BY TIFFANY KRAFT
Guest blogger Tiffany Kraft is a former adjunct and present higher education activist and organizer with Faculty Forward Network.
For all special snowflakes who aren’t on the front lines with students and contingent faculty fighting for racial and economic justice in our nation’s colleges, universities, and communities, you may want to stop reading and stay in your safe places. I realize that too many people in the ivory tower appear content with the market failure by design that is higher education today, and any challenge to the status quo threatens that security. You’ve worked hard thus you are entitled to a big check with benefits, bonuses, perquisites, and a pension, even at the expense of many others who’ve made that possible.
Jokes aside—adjuncts, graduate assistants, and all contingent and marginalized campus workers work hard, too. Those who believe they are exempt from or unaffected by the low-road administration of higher ed ought to question their educational agency, ethos, and value to the students, not to the system. Get this right: students are not customers and this is their educational opportunity and experience. Education is a public good not a value proposition or a gravy train. While some colleges and ethical administrators get this, many more opt not to.
Instead of the administration and prioritization of mission driven, quality education and independent research, we’re seeing commercial secrecy of intellectual property, privatization, board seats filled with financiers, capital investment projects, and hedge fund schemes:
Despite their popularity, hedge funds have done a great deal to endanger endowments and weaken higher education in the United States. They charge astronomically high fees, while delivering poor returns, and engage in dangerous practices that increase the personal wealth of hedge fund managers while making college more expensive and four-year degrees less attainable for all but the very rich.
I’m not opposed to money making schemes that benefit the institution and quality of education, but hedge funds “have a pattern of investing endowment funds in problematic companies and industries that destabilize communities and environments across the globe—ranging from fossil fuels, private prisons and pharmaceuticals to foreclosed homes, student debt and for-profit universities,” and that is deeply troubling and at odds with the idea and mission of the university as a public not a political good. The rich are getting richer and schools appear to be a front for what Malcolm Gladwell calls: “the core money management business.” Enough is enough.
So why do institutions of higher learning recruit private equity CEOs as presidents who issue direct or implicit threats to students and faculty? In doing so, they’ve hijacked higher ed and spit on the mission to educate for freedom and success. And those letters, please just stop with the anti-union and behavioral conditioning missives. These letters don’t fool the students who see right through the power-over play.
Clearly, state disinvestment is a game changer, but until the public agenda is on track and ethical, state reinvestment seems unlikely; indeed, the Federal Government should strictly regulate all schools, too, not just the notoriously bad for-profits. However, if/when the bad actors are weeded out and replaced with public stewards who prioritize quality education that leads to student success, there is a strong public agenda argument that will likely appeal to State Legislators and Attorneys General. Indeed, Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, Chair of the Conference of Western Attorneys General (CWAG), hosted a national symposium on student debt, “Educational Debt – The Obligation of a Lifetime?” In an interview, AG Rosenblum told KOIN 6 news: “A start is to make sure universities are spending tuition on education and professors instead of recruiting students and advertising.” Student debt should not be an obligation of a lifetime, but the way things are now, it is.
Without doubt, the cumulative effect of the commodification of higher education is stupendous. For example, conscious complicity has crept into promotion and tenure advancement, which may lead to research bias; this is not only corrupt internally, but it harms greater society (“The Corporate Corruption of Academic Research”). And students? Most students (excluding the ultrawealthy and privileged) are faced with two options: a lifetime of debt for a degree or a precarious future working dead-end gigs. What’s worse? Either path is a crapshoot anymore with the way “plantation capitalism” has spread and is rigged to cater to the elite and maintain the wealth and value gap. Here’s something to try on, instead: stop pandering to the system and focus, rather, with integrity on solutions to fix the moral crisis that perpetuates inequality.
There are many ways faculty of all ranks can promote the quality not the degradation of education. For starters, they can speak out against the system and hold administration accountable for bad business practices that impact faculty, students, and society. If mass adjunctification isn’t discussed in every faculty meeting, that’s not an oversight, it’s an endemic problem that needs correction. Department chairs should also make a point to state that poor adjunct working conditions diminish the quality of education at every division meeting; tell management what they know, again: the problem is real and it isn’t going away.
Students, parents, and alums can play a significant role in structural change, too. I’ve seen this happen firsthand at Portland State University where the Portland State University Student Union “is a union of students at Portland State working to build autonomous student power in order to make our university treat its students sustainably.” PSUSU has the support of community activists who are working for economic and racial justice, too. PSUSU and its accomplices regularly attend PSU board of trustees meetings, making their issues public, including a $15 living wage for all student workers, cutting ties with Aramark, and the widely respected #DisarmPSU campaign for the demilitarization of the Campus Public Safety Office.
Students at Long Island University Brooklyn are also taking a stand against the faculty lockout that impacts the culture and quality of their education. Students deserve respect and freedom to test and challenge ideas, and this is vital to the university. Faculty and students should never be divided, and President Cline’s bullying tactics will backfire.
These are just two examples of student protest out of many, and we will likely see more student-led campaigns for justice as graduate students nationwide begin to organize now that “the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that teaching and research assistants at Columbia University and at other private institutions of higher education have the right to organize unions and collectively bargain with the universities that both employ and teach them.” This decision is a critical step forward for higher ed, and a stand against the assault that’s deprofessionalized it.
One last thing, administrators, please: no more segregated wine and cheese socials for adjuncts that are poorly attended and absurd gestures of appreciation anyway, given that most adjuncts stack multiple gigs and physically cannot show. If schools genuinely appreciated all faculty, they’d pay a professional wage and invite everyone to the same holiday party. As is, this is a business, I get it. Pay us what we’re worth and keep your cheese; this will save administrators the awkward tension of facing the truth when they make an appearance at these socials, too.
Students, adjuncts, janitors, and all poorly paid campus workers are the most forgiving and flexible people I’ve met; it’s foolish to believe that administrators will change course to redeem their integrity and reignite the mission without internal and external pressure and demands, but with a recognition and reversal of the market failure, anything is possible. I know that’s a concept they understand as they’ve driven the market value of academic labor into the dirt and walked all over us doing so. The administrators and others who defend this system are on the wrong side of history, and time will flesh this out.
Just look at the gutted University of Wisconsin system and the University of North Carolina system as indicators of leadership gone wrong for morally questionable reasons. Of course, the whole world watched as Long Island University, in an unprecedented blow to students, faculty, and the higher ed community, locked out its faculty over Labor Day weekend, cancelled their health insurance, and tweeted an absurd offer out. There is always a choice to do right, and in higher education the choice should be crystal clear: prioritize student outcomes and success over profits and unsustainable growth and investment schemes. Current day administrators and boards will leave a legacy alright, but for many the outlook is not pretty.