Tuesday, December 6, 2011

“We need people we can abuse, exploit and then turn loose.” —Dean Ann Marcus,NYU, on how to hire adjunct professors in the School of Education*

*From a captured e-mail used for evidence in the case ofJoel Westheimer.

(Sent to uteachers.sl by AFTA)


Edited by Benjamin Johnson,
Patrick Kavanagh, and Kevin Mattson

Not Your Parents’ University or
Labor Movement Any Longer

Myths and stereotypes die hard. So it is with academia—aworld that seems
so populated by stereotypes and myths as if to be literallyunreal. The images
are easy to conjure up: pipe-smoking, absentminded, tweedyprofessors
giving rambling lectures that echo within ivy-coveredbuildings secluded from
the rest of the world. For much of the public, theuniversity is disembodied,
abstract thought divorced from the lives of normal peopletrying to make a
living. The “community of scholars” is insular, protected,safe from all else.
The walls around it are both literal and metaphorical.University leaders—
seemingly stuck in the genteel values of the past—look downupon the world
of mammon and disdain efficiency in favor of older,classical values. Students
pursue questions soon forgotten as they assume the responsibilitiesand
demands of jobs in what so many call the “real world.”

The culture wars of the 1990s added to the pool of academicstereotypes.
Listen to conservative cultural critics and you imagine themodern
university a haven for left-wing wackos, snobbishly out oftouch with the
beliefs of most Americans. Academics are the type that theright-wing populist
George Wallace complained about during the late1960s—“pointy headed
intellectuals who can’t park their bikes straight.” It’sjust that now these
pointy heads are searching out the politically incorrectthoughts of their
students. Or they blather on about deconstruction, feminism,or Marxism
in a language that few care to understand. The humanists mayhave been
displaced by politicos, but still academic conversationsstay behind ivy-
covered walls. They have nothing to do with the realities ofAmerican
society, we are told. Academics care only about the realmsof culture and
language—those abstract realms that they themselves inhabit.

Certainly these stereotypes exist in reality; there reallyare absentminded
professors and politically correct ones to boot. But tofocus on them would
be to overlook the enormous sea changes that have takenplace in academia
over the past twenty years. We now live in a time when thewalls between
the “real world” and academia have fallen down. Professorsare no longer
comfortable or tweedy (in the deeper sense of that term);they increasingly
take the form of underpaid graduate students or part-timeadjuncts rushing
from one university to the next. The professoriate is not a“community of
scholars” that governs itself; rather its work is reviewedby administrators
who chant “accountability” while throwing merit pay rewardsat those lucky
enough to have full-time jobs. University leaders don’tsneer at the profit
seekers at their gates; rather they welcome them with openarms, cutting
deals and pioneering high-tech schemes that put coursesonline, packaged
cheaply for worldwide consumption. Welcome to academia,twenty-firstcentury

Of course, some might argue that the business imperative hasalways
invaded the hallowed halls of academia. Toward the end ofthe nineteenth
century, social critic Thorstein Veblen noted that those whogave their
dollars to the universities—the Gilded Age wealthy whosought out new
forms of conspicuous consumption—did so in order to build uptheir
reputations. They wanted their names on buildings, theirreputations
bolstered by being connected to genteel institutions ofhigher learning. If
some professor espoused radical politics, the pressure mightbe turned on,
and said professor would hit the pavement. Trustees calledthe shots, no
doubt, making clear that wealth spoke clearly and audibly inthe hallowed
halls of academia even a century ago.

Today, business leaders have gone one step further. Theywant to assert
not just influence but much more control over theeducational processes
themselves, and understanding this transition is crucial.Our au courant
jetsetting business types concern themselves not just withconspicuous
consumption but with direct management of education on theirown terms:
They don’t want ivory-covered buildings with their names onthem but
rather training camps for their workforce. They probablydon’t even care
all that much if nutty left-wing profs shoot their mouthsoff. They’ve got
more important things on their minds, namely what the newmanagerial
theorists call “just in time” knowledge. Corporate leaderswant their
employees to gain knowledge now, immediately, not on theplodding terms
set by the ivory tower of yesteryear but the terms set bycorporations,
providing only enough knowledge for their employees to gettheir jobs
done, not to ask fundamental questions about the society inwhich they
live. If need be, corporations will do the educatingthemselves (but, for
obvious reasons, still prefer others to float the costs). Inhis Free Agent Nation,
a manifesto for today’s new economy, Daniel Pink glorifiesthe radiant
promises of distance learning—the selling of courses onlineby for-profit
educational institutions. “More free agent teachers and morefree agent
students,” he writes, “will create tremendous liquidity inthe learning market—
with the Internet serving as the matchmaker and market makerfor this
marketplace of learning.”1 The use of the term “market”three times in a
single sentence tells us something about the demands thatthe new economy
is putting on higher education. The message is clear: Solong, ivy-covered
walls, tweedy professors, and genteel universitypresidents—hello to markets,
profits, and computers.

If you want to get a better sense of this, just read aboutJohn Sperling,
CEO of the Apollo Group, the parent company of theUniversity of Phoenix.
He’s no Rockefeller who hands out money to the University ofChicago
and then sits back and waits for the prestige to rise; thisis a man who
wants to call the shots—down to ensuring that his temporaryteachers make
next to nothing and have no say in course content as theyconduct job
training that is shamefacedly called higher education.Sperling is not someone
who hopes to lift up his name by attaching it to aninstitution of genteel
culture; this is a man who would probably like to dynamitethe universities
that still exist physically (those like Rockefeller’sUniversity of Chicago)
and replace them with for-profit entities. Sperlingsymbolizes the
revolutionary power of market thinking in terms of the worldof higher

This love affair between the market and higher education hashelped
prompt some within academia to rethink their status aslaborers and their
relation to labor unions. Once again, noticing historicalchanges that have
taken place is crucial. Sure, there have been professionalassociations and
faculty unions since the early twentieth century, butthey’ve often been old
boy networks, looking out for the academic freedom of aselect few.
Historically, organizations like the American Association ofUniversity
Professors (AAUP) stepped into occasional politicaldisputes, sanctioning
schools for threatening the professoriate’s civil libertiesin time of war, for
instance. Today, academic unions might still be concernedwith academic
freedom, but the terms have changed. The threat is no longeran occasional
war or political crisis, but the ever present pressures ofcorporatization.
Now unions are fighting for academic freedom, plus some muchmore
basic needs—pay that can put food on the table, health-carebenefits. You
will read in this collection how graduate students organizedthemselves into
unions precisely because they stopped thinking of themselvesas teaching
apprentices taking their first step into a community ofscholars. Rather,
they think of them selves as employees—recognizing theeconomic imperatives
that recent academic reforms have made brutally clear. Theworld of tweedy
profs and culture wars seems to have faded.

This book explores this sea change in academia—the rise ofthe corporate
university and an academic labor movement. For readersinterested in
learning more about academia—that is, readers not part ofthis world—this
book can highlight significant changes; it can tell yousomething about the
reality of contemporary academic life, breaking through themyths that
have dominated so much current debate. For those concernedwith the
future of progressive politics, this book offers a new lookat how some
within academia are thinking about this future (and it maysurprise some to
find an emphasis on Old Left concerns with socioeconomicinequalities, not
just cultural problems). For those working within academia,we are certain
that this book will strike a chord but that it may alsochallenge you to see
things differently. For those who have faced the brunt ofthese changes—
especially graduate students doing the bulk of teaching atmany institutions
or those adjuncts paid next to nothing for their travails(and travels)—we
hope this book inspires you to think about ways to improveyour situation.
But be warned: We are not cheerleaders. We don’t just tellhow the good
guys always win. Since they don’t, we talk about academiclabor’s defeats
as well as its victories. We make clear that organizingwithin the corporate
university is an uphill battle.

To appeal to this wide range of readers, we have organizedthis anthology
as follows. We open with a section on the changing world ofacademia,
stressing the importation of corporate practices into theuniversity. We
then move onto a section documenting how these changesaffect those who
work here and close with descriptions of labor conflictsthat have erupted.
Section 1 tries to make clear just how much the ethic ofprofit has invaded
the university. It opens with Ana Marie Cox’s essay aboutthe rise of for-
profit universities that increasingly turn educationprocesses into
commodities bought and sold on the market. Cox’s essay is aprime example
of an older style of journalism that seems waningtoday—namely,
muckraking. She digs up the ways in which for-profiteducation leaders
have wielded influence in Washington to get what they wantand how, in
the process, they have degraded our conception of highereducation. After
introducing the reader to the literal meaning of thecorporate university, we
then reprint an essay that has become something of a classicamong academic
labor activists—David Noble’s “Digital Diploma Mills,” whichdiscusses the
perils of distance learning. Noble shows that by puttingcourses online,
administrators can easily commodify teaching and manageteaching (the
way the University of Phoenix has). The next two essaysextend from
Noble’s critique of the de-skilling of the professoriate andthe evisceration
of faculty control over their own labor. Denise Tanguaydissects the rise of
merit pay systems, showing how they increase managerialcontrol over
faculty members. Benjamin Johnson then makes clear just howfar the
“part timing” of America’s teaching force has gone. As hesuggests, the full-
time tweedy professor is now truly a thing of the past,replaced by a pool
of underpaid contingent laborers with little, if any,benefits and no job

The essays in section 1 use historical and sociologicalapproaches to
understand changes wrought in academia. But this is only apart of the
story. Historical changes affect real, living people, associal historians have
been telling us for years.2 So it is with the restructuringof academia. This
is, of course, partially obvious. When full-time jobs arereplaced by part-
time jobs, for instance, some people cannot find work. Butmuch more
happens. There’s the scramble to make ends meet, doing whatcan be done
to put food on the table, as Alexis Moore documents sopainstakingly. The
lives of adjunct professors are structured around the needto accept the
terms of those doling out bit jobs. This is no victory for“free agents” as
Daniel Pink would have it; it is a hard life of travelingfrom one teaching
gig to the next, patching together a meager salary andexpending a great
deal of personal energy and gas doing so. When this happens,one’s
consciousness changes. In academia today, a new generationof young scholars
are not just finding it harder to locate decent work, theyare changing the
way they think about themselves. It might once have beeneasy for professors
to see themselves as different from the rest of America’sworking population,
as white collar and privileged, as the sort who work withtheir heads rather
than their hands. But for someone like Kevin Mattson, thisdistinction
makes little sense today. The changing circumstances of workin the modern
academy are such that academics see themselves increasinglyas workers.
This change in consciousness—felt, lived, experienced ineveryday life—goes
a long way in explaining the energy and anger that sustainthe new academic
labor movement.

This anger has generated conflicts among those who workwithin
academia. Perhaps most explicitly, it has destroyed theideal of teaching
apprentices learning from their mentors. Nothing makes thisclearer than
the story Corey Robin tells. As he points out in his essayon the drive
among Yale graduate students to get a union, the terms offull-time teaching
can implicate people in unfair systems that prompt theirworst behavior.
Robin shows how full-time faculty often turned on the verysame people
they were supposed to be mentoring, even writing letters ofrecommendation
for prospective employers that chastised their students. Aworse fate can
await those who have the courage to side with their graduatestudents.
Witness the story of Joel Westheimer. Testifying on behalfof graduate
students organizing at New York University (NYU), Westheimerfound
himself fired—denied tenure by the very same people who justmonths
before his testifying were singing his praises.

Westheimer’s story makes for a nice transition into section3, which
tries to show how people caught within this new academicsystem can in
fact do something about it. Westheimer’s story shows thestakes of these
struggles, as do the opening essays in section 3. LisaJessup documents the
long and hard struggle to win rights for NYU’s graduatestudents—the
struggle Westheimer was supporting. She makes clear thatuniversity leaders
have clued into what’s happening and have garnered hiredguns willing to
crush union drives, precisely the sort of highly paidorganizations that
helped quash a struggle at the University of Minnesota.Telling this story,
Michael Brown and his colleagues explain just how difficultorganizing can
be, even in the seemingly free and open world of academia ina state with
a strong presence of organized labor.

The union drives at NYU and Minnesota sought to organizegraduate
student teaching assistants at individual institutions. Manyacademic labor
activists are starting to move beyond this approach in orderto find wider
forums in which to make their case. Cary Nelson argues thatdisciplinary
associations need to become places where full-timeprofessors can articulate
the need to confront the problems of academicunderemployment. Of
course, this relies upon struggle, debate, contention, and,ultimately,
negotiation and making what were once simply “networking”and
professional associations into voices of criticism. But whatNelson’s argument
makes clear is the widening perspective of academic labor activists,as does
the struggle documented by Barbara Gottfried and Gary Zabelin their
discussion of the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor(COCAL). These
activists try to expand beyond isolated drives on differentcampuses (and
even among different types of employees) within the Bostonarea. In other
words, they are trying to put the word “movement” back intothe labor
movement by building broad popular support for what mightotherwise
become localized struggles. Because a more just system at oneuniversity
doesn’t entail justice at another, a network and coalitionapproach is utterly
necessary. We end this section with a discussion of theCalifornia Faculty
Association, a union representing a broad coalition ofemployees in the
nation’s largest state university system. Susan Meisenheldermakes clear
that the union has not only struggled to better theconditions of its members
but has also tried to change the terms of debate about thefuture of higher
education in this country.

And that is the purpose of this book: to make a new entryinto the
debate about the future of higher education in America andwhat role the
academic labor movement has in shaping this debate. Anycritical reader of
these essays will notice that the authors carry on a debateamong themselves.
We have collected a diverse set of writers; all of themspeak from experience
with the conditions they describe rather than as “experts”in some theory
of education or administration. Some, like Cox, are journalistswho have
covered the world of academia for a variety of magazines;others are fulltime
or part-time academics trying to get along in this oftenstrange world; and
some are organizers working within unions and professionalassociations to
win a voice for those who have been screwed over by thesystem. Beyond
this diversity, our authors come to differing conclusionsabout the problems
addressed. For instance, Ana Marie Cox argues for professorsto stop
clinging to tenure as a solution—one of the most well-knownand controversial
higher education practices—so as to embrace more fullycollective bargaining.
But Benjamin Johnson sees tenure as defensible and as partof a larger
attempt to defend not just academic freedom but jobsecurity. Though
they may disagree, they both want to look beyond tenure fornew ways to
confront the problems at hand.

Another tension is with the ways in which authorscharacterize how far
corporatization has gone—that is, how much room is left forstruggle. At
times, David Noble suggests that de-skilling has almostfully transformed
the university, yet he documents how faculty havesuccessfully fought it.
Ana Marie Cox argues that the for-profit spirit has capturednumerous
institutions and has spread far beyond what it was fiveyears ago, but she
too believes that something can be done about it. If youlook at the cold
hard numbers that Benjamin Johnson presents—60 percent ofthe teaching
is now done by contingent teachers—the struggle to improveacademic labor
conditions would seem hopeless. Still, while presentinggloomy prognoses,
the authors resist talking about academia as if it were some“one-dimensional
society,” to use Herbert Marcuse’s term. In fact, most ofthem recover a
vision of education that stresses democratic processes andcritical self-insight.
Though this vision may have been suppressed, none of usthinks it useless
to resuscitate it in protest against what’s happening today.Just how much
can be done with it, of course, is still open to debate.

There are other tensions throughout this book, but there’sno need to
spell them out here. A diversity of viewpoints is a centralindicator that a
social movement has reached a certain level of maturity.That seems to be
the case with the academic labor movement. Disagreement anddebate
need to be aired, if only to show that the movement ishealthy and vibrant.
So long as those debates help a wider public think morecritically about the
future of higher education, then the movement has obtainedthe first step
in a longterm strategy.

If the academic labor movement has something to teach usabout the
future of higher education, we also believe it needs tolearn from and teach
the wider labor movement. After all, the academic labormovement emerged
at an opportune moment in organized labor’s history. Sincethe 1970s,
labor unions have been losing members and influence. Whatlabor historians
call “business unionism” provided services for thoseorganized in certain
industries (automobile manufacturing, steel production,mining, etc.), but
those industries have become less and less important to theoverall economy
as service sector work has replaced America’s industrialbase. One result of
all this is that unions became stereotyped as things of thepast, relics of an
industrial era gone by. Steelworkers may have needed unions,but fast-food
fry chefs and computer programmers don’t—or so the reasoningwent.

The academic labor movement shows this up for what it is:ideological
reasoning. Sure, unions haven’t scored too many victories inthe service
sector. But this is not the same thing as saying thatemployees are banishing
unions from the public consciousness (social researchersconstantly point
out that when polled, many Americans openly embraceunionization).
The terrain has shifted, as “flexibility” and “contingency”have made
things harder. But gradually the union movement is startingto think
more creatively about these changes in order to find newways to inject
some equality back into the picture. Some activists arereturning to older
models of craft unionism—such things as “hiring halls andemployment
bureaus,” as one author describes them. Instead of focusingon individual
firms through which contingent employees are moving in andout faster
and faster, labor activists are trying to create a “unionismemphasizing
cross-firm structures and occupational identity.”3 This newdirection—one
that can truly grapple with increased contingency—is seenevocatively in
the COCAL example discussed in section 3. Academic laboractivists are
pioneering some new ways of organizing, and they are showingthat white-
collar employees—and those with advanced degrees at that—donot see
unions as dinosaurs or things of the past. For thesereasons, academic
labor activists have a lot to learn from the labor movement,both in
historical and contemporary terms—including a sense thatunions can
emerge where you least expect them.

In identifying with white-collar unionization, the editorsof this anthology
(if not necessarily all its writers) identify with a broadertradition of activism
among middle-class citizens. Historically, it’s been fairlyeasy for social critics
to assume that the middle class is stupid, self-interested,complacent, and
conformist. This tendency has created some provocativesocial criticism,
but it has also allowed us to forget that the middle classesoften face some
of the worst aspects of socioeconomic change. For instance,deskilling, loss
of control over one’s work life, job insecurity—these arethings that all
workers in America face today, white collar and otherwise.As this anthology
makes clear, white-collar employees face them in distinctways that can
prod us to think more critically about their ramifications.Additionally, the
problems of the professoriate are linked to the problems ofdoctors struggling
against the bottom-line mentality of HMOs and the problemsof writers
struggling to negotiate a world in which the Internet hastransformed
traditional meanings of intellectual property rights. Thoughwhite-collar
employees feel the brunt of these changes in peculiar ways,this is no excuse
for them to separate themselves from the plight of otherworkers. Indeed,
if a Ph.D. can no longer save you from mistreatment andabuse, then it is
time for the idea of middle-class exceptionalism to betossed into the dustbin
of historical clichés. The academic labor movement makesthis clear.

Very often, middle-class activists focus on problems faraway from home.
Some might argue this is a legacy of the student movementagainst the
Vietnam War, a movement that centered on universities.Middle-class student
activists today are very worried about the plight of thosewithin the Third
World. Who could deny the importance of struggles againstThird World
poverty or child labor? Nonetheless, sometimes protestingconditions halfway
across the world becomes abstract; worse yet, sometimes itleads middle-
class people to forget the injustices that exist right infront of their noses.
Confronting practices closer to home is often harder thanprotesting
problems across the globe. At the same time, the strugglesto improve the
global relations of universities—how they act as consumersof goods—is
clearly connected to how they treat their own employees.

As this final note makes clear, this is a book about thestrange world of
academia and how it has shaped the lives of those who workwithin it. It is
a book by and about a movement trying to shape the future ofthis peculiar
world. Recognizing the peculiarity of this world is crucial,but it can also
become limiting. After all, we believe that the universityholds an enormous
promise—the promise of facilitating the processes ofdemocratic education,
critical thinking, self-examination, and debate. A goodeducation ensures
that citizens will have the skills necessary to governthemselves, to participate
in making their world a better one. If we don’t protecthigher education
from becoming job training in the narrowest sense of thatterm, if we don’t
ensure that citizens have access to full-time qualityteaching, if we don’t
carve out spheres of life safe from the pressures of profitand money, we
cheat our democracy of its future. As we believe thisanthology makes
clear, nothing less than the link between democracy andeducation is at
stake in the struggle between the academic labor movementand the
corporate university.

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