As Universities are Gutted, Grad Student Employee Unions Can Provide a Vital Defense

Sabeen Ahmed July 5, 2017

On the 2010 National Day of Action in Defense of Public Education, protesters marched against tuition hikes and layoffs that funded higher salaries for administrators. (Flickr, Fibonacci Blue)

The exploita­tion of aca­d­e­m­ic work­ers has sim­mered for decades. Now, buoyed by a Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board rul­ing that grad­u­ate employ­ees at pri­vate uni­ver­si­ties have the right to union­ize, a new gen­er­a­tion is orga­niz­ing unions across pri­vate uni­ver­si­ties — defy­ing a wave of push­back from admin­is­tra­tions. Some stu­dents win (Colum­bia, Loy­ola). Some with­draw (Duke). Some get caught in a lim­bo of uni­ver­si­ty appeals (Yale).

But all of these efforts are inte­gral to the U.S. labor move­ment, as grad­u­ate work­ers chal­lenge their own exploita­tion and the neolib­er­al dec­i­ma­tion of the high­er-edu­ca­tion insti­tu­tions that employ them.

I’m a grad­u­ate work­er at Van­der­bilt Uni­ver­si­ty and a mem­ber of the com­mit­tee orga­niz­ing to union­ize 1,200 grad­u­ate employ­ees. I attend grad­u­ate school out of a pas­sion for learn­ing, writ­ing and teach­ing young peo­ple. I came here to cri­tique West­ern intel­lec­tu­al his­to­ry by ana­lyz­ing social, eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal issues. These mat­ters impact my life and the lives of loved ones; they are not aca­d­e­m­ic hob­bies or intel­lec­tu­al fan­cies. Even lec­tur­ing is no mere aca­d­e­m­ic exer­cise: High­er edu­ca­tion is what fos­ters demo­c­ra­t­ic cit­i­zen­ship. It cul­ti­vates capac­i­ties for crit­i­cal self-reflec­tion, engage­ment in pub­lic dis­course and thought­ful par­tic­i­pa­tion in a rapid­ly chang­ing world. We need these pur­suits now more than ever.

I did not come to grad­u­ate school to spend thou­sands of dol­lars out-of- pock­et to ful­fill pro­fes­sion­al oblig­a­tions while watch­ing my insti­tu­tion insid­i­ous­ly cut fund­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties for fac­ul­ty and grad­u­ate work­ers. I did not come to grad­u­ate school to lis­ten to admin­is­tra­tors rebrand us as stu­dents gain­ing expe­ri­en­tial edu­ca­tion oppor­tu­ni­ties’ rather than as employ­ees teach­ing intro­duc­to­ry class­es, exe­cut­ing research pro­grams, or build­ing schol­ar­ly com­mu­ni­ties. Most impor­tant­ly, I did not come to grad­u­ate school to bol­ster a sys­tem that abus­es its work­ers, ignores aca­d­e­m­ic rig­or, over­looks sex­u­al harass­ment alle­ga­tions against dis­tin­guished (male) fac­ul­ty, engages in unlaw­ful labor prac­tices and dis­re­gards the needs of its staff and fac­ul­ty.

And yet, this sys­tem demands that I par­tic­i­pate by pro­vid­ing con­stant intel­lec­tu­al, phys­i­cal and emo­tion­al labor, despite min­i­mal job security.

Many schol­ars have already exposed the decline of edu­ca­tion and the poor labor con­di­tions of uni­ver­si­ty edu­ca­tors. In his 2011 The Fall of the Fac­ul­ty, Ben­jamin Gins­berg pub­lished a dev­as­tat­ing analy­sis of the decline of fac­ul­ty pow­er. More recent­ly, Eliz­a­beth Anderson’s 2015 Tan­ner Lec­tures at Prince­ton, pub­lished as Pri­vate Gov­ern­ment, chron­i­cled dic­ta­to­r­i­al employ­ment prac­tices. And last month, Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan dual-Ph.D. can­di­date Max­imil­lian Alvarez penned Con­tin­gent No More,” a man­i­festo crit­i­ciz­ing the lais­sez-fare aca­d­e­m­ic cul­ture that per­pet­u­ates the neoliber­iza­tion of high­er education.”

These writ­ers illu­mi­nate the strug­gles of a new gen­er­a­tion of fac­ul­ty and grad­u­ate work­ers in acad­e­mia. Bur­dened by insur­mount­able stu­dent debt and con­front­ed by the machin­ery of U.S. cap­i­tal­ism, we fight just to survive.

Recent strug­gles in high­er edu­ca­tion are part of a long his­to­ry of eco­nom­ic exploita­tion and dom­i­na­tion over work­ers, prob­lems that have per­vad­ed U.S. soci­ety since its racist, geno­ci­dal and prof­it-dri­ven found­ing. Where­as in the 1970s almost 80 per­cent of fac­ul­ty were full-time, uni­ver­si­ties today have shift­ed to a con­tin­gent employ­ment mod­el. Non-tenure track fac­ul­ty now com­pose 70 per­cent of the aca­d­e­m­ic labor force, 41 per­cent of whom are part-time. Grad­u­ate work­ers are 13 per­cent of the aca­d­e­m­ic labor force, almost 5 per­cent more than full-time, tenure-track faculty.

Why? Because con­tin­gent labor is cheap, and no tenure means we’re expend­able. This allows uni­ver­si­ties to slash salaries for fac­ul­ty while expand­ing bureau­crat­ic admin­is­tra­tions that obstruct griev­ance process­es and legal redress.

In fact, Busi­ness Insid­er reveals that tuition has increased by 260 per­cent since 1980, com­pared to the 120 per­cent increase in con­sumer items over the same peri­od. So, where is that mon­ey going, if not to fac­ul­ty and grad­u­ate employ­ee salaries? It is going to uni­ver­si­ty admin­is­tra­tors, whose employ­ment has increased by 221 per­cent from 1975 to 2008. In con­trast, fac­ul­ty employ­ment has increased by only 3.5 percent.

All the while, fac­ul­ty and stu­dents are left in the dark as to how uni­ver­si­ty rev­enue is spent. The Illi­nois State Senate’s 99 Per­cent Gen­er­al Assem­bly 2015 Report on Exec­u­tive Com­pen­sa­tion notes that tuition increas­es have coin­cid­ed with a dra­mat­ic increase in admin­is­tra­tive costs, includ­ing the size of admin­is­tra­tive depart­ments and com­pen­sa­tion pack­ages for exec­u­tives.” Van­der­bilt University’s Chan­cel­lor Nicholas Zep­pos was cit­ed by Forbes as the fifth-high­est- paid uni­ver­si­ty pres­i­dent in 2012, with an annu­al salary of $2.23 mil­lion. He and 35 oth­er uni­ver­si­ty pres­i­dents across Amer­i­ca made over $1 mil­lion that year. Near­ly 40 per­cent of uni­ver­si­ty pres­i­dents are eli­gi­ble for finan­cial bonus­es for increas­ing sta­tis­tics like grad­u­a­tion rates, at the expense of fac­ul­ty resources for research and con­fer­ence travel.

For the admin­is­tra­tive uni­ver­si­ty, under­grad­u­ates — our stu­dents — have gone from future lead­ers’ to com­modi­ties.’

The gen­er­a­tion of cap­i­tal, rather than free and crit­i­cal thought, is increas­ing­ly becom­ing the pur­pose of high­er edu­ca­tion. Deans see them­selves as micro-CEOs, while provosts and chan­cel­lors view the uni­ver­si­ty as a mon­ey-mak­ing ven­ture. We instruc­tors are the face of the uni­ver­si­ty and pro­vide the class­room edu­ca­tion that stu­dents pay for, yet rev­enue we bring in doesn’t pay for our secu­ri­ty. Instead, we are told that admis­sion to a doc­tor­al pro­gram is a gift, that our employ­ers are benev­o­lent, and that qui­et grat­i­tude is the only appro­pri­ate response to our con­di­tions. They pre­tend this is enough to ignore watch­ing us sink below a liv­ing wage, strug­gle with men­tal health with lit­tle sup­port, and work our­selves to exhaus­tion.

Some call this trend the cor­po­ra­ti­za­tion of the uni­ver­si­ty.” Ander­son calls it pri­vate gov­ern­ment.” But my col­leagues and I rec­og­nize it as a micro­cosm of America’s his­tor­i­cal­ly neolib­er­al and exploita­tive pol­i­tics: an oli­garchi­cal dic­ta­tor­ship of admin­is­tra­tors lim­its insti­tu­tion­al and aca­d­e­m­ic free­doms, all to fill their own cof­fers with goods pur­chased by the sweat of its under­paid workers.

Sabeen Ahmed is a PhD stu­dent in the Depart­ment of Phi­los­o­phy at Van­der­bilt Uni­ver­si­ty. She is inter­est­ed in social and polit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy and crit­i­cal phe­nom­e­nol­o­gy. She is cur­rent­ly work­ing to ana­lyze refugee dis­cours­es through a cri­tique of West­ern intel­lec­tu­al history.
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