We Need Each Other More Than Ever

A terrible crisis is an opportunity to strengthen shared governance.

By Steven C. Bahls

One of the most common phrases I hear these days among higher-education leaders is “never waste a good crisis.” This often means that a crisis can provide cover so that “we,” the administration, can do things with fewer objections from “them,” the faculty. The excuse usually given is that a crisis requires prompt and aggressive responses, which must not be hampered by shared governance.

In my 30 years in higher-education administration, I’ve learned that the most thoughtful, not the speediest, response is usually best. But this spring reminded me of the need for nimbleness.

The Covid-19 crisis turned our greatest asset — a small residential campus where we live, study, and play in close quarters — into our greatest liability. There was no playbook to guide our response, no consultant to present us with a silver bullet. Creative solutions needed to be driven by our resources at hand.

With the support of the administration, we established a new group of strategic leaders by drawing on our relatively few faculty members with expertise in distance learning and in public health. In two weeks, we went from having almost no distance learning to being 100-percent online. It was almost magical.

But could this magic be sustained? We knew that, without a continued commitment to shared governance, good will could dissipate as the difficult realities of a prolonged crisis set in over the summer.

So we doubled down on shared governance. We held more frequent and more candid community meetings. We created more opportunities for joint problem-solving than in any other period during my 17-year presidency. We worked hard to build trust, and to recognize that we all react to ambiguity and stress differently.

This crisis is not an excuse to neglect shared governance. What Covid-19 should teach us is that we need each other’s expertise more than ever.

Steven C. Bahls is president of Augustana College, in Rock Island, Ill.

‘Wait This Thing Out’

Temporary increases in community-college enrollment belie a grim reality.

By Salita Seibert

In April and May, as the pandemic raged, community-college administrators were grimly holding out hope for a boost in enrollment. That hope was not entirely unfounded. It’s true that community colleges have suffered from the same decline in recent years as their four-year counterparts. But with Covid-19 wreaking havoc across the higher-ed landscape, with everyone scrambling to plan for a deeply uncertain fall semester, and with an accompanying economic crisis potentially pushing students (and parents) to look for less expensive options to continue their studies, community colleges appeared to be a lifeline.

There is some evidence to back up a predicted jump in enrollments, even if it’s only a temporary one. In the past, during periods of economic recession, community colleges have seen spikes in enrollment, especially among older students. This was certainly the case after the 2008-9 recession, with community-college enrollments peaking in 2010. A lot has changed in the past decade, though: Enrollments have declined every year, and the kind of emergency federal aid community colleges received in 2009 does not appear to be forthcoming from the Trump administration. Instead, the community colleges that survive this mess are likely to do so by slashing programs, cutting contingent faculty, and shrinking administrative staff.

While there might be a temporary jump in community-college enrollments this year, it’s likely that students will become quickly dissatisfied with what they find there. Because of pandemic-related cuts, they will have fewer choices in course offerings, academic majors, and trade programs. Colleges will almost certainly cut community noncredit courses, which use campus resources with less immediate “return.” Because safety measures call for as many college courses and course-related tasks as possible to take place online, there will be fewer trade programs, which require in-person instruction, for students. Programs that draw low-income students who qualify for special programs will suffer as a result of reduced federal financial aid.

Everyone will be affected by these negative trends: As departments are cut or downsized, for instance, the administrative staff who still have jobs will probably be asked to juggle duties at multiple campuses and across multiple departments or offices. But it will be contingent faculty who are going to feel the squeeze the most — if they’re not pushed out of the academy entirely. Four-year and two-year institutions have canceled job searches and will continue hiring freezes indefinitely in the face of declining enrollment. Thus, the ranks of adjunct faculty at community colleges and elsewhere will swell as an even greater score of surplus scholars competes for an even smaller pool of academic jobs. As they always do, employers will take this opportunity to harness a “skills gap” narrative that allows them to push more burdens and costs on employment-seeking adjuncts. In the face of burgeoning competition for temporary low-paying positions, contingent faculty will need to have experience and possibly credentialing in remote instruction and a range of digital platforms (which they’ll be expected to secure on their own dime, without any promise that doing so will actually lead to a job).

In many ways, this will be the culmination of trends that have hammered community colleges for years — and that the pandemic has only accelerated. Barring drastic action, the future of community colleges paints a grim picture.

Salita Seibert is an adjunct professor at the Community College of Allegheny County, in Pennsylvania.

Extinction Event

Outbreak after outbreak, from coast to coast.

By Michael Bérubé

In my eight years in the University Faculty Senate at Penn State, and especially during my three years as a Senate officer, I learned that shared governance is not just a matter of dealings between faculty and central administration. Those are critical, yes, and ours were largely productive; but every once in while a new policy would drop from someplace else —the Office of Risk Management, Human Resources, the Office of the General Counsel—and we would say wait, what is this? And why weren’t we involved in the drafting of it? And then we would convene with people in those offices to fix whatever needed fixing. Most things got fixed.

Last year, I was pretty sanguine about shared governance. Now I am not. At all too many institutions, it is already gone, and who knows if it will recover when the pandemic recedes?

The philosophy professor Daniel Star summed it up nicely. There is, he wrote, “a crisis at the heart of higher education in the United States — both in terms of the way the apparent preferences of students were given so much more weight than concerns about faculty well-being when plans for the fall were drawn up,” and in the way “our institutions turned their backs on the ideal of faculty governance when it came to the process of arriving at those plans.” At Boston University, where Star teaches, the situation is especially bad. But BU is not alone.

I was initially ambivalent about face-to-face instruction this fall, largely because of the Senate’s virtual visit to our College of Arts and Architecture last spring — when we were told by faculty and students alike that the college’s prospects, especially in the performing arts, would very likely depend on the return to residential instruction. Faculty also expressed concern for their LGBTQ students who were closeted at home and sought refuge in the safer space of campus.

But back in April, we dared not imagine how badly the United States would respond to the pandemic over the summer. Now we are probably looking at a few weeks of residential instruction, with socially distant classes in, say, musical theater or physical therapy that will be grotesque parodies of business as usual, followed by outbreak after outbreak from coast to coast.

Students, faculty, and staff will get sick, and some will die. (One of our students, Juan Garcia, died in July.) Everyone will be sent home (again). Students and parents will be mightily pissed off. University finances will be a disaster. Institutions will declare financial exigency; some have already set aside the relevant provisions for layoffs and closures in their handbooks, citing force majeure. And at many places, faculty will have had no meaningful opportunity to argue that the whole semester — perhaps the whole year — should have gone online the moment we realized that the national response was exacerbating rather than mitigating the spread of the virus. That moment passed months ago. But too many administrators, trustees, and legislators persisted in the collective fantasy that we could reopen safely.

I am not sure how we recover from this. It is looking more and more like an extinction event.

Michael Bérubé is a professor of English at Pennsylvania State University.

Uncanny Valley

Most students need residential college.

By Nancy S. Niemi

The pandemic has given rise to increasing disdain for public higher education. The refrain can be paraphrased this way: “Now that we see that all content can be successfully delivered via a screen, why should we — why should anyone — pay for classrooms, landscaping, bookstores, residence halls, or basketball courts? Forget the labs, lounges, and offices, copiers, couches, and cafeterias. All students and teachers really need is a computer and the internet.”

Such critiques come from two sides. On one side are those who dismiss higher education’s power to offer knowledge, skills, and opportunities to those who have previously been denied it. On the other are those who have the resources to get what higher education offers in the way of connections, networks, and knowledge without needing a campus and help navigating it. Those who argue that online learning demonstrates the obsolescence of residential higher education are claiming that the majority of American citizens, post-high school, are no longer worthy of investment.

Many students and teachers are already experiencing “Zoom fatigue,” weary from constant remote interactions via a screen. I wonder if this fatigue will become a kind of uncanny valley — that sense of unease people experience when they encounter an almost-but-not-quite-real human replica. Will these almost-lifelike educational experiences come to be considered “good enough” for students who also have full-time jobs, for first-generation learners, for the Black and Brown students who attend my university? Will the public no longer pay for the structures — the public residential colleges — that legitimately house their hope?

Nancy S. Niemi is provost and vice president for academic affairs at the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore.

Uniting for Self-Preservation

The pandemic makes faculty/administration jousting irrelevant.

By Gabriel Paquette

Many colleges lived dangerously before the Covid-19 cataclysm. They grappled with dwindling numbers of international students and a shrinking pool of domestic applicants. Rising costs and student-debt levels already posed an existential threat. And some lethargic brick-and-mortar institutions were haunted by the specter of competition from high-quality, online upstarts.

Long-term viability was at risk in those comparatively good times. Now cuts loom and restructuring beckons. How will significant generational decisions be made? Are current approaches to and mechanisms of shared governance adequate?

Shared governance is undermined by a jejune “us vs. them” mentality that presumes irreconcilable differences and perpetual strife between faculty and administrators. But “faculty” and “administrators” are broad categories that mask myriad divergent interests. Those who derive the greatest benefits from the status quo tend to resist change. When the survival of the college itself is at stake, however, habitual wrangling and ritualistic jousting are rendered irrelevant.

In A Theory of Justice, John Rawls proposed that fairness in decision-making necessitated imagining oneself behind a “veil of ignorance.” Each person would be stripped of knowledge of the interests and values reflective of and informed by his or her gender, age, race, religion, economic status, and so forth. What university-level decisions would be considered fair if all employees found themselves in Rawls’s “original position,” unable to anticipate the personal impact based on their particular attributes, traits, and identities?

This is not a theoretical exercise. Institutional mergers, program consolidations, department closures, and systemic reorganization and reprioritization are on the horizon. The old proposed solutions often trotted out — cutting athletics or freezing salaries — are risibly insufficient. The mutual recognition of commitment to the mission of higher education, one of the present predicament’s few silver linings, must spur a renaissance of shared governance.

Gabriel Paquette is a professor of history and vice provost for academic affairs at the University of Oregon.

The Dismantling of the World’s Best Knowledge-Production System

Short-term needs risk ruining what was built over decades.

By Johann N. Neem

After World War II, thanks to state and federal investment, the United States built the world’s best system for knowledge production. At the center of this system were tenured professors, whose teaching and research contributed to our civic well-being, economic vitality, public health, and national security. This took time and money, and depended on our collective willingness to invest in higher education over the long term.

Now this system is at risk of coming undone.

Even before the pandemic, America saw declining per-student state funding and the expansion of contingent faculty. Institutions across the nation were struggling, as Robert Zemsky, Susan Shaman, and Susan Campbell Baldridge conclude in their recent book, The College Stress Test.

But the pandemic is a much more extreme crisis for colleges. Because so many colleges are dependent on tuition, if students choose not to pay, and if state governments and emergency federal support come up short, many colleges may close, and many others will lay off professors. This will weaken the American academy as a whole — even the institutions that survive.

Administrators and policy makers will be tempted to use the pandemic as an excuse to “reform” (read: undermine) professors’ capacity to produce knowledge. This could include everything from moving instruction online to closing departments to weakening tenure to embracing the “disaggregated faculty model” offered by some online institutions.

The revenue crisis for colleges is real. Every institution that is forced to move online offers an inferior education for students. And every student who drops out or chooses not to enroll is a missed opportunity. If federal aid is not offered to sustain university budgets, short-term needs will undermine several generations’ worth of investment in our country’s knowledge-production infrastructure.

We might be witnessing the dismantling of the world’s best knowledge-production system. We need to bail out our colleges immediately, and then reinvest in them over the coming decades. If we do not, the countries that do invest in higher education will soon outpace us.

Johann N. Neem is the author of What’s the Point of College? Seeking Purpose in an Age of Reform. He is a professor of history at Western Washington University.

Putting the Community Back in Community College

They sit atop some of our society’s deepest fault lines.

By Antonio Ramirez and Karen Miller

Community colleges sit on the fault lines of some of our society’s most fraught contradictions. We teach at Hispanic-serving Institutions with majority Bipoc (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) students, and large numbers of first-generation, undocumented, low-income, and older learners. Our students, many with little to no accumulated wealth, live in a society with a thin social safety net in an aggressive and racist carceral state. They attend community college, many of them, to pursue the promise of economic stability and upward mobility that higher education has traditionally stood for.

But the fact remains that, too often, the very social inequalities and injustices that students are trying to escape make it exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to do so. Many are unable to complete classes or degrees because they face insecurities external to their education. The pandemic has mightily exacerbated the conditions — rooted in long histories of racial and class oppression — that have made such insecurity a permanent fact of life for so many. Students’ educations have been disrupted and, for some, the coronavirus has threatened their survival.

What does/should this mean for all of us — faculty, staff, administrators — who work at these institutions? As we collectively contemplate “the ways in which the coronavirus will change the academic work force,” we cannot disentangle that task from the fact that such changes will necessarily shape and be shaped by changes in the lives of those we’re here to serve. And it goes without saying that the ways we support — or don’t — the workers who are trying to fulfill the core mission of community colleges will have immediate and long-term effects on students who already have the deck stacked against them.

While the pandemic has provided us serious challenges, as full-time faculty we are fortunate enough to enjoy good salaries, secure work, and reliable housing during the pandemic. This is not true for all campus workers. Community colleges are highly stratified workplaces — professional protections and privileges are not equitably distributed here.

Amid this generation’s worst economic and health crises, union representatives have informed us that many adjunct faculty are losing their jobs and health care (if they even had health coverage in the first place). Other staff, unionized or not, are also vulnerable. The workers who clean the bathrooms, empty the trash, provide security, process paperwork — all are worried about job security and making ends meet. These are the people who make our campuses run; there is no way to “save” community colleges, and no way to serve our already underserved students, without them. Functionally speaking, a future without these essential parts of the community-college work force is a future in which community colleges exist in name only.

Arundhati Roy says this pandemic is a portal. We can choose to drag our old world and its contradictions through it into the future. Or we can “walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.” Now is the moment to fight for community colleges that recognize the essentialness, and essential interconnectedness, of all segments of their work forces, and that reflect this concretely in the distribution of pay, protections, and participation in institutional governance.

Community colleges pledge to be of, and for, the community. Now is the time to live up to that promise. Administrators will say fiscal realities make these dreams impossible. To that, we say: If we don’t fight for this now, it is the community college itself that will become impossible.

Antonio Ramirez is an assistant professor at Elgin Community College, in Illinois. Karen Miller is a professor of history at the City University of New York’s LaGuardia Community College, in Queens, N.Y.

 

Controlling the Narrative

We’re asking the wrong people what to do.

By Briana Mohan

As the higher-ed system collapses in front of our eyes, many discussions about the short- and long-term survival of colleges have centered on the views of administrators, faculty, and, to some extent, undergraduate students. However, whatever plans institutions come up with, the fact is they will largely depend on members of the higher-ed work force — primarily staff members, graduate students, and postdoctoral fellows — who typically have less visibility and influence within our institutions. Even now, as upper-level administrators baldly admit their willingness to let our lives and jobs become collateral damage as they manage their way through the Covid-19 pandemic, we struggle to have our voices heard.

Many of us keep coming back to versions of the same questions: “Why am I being asked to risk my life and the lives of the people around me just to keep my job or continue my education? What can I possibly do about this crazy, horrible, impossible situation?” More than anything, it’s suddenly starkly clear how little recourse we actually have. Still, there are multiple battles going on at once — some we can intervene in more than others.

Much of the current moment is about controlling the narrative. Right now, for instance, there is a lot of rhetoric around our individual agency and the choices each of us can make to navigate this crisis, focusing on the minutiae of classroom capacities, wearing masks, social distancing in dorms and around campus, testing, tracing, reporting, quarantining, disinfecting, etc. However, precious little attention has been paid to how meaningless these choices often are in the larger scheme of things (the harried race to reverse reopening plans at colleges around the country is a case in point). We also know that none of the additional work we are doing, stress we are managing, or feigned optimism we are tolerating will gain us anything substantial in either the short or the long term. We know that, in the end, many will still be laid off, many will get sick, some will die — and that all these harms will fall disproportionately on some more than others.

We also know that we would be in a very different place if we were engaging questions like: “What are the members of our community saying they need — and who are we not hearing from?” Or: “How can we put the people who are most affected by what is happening in charge of making important decisions?”

As the new academic year gets underway, these are the kinds of questions that need to be asked and answered, and these questions need to inform our struggles over the narrative of the future of higher education. Because people — our lives, needs, concerns, and experiences — are not secondary concerns here. We are crucial, human parts of the education and research that are at the heart of higher education, and we are critical to the possibilities for making its future far better than its present.

Briana Mohan is a graduate and postdoc career adviser at Tulane University.

The Pandemic Conjuncture

A moment of protest — and hope?

By Heather Steffen

A core method in my discipline, cultural studies, is conjunctural analysis, an approach honed by Stuart Hall and inspired by Antonio Gramsci. A conjuncture is a historical moment in which the structuring contradictions of social, economic, and political relations are brought into relief and opened to change by an ephemeral yet socially significant set of circumstances. The unique aspects of the pandemic conjuncture — risk of illness and death, supply-chain disruptions, rising governmental corruption and authoritarianism, a looming recession, and protests against police killings of Black men and women — evidence the heavy toll of our society’s longstanding comfort with systemic racism, inhumane labor conditions, lack of access to medical care, and educational inequalities.

As we see in today’s protests and refusals to return to the old, bad normal, however, conjunctures are also “perhaps the most effective site for redirecting the tides of social change,” as Lawrence Grossberg put it. It is imperative that we, as academic workers, contest aspects of pandemic life that seductively offer cheaper, more efficient higher-education options at the expense of vulnerable campus workers and students.

What hope lies in this pandemic conjuncture derives from the ways it has defamiliarized many scholar-teachers’ everyday working lives. Despite exhaustion and stress, academic workers are calling out and rejecting the normalized toxicity of competitive, abusive, and exploitative academic work environments. For unemployed scholar-teachers like me, the pressure to hunt for academic jobs while developing alternate career plans has lifted a little in light of hiring freezes and shutdowns, offering a break from colleagues’ high expectations and space to imagine novel modes of scholarly engagement and making a living.

The boundary between “real scholars” and the academically adjacent feels a little more porous now, a little less harsh. Unemployment after a series of contingent academic positions feels less like failure and more like an opportunity to rethink my motivations for research and writing and to enact solidarity with fellow workers — who, even in this conjuncture, are taking the risk of hope.

Heather Steffen is an affiliate scholar at the Rutgers University Center for Cultural Analysis.

A Seat at the Table

A union finds strength in a right-to-work state.

By David Nickel

As a worker in facilities at the University of Georgia, I don’t feel safe here. Since March I have seen and heard — and have myself been the victim of — a pattern of poor leadership, an absence of transparency, and a general lack of basic empathy from facilities management.

At this point management is not informing individual shops of positive cases, nor is it telling us if people are out because they were directly exposed to the virus. There are people in my shop who flaunt the fact that they refuse to wear a mask. Do they face any repercussions? No. I, however, have been targeted and harassed for voicing my concerns about safety on campus. I feel at risk all day, everyday — and I’m punished for saying so.

Facilities management has stated that, even if you know for sure that you have been exposed to Covid-19, you should not self-quarantine or get tested unless you show symptoms. The “logic” of this policy goes against everything we know about Covid-19, and it’s dangerous. This is negligence, plain and simple.

Not only do these lackluster protocols for dealing with the crisis show the full scope of the university facilities’ lack of a comprehensive plan to keep us and everyone else on campus safe; they also peel back the Band-Aid that has been covering up an advanced state of bureaucratic rot. Nearly every shop in the facilities system is understaffed, and has been for some time. Yet the management structure gets more bloated by the year. This has left those at the top completely disconnected from day-to-day operations, and woefully out of touch with those they pretend to manage. This is a major problem for the present and future of our side of the higher-ed work force.

But the crisis has also given rise to unexpectedly positive developments for the university as a whole. I have been a member of the United Campus Workers UGA chapter for more than two years. The chapter is a “wall to wall” union, which means that our membership is open to anyone who receives a paycheck from the University System of Georgia, from facilities and clerical staffers to faculty members and graduate students. While our segments of the campus work force don’t always face the same struggles or share aspirations, this pandemic has made us brothers and sisters in arms, a bulkhead against an institution that cannot even connect with staff and faculty members anymore with a straight face.

Staff, faculty, graduate students — all of us are weathering this pandemic the best we can. We have formed an alliance against systemic wage discrimination. We have held strong under pressures we did not know we could withstand, pressures from the administration and from forces outside the university. And above all, we have formed the kind of bonds and friendships that have made all that possible.

These newfound bonds will continue long after this crisis is over. Georgia may be a “right to work” state, and it’s true (to some extent) that unions are perceived as not having much influence here, but no one can deny that our strength in numbers, solidarity, and resolve has led to recent changes on campus. We will have our seat at the table. It’s only a matter of time.

David Nickel works in the University of Georgia Facilities Management Division.

Uber University

Enjoy your side hustle!

By Mia McIver

In the Covid-19 university, revenue flows to instructional-design platforms (course-management, videoconferencing, proctoring, and plagiarism-detection systems) and away from the people who actually deliver instruction — management-speak for “teaching.” In this, the Covid-19 university is remarkably similar to Uber and Lyft, which cynically claim to be mere technology platforms, neutral intermediaries for enterprising independent contractors who supposedly conduct the real business of transportation. The platform exists to disguise exploitation as opportunity: Enjoy the flexibility of a side hustle!

Now more than ever, universities are in danger of capitulating to a similar model. More and more students will be crammed into fewer and fewer classes, shared governance will be little more than an instrument of managerial discipline, fewer unionized public-sector jobs will be available to the Black and Latinx middle class, and labor-relations executives will flourish and multiply, insulating the academics who have ceded their power to the union-busters.

As of this writing, the University of California has de factolaid off nearly 2,500 contingent teaching-faculty members by failing to renew their contracts. The contracts were built to expire, shielding university management from any obligations to the workers they have casually tossed away. They shortchange highly qualified scholars and suppress labor disruption. Online-learning platforms also quell unrest through intrusive tracking and surveillance. Withholding academic labor is more challenging when the fruits of that labor are readily available to administrators on the platform.

University administrators aren’t shy about admitting it: “The university enjoys flexibility in hiring [contingent faculty], and we are not going to easily give it up,” said the UC president’s lead negotiator at a recent bargaining session. Flexibility: the ultimate platform byword. The only future for the academic work force lies in organizing confrontations and interventions that challenge the university’s Uberfication.

Mia McIver is president of the University Council-American Federation of Teachers.

 

Let Us Put Aside Old Ideas

Minority and contingent faculty members deserve better.

By Leslie D. Gonzales

Naomi Klein recently warned that “the ideas lying around” during a crisis become the fuel for action. Too many of the ideas lying around higher education perpetuate racial inequities.

Consider the demographic landscape of the academic work force. The most senior, secure, powerful, and well-paid positions tend to be held by white men, followed by white women. However, the vast majority of faculty members work in contingent positions, where members of minority groups, especially women of color, are concentrated. A recent study found that a quarter of part-time contingent faculty members receive some form of public assistance. And, although tenure-track faculty members are more diverse than ever before, these scholars are subject to ever-increasing demands for productivity, leading to persistent stress and anxiety over their futures.

In view of this landscape, it’s clear that academic workers are experiencing the pandemic in wildly unequal ways. From the demand for “can-do” attitudes — anchored in assumptions about equal access to resources and space to work from home — to the adoption of tenure-extension policies as the solution to faculty-work challenges, universities seem concerned only about their most privileged employees. If higher education is genuinely interested in fostering a more just future, we must work our way through the pandemic with new ideas.

First, acknowledge that the academic work force is riddled with inequities that fall along racial and gender lines. Before applying pay cuts, examine institutional data to understand how different categories of faculty will be differently affected. Refuse to exacerbate inequities. Find another way.

Second, recognize racially minoritized faculty members as full human beings, not just workers requiring technocratic solutions (e.g., training, tenure extensions). Because of Covid-19’s disparate impact on communities of color, it is likely that faculty (and staff) members of color are not only navigating the stress of working from home but also coping with the loss of loved ones, and they should be supported accordingly. Contingent faculty are doing all of this with fewer resources. Center their needs and interests as you design support systems.

Third, because it is key to maintaining the diversity gains that have been made by tenure-track faculty, institutional leaders should work with academic leaders everywhere to broaden definitions of worthy work, with special attention to the kinds of scholarship that faculty members of color often take on (e.g., community engagement, public scholarship). This means fostering conversations about promotion expectations and working together to support future portfolios that may look different than portfolios of the past.

Covid-19 has laid bare the inequities within the academy. Let us put aside old ideas that serve only to perpetuate these disparities, and take up new ones grounded in equity, coalition, and humanity.

Leslie D. Gonzales is an associate professor in the Michigan State University College of Education.

Workers, Like Any Other

You can’t eat cultural capital.

By Shannon Ikebe

The present crisis, though vastly exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, is a culmination of the decades-long process of privatizing higher education. The vast majority of university courses are taught by contingent academic workers, with absurdly low pay and minimal job security. Even as university enrollment expanded and the demand for teachers grew, the prospect of a secure, permanent academic job diminished, though the ranks of administrators proliferated. Meanwhile, public disinvestment led to skyrocketing tuition and student debt. The pandemic has blown apart a system that was barely holding itself together.

The crisis has accentuated the need to guarantee livable wages and job security for all academic workers and to offer students affordable higher education without debt. It is not because academic labor is somehow special or uniquely worthy of privileges that we must make this demand; it is because academics are workers like any others in our society, no more special and no less worthy. After all, one cannot eat cultural capital.

Such a transformation requires an uprising by workers and students on campuses everywhere to demand a paradigm-shifting redistribution of material resources; no amount of rhetoric on diversity, accessibility, and justice would suffice. The monthslong graduate-worker wildcat strike at the University of California at Santa Cruz for a cost-of-living adjustment, or COLA, which began last December and spread across the UC system, offers a glimpse of what’s possible. The COLA strikers made demands based on what we, who make the university run, need to live. Even though this wildcat strike was disrupted by the pandemic, and its main demand has not yet been won, it offers a blueprint for actions on a wider scale to #spreadthestrike, as the Santa Cruz movement called for.

As society is plunged into a profound and worsening crisis, the scope of political action is expanding. Absent mass militancy, higher education offers an immiserated future for the majority of its workers and students. If we want a university for the many and not the few, it is time to take to the streets.

Shannon Ikebe is a Ph.D. student in sociology at the University of California at Berkeley.

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