I’m humbled and touched by a slew of spring/summer 2008 reviews, by Stanley Aronowitz (below), Jan Clausen (below), Louis Proyect (the Unrepentant Marxist), Jon Whiten of In These Times, Mr. Adjunct Whore , Anna Creech at BlogCritics, Gregory Zobel at Adjunct Advice,  Delight and Instruct, and Paolo Do in Posse (Italian only), and of course the very kind Bill Pannapacker, writing as Thomas Hart Benton in the Chronicle of Higher Ed.  Thanks to all of you for taking the trouble.  I’m also thrilled about the smart reader reviews at the addictive and excellent Goodreads site.

Jan Clausen, “Coerce U”
March 30, 2008.
Like others involved in the labor of social reproduction, educators are under particular pressure to embody and transmit the values of power—which seeks through their labor to reproduce itself and the circumstances most favorable to it. The degree to which schooling can serve anti-egalitarian and anti-democratic purposes, and complicity with capitalist exploitation, is also the degree to which educators can be persuaded to arrangements that are hostile to democracy and equality in their own workplaces.—Marc Bousquet

By reading Marc Bousquet’s How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation (NYU Press), I’ve been gaining some wonderful insights into the coercive structures my intellect is attempting to flourish inside of (a.k.a. my “world of work” nightmare). Bousquet’s basic argument is that the higher education industry has to be understood as a labor regime in which the lived experience of a range of hyper-exploited workers can and must become a resource for transforming not only the functioning of specific institutions but our basic beliefs about the nature and purpose of something called “education.” These workers include graduate teaching assistants and other types of contingent (non-tenured) faculty; undergraduate students who must work long hours to finance the credit hours that they hope will catapult them into a privileged realm of better-compensated, less-degrading work; and the campus and off-campus workers in a variety of non- or para-professional capacities who keep the physical campus and its virtual spaces up and running.

Countering the powerful image of the university as a sort of sheltered workshop for intellectuals, and a college education as an idyllic interlude before the pressures of the workplace and adult responsibility take over, Bousquet shows how the existence of a privileged “top tier” of tenured faculty who supposedly represent the “real” university masks the reality of instructors and students scrambling to survive. In this view, heeding the siren song of most Ph.D. programs (particularly in the humanities and other areas where the academic “job market” consistently runs with the bears and not the bulls) is the higher ed equivalent of a poor inner city kid’s getting suckered by “hoop dreams.” Many are called, exceedingly few chosen. The system is designed to spit most aspirants out long before they attain the prize, whether it be tenure or a well-paid career in pro basketball.

Part of the satisfaction of reading Bousquet’s analysis is that of seeing elegantly articulated and indeed “called out” the structural obstacles I’ve been struggling with in my teaching life, particularly my New School job. As an organizer of a union for part-time faculty, I hardly need reminding that “contingent” faculty have a fine vantage point from which to analyze the realities as opposed to the pipe dreams of higher education! And it’s a treat to see the profoundly anti-democratic impulses of most higher-level university administrators, which I see enacted daily in my own shitty little academic microcosm, nailed through research studies and direct quotes from managerial screeds. But in a couple of crucial ways, Bousquet has also caused me to re-evaluate my own entrenched understanding of these problems.

For one thing, his analysis shows me that I’ve been too focused on the university as a self-contained entity dedicated to “growth” and a range of other quasi-corporate measures of success, at the expense of considering what the quoted passage that opens this post makes clear: that this institutional orientation reflects the values and imperatives of the larger society’s bosses and “deciders.” Which is another way of saying that my/our (often pathetic-seeming) local fight for a definition of education that centrally includes democratic values, critical consciousness, and a concern for social justice is also really (not just rhetorically) a fight for the functioning of the world beyond the classroom.

Bousquet also makes me realize to my considerable chagrin that I’ve spent years reading my students’ writing about their jobs, years describing the student body at the New School division where I teach as “basically middle-class, but often struggling, with an awful lot of students working so many hours that they have trouble keeping up with seminar assignments”… while continuing to buy into the ideologically poisonous notion that their economic struggles are somehow very much secondary to their primary identities of “student.” I obviously need to think a lot more about the ways in which my students and I share the experience of super-exploited labor. I need to consider how to talk with them about this, and how our mutual recognition of the implications might affect our work together.

Here are a few specifics of the New School’s current operations that directly reflect elements of Bousquet’s analysis:

1. Bousquet focuses a great deal on the exploitation of graduate student labor under the system—historically much more fully developed at schools like NYU than at the New School—whereby graduate students teach a high percentage of undergraduate courses. While in the past the New School depended on an astronomical percentage of part-time faculty rather than grad student teachers, the institution is now moving to use more low-paid grad student labor. There are undoubtedly several reasons for this, but I’d wager that one is the administration’s desire to minimize the size of its unionized part-time faculty. In a particularly sinister move, the administration is signaling that it may attempt to impose a rule preventing grad students from teaching in any other capacity than as graduate students. (Thus, for example, a student with ESL certification who’s enrolled in an Economics Ph.D. program would be prevented from working as an ESL instructor, or from teaching anything else for which she was qualified, except an economics course under the graduate teaching fellows program.) The Student Senate recently passed a resolution condemning the low pay scale for the grad student teaching fellows.

2. While moving toward more large lecture classes and thus unfavorably altering the faculty/student ratio, as well as continuing to raise tuition, the university is mortgaging its financial health to the construction of a vastly expensive, pie-in-the-sky high-rise, its “signature building” on 14th Street and Fifth Avenue. Students are asking how this will benefit their educations (especially as the lengthy construction process will create, over the short- and medium-term, an even worse space crunch than we now experience). Community organizations are up in arms about the impact of this monolith on a low-rise neighborhood, and are demanding that the plans be revamped so as not to require the zoning waivers necessitated by the current plan.

3. The university deals with highly exploitative, unscrupulous sub-contractors. Recently, the Laborers’ Union has stationed large inflatable rats outside university buildings to protest the fact that a new dormitory project is making use of an asbestos abatement firm whose workers have filed numerous complaints that it refuses to pay a legally mandated wage. The company is also associated with repeated and egregious safety violations.

4. Increasingly, the New School throttles critical inquiry through procedures reminiscent of Chomsky and Herman’s “propaganda model” accounting for how the press is controlled within modern democracies. Non-tenured (“term”) faculty who break with the prevalent model of “acceptable” discourse, as well as part-time faculty who speak out of turn, are increasingly not reappointed. The rationale, in some cases, is that “you no longer fit the profile we want for your department.” In many cases these are teachers who have no ready legal protections, but in one watershed case, Barrie Karp, a popular part-time faculty member with more than two decades at the institution, is under direct threat of non-reappointment in blatant violation of the union contract’s job security provisions for long-term adjuncts.

5. The university has done an end run around real faculty governance by allowing the formation, several years ago, of a Faculty Senate that operates in a purely advisory capacity. Relevant here is a passage Bousquet quotes from Robert Birnbaum. “Birnbaum notes the utility to leadership of establishing ‘permanent structural garbage cans such as the academic senate’ (‘Latent Organization,’ 233). He observes that task forces, committees, and other receptacles of faculty garbage are ‘highly visible, they confer status on those participating, and they are instrumentally unimportant to the institution’ (How Colleges Work, 171).” There are token student representatives on some committees, including a University Diversity Committee that has a small budget but no power to initiate the programmatic changes required to dismantle structural racism and other serious impediments to equality in a supposedly liberal institution that claims to embrace all sorts of diversity.

6. Historically, faculty tenure at the New School was confined to the graduate division. Now tenure is being “extended to the university” as a whole. The process is creating a further atmosphere of coercion as long-time “term” faculty obsess over whether they will be considered “tenurable” and newer full-time faculty complain of finding themselves under the gun to meet high standards for publication and service while carrying a heavy teaching load, without the sabbaticals and other supports sometimes available to junior faculty in better-endowed institutions.

7. Grievance handlers at Local 7902, the part-time faculty union, are observing a pattern according to which part-time faculty are let go following their tenth semester of teaching. (Appointment to an eleventh semester would secure them reappointment rights under the contract.) Some of these teachers have even been told that they are not being rehired in order to avoid granting them reappointment rights. The practice recalls a passage in Audre Lorde’s Zami, set in the 1950’s, which portrays the young narrator taking a job at a Connecticut factory that takes on people of color to fill unskilled positions for a few weeks, firing them just at the point when they are about to become eligible for union membership.

This practice on the part of the New School’s administration also brings to mind a piquant e-mail message from a Dean at NYU, quoted by Bousquet: “We need people we can abuse, exploit, and then turn loose.” (Dean Ann Marcus, NYU, on the hiring of term faculty; e-mail submitted in evidence before the NLRB, Bousquet p. 95).

Marc Bousquet How The University Works Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation
New York: NYU Press, 2008

Stanley Aronowitz, CUNY PSC Clarion, May-June 2008

      Thirty years ago, in his first book CUNY professor David Nasaw, argued that, from its origins in the late 19th century,  the public education system in the United States was, and still is oriented not chiefly to learning but to discipline of young childen. Now Marc Bousquet joins a growing chorus of critics of higher education to claim that, far from the ivory tower, universities are about business: training students for the workworld but also dispensing billions of dollars to politically-connected outside contractors who build facilities, and provide services once done by university employees. And universities are run along models borrowed from corporate capitalism. Bousquet, a tenured associate professor at Santa Clara University and is an alumnus of the CUNY English PhD Program, has been  a leading advocate for part-time academic labor since his graduate student years. Long before the spate of critical studies that have appeared in the past eight or nine years about universities, Bosquet argued that, contrary to its image as the next thing to a faculty cornucopia,higher education resembled the tendency suffered by much of US labor—increasingly precarious, contingent and low-paid. Now he has put these insights in a sustained form and, along the way, takes aim at the optimists who proclaimed, mistakenly, that the 21st century would bring an outpouring of tenure-stream jobs in the humanities and the rest of the liberal arts for qualified PhD earners. Instead the retirements of a whole generation of academics from active teaching have not, in the main, produced full-time tenurable jobs. Nor has the new era of the application of computer and other technologies resulted in a tendency toward the teacherless curriculum, as David Noble, whose Digital Diploma Mills is perhaps the most influential work of deconstruction of the notion that technology promises a new era in higher education. Bousquet shows that, as tenured faculty leave the university, the administration replaces them with contingent, temporary and part-time teachers. And far from being professors-in-training graduate teaching assistants are a necessary source of cheap labor, which accounts for universities’ willingness to admit large numbers into PhD programs even when job prospects remain dim. Basing himself on well known statistics showing that the number of part-timers, particularly the number of courses they teach at the undergraduate level has outdistanced the contribution of the tenured faculty, he believes the cutting edge agents of change for the present and future of higher education are no longer the full-timers, but that the baton has passed to precarious, contingent labor.
      The reason for this turn of events over the last thirty years is, chiefly, that university management has adopted a corporate capitalist model of operations in which cost containment and cost-cutting govern their perspectives on academic labor. Needless to say, in public universities and colleges this policy owes some of its justification to the reluctance of legislators and executive branch politicians to fund the universities adequately. But he points out that spending in higher education has not necessarily been drastically reduced. Instead “campus administrators continue to build new stadiums, restaurants,fitness facilities, media rooms,…” and other facilties He suggested that  ..”these huge new building projects[are] financed by thirty years of faculty downsizing..” In this context distance learning may be understood, not as a way to educational innovation but as a way to cut costs. The predominant faculty in on-line schooling is part-time and low paid. As much as most adjuncts these precarious workers enjoy few, if any of the amenities of tenure: academic freedom, health and pension benefits, real offices from which to perform research and advise students, and working conditions commensurate with their professional training.
      Bousquet notes that in the last thirty years even as the notorious Supreme Court Yeshiva decision halted the forward march of unionism in private universities when, by a 5-4 decision, it found that professors in these institutions were managers and not entitled to protection under the Labor Relations Act, full time faculty in public universities and colleges have flocked to unions. For example, 44% full timers in four- year public universities  are covered by union contracts and the proportion of tenure stream faculty in community colleges is similarly dense, at least in comparison to other sectors of the economy. But he is not sanguine about this apparent success. In his view, most professors have either bought into management’s doctrines of Total Quality Management(TQM)which has centralized power at the top of the administrative hierarchy or remained silent as the traditional value of shared governance is subbverted by incorporating the tenured faculty into the institution  in a largely emphemeral “partnership” with management and its corporate allies. Bousquet argues that shared governance has meant that faculty identifies with the institution rather than academic labor, especially those at the bottom of the hierarchy who have struggled to make their voices heard and their demands for equity met. His evaluation of faculty unionism is, therefore, quite harsh. While he refutes writers like Harvard’s Derek Bok and California’s Clark Kerr who view unions as uninfluential when not dangerous to the academic enterprise, he is generally pessimistic regarding the question of whether the two major unions in higher education—AFT and NEA—possess the political will let alone the vision to embrace the cause of contingent labor. Based on a solid reading of recent history he shows that faculty unionism remains parochial when not downright myopic concerning the needs of the three million employees of higher education institutions. Moreover, unionism in higher education is divided by full and part-time faculty, research and teaching institutions, and different unions with different priorities. In the squeeze students are consistently short-changed by overstuffed classes, worn down by the burdens of rising tuition, the plethora of contingent faculty who have little time to spare them and in most instances the need to engage in wage-labor to put themselves through school.   Bousquet bemoans the lack of solidarity among the rank and file of universities, In contrast, management has congealed into a new “caste” and have exhibited remarkable solidarity around its interests. As a result, despite heroic efforts by many teachers to buck the tide, the university has become a graveyard of genuine education.
      It may be too much to ask a critic who paints this gloomy picture to suggest ways out of the quandary. Yet this book, whose indictment is persuasive and eloquently laid out, could have benefited from a speculative chapter that discussed strategies of change. I do not make this suggestion in order to undercut Bosquet’s  bold, realistic assessment. The problem is that absent a discourse of alternative, its effect may be to reinforce the sense of hopelessness that already pervades the professoriate. So I am moved to provide some thoughts towards a strategy for academic labor.

      Detonated by the mortgage meltdown, severe slowdown in manufacturing, and wage stagnation that cuts across production, service and public sectors we have entered a period of economic recession that will certainly be accompanied by significant reductions in budgets for public services.  Unemployment is rising but even as other elements of economic activity have slowed to a crawl, we are also in a period of inflation accelerated by rising energy and food prices. Moreover, we are discovering that the last fifteen years of steady growth was built on the sinking sand of accumulated personal, war and business debt that had little basis in material wealth. In this environment many state and local governments—still the repository of most public goods—have chosen the line of least resistance to meet budget shortfalls caused by declining tax revenues. “The line of least resistance” , cutting funds for public higher education, is precisely vindication of Bousquet’s thesis that tenured professors have largely bought into the corporate model of university governance and see themselves as partners rather than opponents of the prevailing power. The PSC has raised its voice, and people have signed petitions and send postcards to legislators and the Governor, but much of the faculty and staff remains silent.
      This problem will not be solved by organizing more academic employees, as worthy as this goal may be because the current crisis is not the result of issues of density, that is, the proportion of union members to the academic labor force. It is a political and ideological question. Academic unions, especially but not exclusively those representing the part-timers and graduate assistants, must mount an educational campaign to persuade tenured faculty that their interests lie with the students, other academic employees and the public, not the top administration and their corporate partners, many of whom sit on Boards of Trustees. We must become the force for genuine faculty governance in a time when “shared governance” means the complicity of faculty with the corporate university. To accomplish this objective, academic unions must see themselves as organizations for which bread and butter, in the contractual sense, is only a necessary, but not sufficient condition for advancing their members’ interests. They must see themelves as architects of a new university, one that does not pander to privatization, vocationalizing the curriculum and succumbing to the growing gap between administration salaries and perks and the stagnation that marks faculty and staff salaries. In sum, unions must see themselves as part of a class in which the interests of the lowest paid among them defines union effectiveness.
      The next step is to take issues at the bargaining table into the streets. In the first place we must bring the argument for direct action to our members. This entails discussion of job actions of various sorts, but certainly it means waging a major campaign to repeal those provisions of the Taylor Law that bar strikes by public employees. Second, the union must take its case to the public, especially NewYork’s one million union members, many of whom are students, and parents and relatives of CUNY students. The union would spend its resources on ads, literature, op-eds, speakers to community groups, to legilators in their home turf as well as City Hall and Albany, to make the argument that expanding CUNY’s budget for salaries, reduced workloads, equity for part-timers is in their interest, not just the faculty’s. Third and not least is a serious effort to win the hearts, minds and marching feet of 235,000 CUNY students to this program. This means holding teach-ins, conducting  demonstrations on every campus to explain the connect between our demands with  better education for them, especially those that bear directly on teaaching and learning.  .  .
         Finally, as Bousquet’s fine chapter on composition as an academic activity shows, we must concern ourselves with educational issues: class size, time for counseling, but also questions of the curriculum-what should be taught and learned. This is the hardest part of the strategy for it raises issues that go beyond current pedagogies. Yet it seems to me that in the era of permanent budget and leadership crisis at CUNY(and most public universities) we have remained on the defensive and undertaken very little educational innovation. As a famous New York Giant Football Coach once quipped “the best defense is a good offense” Its time to go on the offensive. 






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