Higher Education Is Now a Battlefield Between Workers and Corporatization

Capitalism eventually takes away all the good things.

Corporate CEOs override COVID safety measures with demands to “reopen the economy,” a sanitized term for “keep our profits flowing.” Wall Street’s next quarterly earnings trump measures to address the climate crisis. Even social housing, food and medical programs originally intended to uplift humanity are disciplined to monetize everything and embrace business models that differentiate the “deserving” from the “undeserving.”

Higher education has also been a key arena in the struggle between profit motives and social good. Helena Worthen and Joe Berry note in their book that higher education is a central arena of struggle between profit motive and social good. Power Despite Precarity: Strategies for the Contingent Faculty Movement in Higher Education (Pluto Press, 2021), in the last 40 years, “we have seen higher education transformed into a profit-seeking industry.… The flow of money through the whole project of academic research has distorted what is studied, what is judged, what is published and who has access to it.” And with soaring tuition, endless fees and hidden add-on costs, along with privatized student loans and soaring student debt, “The higher ed industry, like the real estate industry and its sibling, the finance industry, has found a way to suck down the wealth accumulated by the previous generation during the 1950s and 1960s.”

Look beyond higher ed’s Latinate mottos and lofty paeans to truth and knowledge to see what’s steering the ship of higher education: Just survey the building names at your local university. In my hometown of Seattle, you can stroll to the University of Washington’s Bank of America Executive Education Center (with its Boeing Auditorium), adjacent to the business school housed in PACCAR Hall, “named for the Bellevue truck manufacturer, PACCAR Inc., in recognition of its $16 million gift to the UW.” (Apparently with an eight-figure gift you get ALL CAPS naming rights.) Walk south and on your right, you’ll see the William H. Gates Law School, named after corporate lawyer and father of Microsoft founder and centibillionaire Bill Gates. Then go past the former Physics Building now christened after the elder Gates’s wife, Mary Gates, between the two computer science buildings bearing the names of Bill Gates and Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen, and across the pedestrian overpass to catch a basketball game at the Alaska Airlines Arena, or perhaps a tennis match at the adjacent Nordstrom Tennis Center.

This is supposed to be a public institution.

These elites are able to enjoy the ego-boosting tax deductions and naming rights that they have, as well as the governing board positions their generosity buys, which are secondary benefits to their true objective: To create and maintain a publicly funded assembly plant that produces the intellectual capital necessary for their voracious private profit machine.

Fortunately, this dystopian vision does not go unchallenged. It’s centered in the growing army of precarious university workers, who together perform most of the teaching and research in higher ed.

It was fifty years ago. more than three-quarters of university faculty were tenure or tenure-trackOnly 25% of them were adjuncts or temporary teachers. Today, those numbers have flipped, with 75 percent of college classroom teachers being precariously employed, as “adjuncts,” lecturers or doctoral candidate teaching assistants. They do not have any long-term job security. They must stay keenly on the lookout every year — or even every academic term — to secure their next teaching or research gig. It’s not that different from Uber drivers hustling for the next ride.

These are the frontline employees of the academy. They see and feel firsthand the consequences of corporatization. For students, the stress of high rents, high debts, and a lack or proper support; for teachers, poverty pay and housing insecurity.

The new proletariat was formed as a result of the administration’s reduction in tenure and the creation of a large workforce of teachers and researchers who were not well paid. A significant number of teachers from community colleges to major research institutions have formed unions to fight for better job security, decent benefits, and reasonable workloads.

Power despite PrecarityThis article takes a deep look at one aspect of this global battle. Berry and Worthen, both with decades of teaching experience and academic organizing expertise, provide a classroom-level account of how educators in California State University System organized and built power.

The authors describe how in 1960, California established a plan that intended to open up higher education broadly by making it free at all levels — community colleges, Cal State universities and the University of California system. This idea of education as a social benefit, rather than a commodity that can be bought, has been at center of the fight not only in California, but across the country over the past 60 years.

California’s 1978 Proposition 13 passed defunding education and other social service. This caused a seismic shift in California and was amplified through the subsequent budget choices by both Democratic state lawmakers and Republican state legislators. In the late 1970s, California legislators allocated three times the state funding to the University of California and Cal State Systems than they did for state prisons. Forty years later, these state aid percentages are almost reversed. Thus, “state support was channeled away from public welfare to punitive functions that target marginalized populations,” note Laura Hamilton and Kelly Nielsen in Broke: The Racial Consequences of Underfunding Public Universities, Another excellent book reveals the corporate heists of the academy.

But defunding higher ed wasn’t enough to tilt the balance sufficiently toward corporate power. Also, workers power had to be controlled through divide-and conquer employment schemes. Berry and Worthen point out that in the 1970s, there was a strong university tilt towards hiring contingent faculty. This encouraged divisions within the ranks of educators. “The creation of a permanent two-tier system within the faculty was a powerful weapon against the emerging faculty unionization movement,” they write.

It took Cal State a while for educators at Cal State to get back on their feet. Berry and Worthen trace the history of lecturers organizing and struggling to build unity with tenured faculty at Cal State’s 23 campuses. Poorly negotiated union contracts in 1995 and again four years later drove the educators — led by younger, more militant lecturers — to win a contested leadership election and begin to steer the union in a progressive direction.

The book describes a number of steps the new leadership took, each one an important element to rebuilding a union in any industry: The creation of organizing structures on each campus, one-on-one conversations to build membership and identify leaders, strategic planning to develop the union’s own vision for the future of the university, and contract campaigns that built toward strike readiness. The authors also describe how the new leadership brought in Ruckus Society activists who taught teachers how to take direct action. It’s a good example of the sort of cross-fertilization that needs to be done more frequently in the labor movement.

As grassroots activists, Berry and Worthen do a thorough job of detailing — occasionally at a very granular level — the formative steps that activists took to reclaim and rebuild their union. Their paragraph-long quotations of union members properly lift up the voices and vital experiences of rank-and-file activists — all too often overlooked in union histories. They devote several chapters at the end of the book to important questions for any union organizer seeking to build power, including, “What gets people moving?” “Who is the enemy?” “Who are our allies?”

Berry and Worthen also dedicate two chapters to what they call “Blue Sky proposals,” in which they lay out a set of ambitious goals largely framed around union contract battles. These are all great ideas, but contract negotiations over wages and working conditions are only one step in the larger fight for higher education’s soul. From the chapter titles, I was hoping for deep azure vistas but got only robin’s egg blue. I was still curious to find out more about Berry and Worthen’s long-standing socialist views on higher education. They would return to their original critique of capitalist higher ed hijacking and use their vast experience to create a social movement vision for higher ed unions. Maybe this will be their next book.

Today, a bigger vision is needed. The billionaires whose names adorn campus buildings across the country can correctly boast that they’ve made substantial progress in capturing control over higher education. The organized resistance of the academy’s workers and students is the only thing that stands in the way of a full takeover.

It is essential to fight for better wages, benefits, and greater job security as Berry and Worthen describe. It is not enough. For instance, unions — whether in higher ed, transportation, warehousing or food delivery — must not limit their efforts to managing precarity in the near term, but rather should build fights demanding an end to job insecurity, period.

This is the time for workers to make bold challenges, especially in contract negotiations. It’s also the right time to raise basic questions around power, control and the mission of the university, counterposing our vision of social good with their vision of private profit. And we should measure our progress, fight by fight, strike by strike, not just by the quality of contracts won, but also by the degree to which we succeed in loosening the profiteers’ grip and steering the academy back toward a place of learning that serves everyone and society at large.