October 2018

Graduate Workers, Political Activism, and the Uncertain Futures of Cautious Universities

The advances that helped make universities minimally accessible through needs-blind admissions, federal Pell grants, and Title IX protections were all forged by the political struggles of the generation that came before us. How are we going to expand upon them?

by Marley-Vincent Lindsey

Sweat racks my brow as I climb the final steps to the eighth floor of an apartment building on Pelham Parkway in the Bronx. I take a minute to catch my breath, and use that time to find the name of the supporter. After buzzing once, the person opens the door and I repeat the words I’ve been saying all day: “Hey! My name’s Marley, I’m volunteering for the Ocasio-Cortez campaign. The election is today, have you voted for her?” The voter smiles, assures me that they have, and I thank them before moving on to the next supporter. It’s the evening of June 26th, and I keep to this rhythm of canvassing until ten minutes before the polls close at 9:00PM. I hand the turf back over to the field organizer for this region, and make my way to the train that takes me back to Manhattan. It’s travelling through east Harlem when the news finally breaks: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Democratic Socialist longshot, triumphed over long established centrist Joe Crowley. The month of commuting two hours to knock on doors and phone-banking had paid off: New York’s 14th district was sending a socialist to Congress.

Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign is now famous for demonstrating a proof of concept: the success of a campaign is only measured by the number of people willing to make it a reality. While three extremely mad academics fervently wasted a year writing fake papers for Jordan Peterson’s approval, Ocasio-Cortez convinced me and other graduate workers to knock on doors in the Bronx on the weekends and to run up and down numerous flights of stairs on election night by offering a plan for free, public higher education, the cancellation of federal loans issued to students for college, and a labor platform that would protect graduate workers and adjunct faculty across the country. These were solutions that began with the premise that higher education is a basic human right, and that our society ought to provide and support institutions that makes this basic human right accessible. Her success against impossible odds was based on a platform of similar demands, all of which resonate with voters across this country. And above all, her success depended on volunteers who recognized our political power lay predominantly in our ability to organize.

What matters is asking how our universities and the communities in which they reside could be made accountable to its members, and what you will do to make that happen.

The victory of Ocasio-Cortez—and later in the summer, Julia Salazar—presented a model for Nathan Robinson’s lamentations as an academic during the 2016 election: “I regret that I didn’t do more for Sanders, and then that I didn’t do more for Clinton after Sanders lost. I should have been knocking doors. Instead I watched movies and wrote magazine articles and went to class. I wrote an academic article. An academic article! What on earth was I thinking?” Those of us who similarly watch sadly at the wholescale corporate transformation of higher education should be taking notes from this political lesson. What matters is not the time we demand our colleagues vote, or the phone calls we make to senators; Brett Kavanaugh is a Supreme Court Justice, despite no one wanting him there. What matters is asking how our universities and the communities in which they reside could be made accountable to its members, and what you will do to make that happen. Even if a Left candidate is unavailable (although DSA’s endorsements for this cycle encompass 13 states), you certainly have a labor struggle on your campus, or a community suffering under the weight of your university that has put considerable time and effort into answering this question.

In 2016, I and several of my graduate worker colleagues answered this question by launching our union campaign at Brown. We spent the last two years speaking to graduate workers across our university about all the usual struggles: non-existent grievance procedures, budget reductions, and an unresponsive administration. In place of the intellectual tunnel vision accrued by the cycle of labwork, dissertation research, and teaching, organizing gave us a sense of solidarity based on the intimate realization of how much we had in common as laborers. And it didn’t hurt that organizing at Brown provided us political power far beyond any papers we wrote or initiatives we presented to our departments. In 2014, organizing kept the university from stripping sixth years of their funding, and in 2015 organizing got dental insurance for all graduate workers at Brown. And now, our organizing efforts will allow us to vote for a union, which will legally protect all these gains in a contract.

If the presence of unions for academics is relatively new, it is because the goal of universities for the majority of their history was the education of our society’s political and economic elite. The first generation of professional historians in the United States were nearly all from families and social circles with the type of wealth that allowed them a life of the mind. What needs had they for unions? Poverty wages were acceptable, if any were even offered. As universities pivoted in the late twentieth century to appear more visionary and progressive, few have made substantive material advancements in what they will offer these more diverse cohorts, even as reliance on precarious adjunct labor expanded. Instead, the discourses of rigor and sacrifice have survived into the twenty-first century, teaching us that few boundaries exist between our personal lives and our intellectual work. Our labor is not labor; it’s a “privilege” that differentiates us from “real” labor. Every major university has one dean whose job it is to reinforce this lesson both to its workers and the broader public. And since 2008, these deans have also imbibed our sacrifices with the survival of the university. Public universities like Stony Brook and the University of Montana have reacted to the deficits in public investment by crafting “Plans of Distinction,” which prioritized what majors were most “pragmatic,” and laid off faculty and destroyed funding for departments with fewer enrollments. For private universities, even ones with the wealth of the University of Chicago, the strategy is instead to categorically demand precarity of its laborers, insisting that higher wages, paid family leave, and functional dental insurance would destroy the fragile ecology of values, an ecology does not put a “market value” on its students. Catholic University’s own faculty senate voted on a plan that empowered its Board of Trustees to cut tenured faculty members during initial efforts to fill a $3.5 million gap.

Our labor is not labor; it’s a “privilege” that differentiates us from “real” labor.

This erosion of the university is another corollary of a political elite that, when faced with the complex, daunting challenge of political struggle, abandoned that effort at earliest convenience. Rather than fight for the expansion of a university’s capacity to conduct research, teach, or publish controversial work, it is far easier for university administrators to retreat into the domain of personal and corporate wealth. According to a 2015 Demos report, a majority of public universities began to rely on tuition for a majority of their revenue, as opposed to public funding, in 2011: public universities became subsidized private institutions. Each university has its own story of how this happened, but they correspond to the shared belief of our conservative and liberal politicians: that higher education is a private good, and that private goods should be funded by private money. As public spending on higher education dried up, university administrators instead used major individual private donations to justify whether their university should exist.

These justifications have since transformed the university into finishing school for an army of recruits for private firms’ exploits across the globe. While groups like Speech First garner the majority of media attention, far more sinister is the extent to which donors from these firms are allowed to determine the political and intellectual agenda of the schools on which they’ve blessed their millions. When Steven Salaita’s tenured contract was terminated by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the administration cited emails especially from alumni of the business school who threatened to pull the plug on significant donations to the school. A more recent investigation into the structuring of the economics department at George Mason University revealed that at least through 2009, the Koch brothers and other private donors had direct say in whether a professor could be hired in the department. Where private donations can’t be secured, reductions are made. In 2016, Brown University,  which possesses a three-billion dollar endowment, announced its intention to reduce funding to an already-strained library system by $1.6 million over the next two years. These reductions in costs to Brown were passed onto graduate workers and faculty, who now had to pay for access to journals or books deemed too obscure for the library.

While this has all happened over the last fifty years, it has taken a Trump presidency to expose the anemic results of privatized higher education. “To grapple with the serious threats [Trump] and his cabinet nominees posed,” anthropologist societies could only read and discuss Foucault. Against the Muslim Ban, higher education submitted an amicus brief to a Supreme Court controlled by Republicans who decided in Trump’s favor anyway. Against the GOP proposal to tax graduate workers, higher education could only place weak op-eds in media outlets, as opposed to eliminating tuition for graduate workers entirely. None of these are solutions for a robust political defense of higher education as a universal right. At best, they are efforts to press scholarship into the service of pragmatism. They begin with the caveat that intellectual careers are significant because they contribute to the empowerment of our nation, either through GDP growth or the cultivation of our students. When they encounter serious opposition, the best these efforts can do is ask our opponents to sit down and have a conversation—another arena in which the Right has set the limits of our imagination. Indeed, we no longer need right wing provocateurs like Alan Dershowitz to fund these efforts. Judith Butler’s defense of Avital Ronnell makes clear that liberal all-stars will sacrifice their graduate students and their part-time colleagues in the name of keeping their professional aspirations intact.

My time canvassing for Ocasio-Cortez or Salazar will not land me an academic job, and I suspect most historians would advise against putting my union work on my CV. But this work remains of the utmost importance.

As a society we are slowly learning how to be political again. My time canvassing for Ocasio-Cortez or Salazar will not land me an academic job, and I suspect most historians would advise against putting my union work on my CV. But this work remains of the utmost importance to anyone who thinks research and teaching from the sciences to the humanities is an absolute good, regardless of what it produces. Most heartbreaking is that our students recognize these values when they first enter our classrooms, and only abandon them once it becomes clear that we are only going to parrot conventional wisdom about the job market. If departments in New York were primarily interested in protecting this framework, they should have taken it upon themselves to canvass for Ocasio-Cortez, Salazar, and Cynthia Nixon. Even if they believed in a framework that takes college as a pragmatic tool for the job market, they should have still done so given the failures of establishment figures like Cuomo to make this tool widely available. That they didn’t is indicative of higher education’s current status as intellectual self-fulfillment for a selective and fortunate few.

Universities are centuries old, and even the humanities will weather the present assaults on them by the current rule of capitalism. But survival is hardly a goal worth pursuing on its own. The advances that helped make universities minimally accessible through needs-blind admissions, federal Pell grants, and Title IX protections were all forged by the political struggles of the generation that came before us. How are we going to expand upon them?

203C924E-B74C-411E-8EC0-B77F528AB079Marley-Vincent Lindsey is a graduate candidate in history at Brown University. His research focused on the role of indigenous labor in the production of social institutions like hospitals and universities in sixteenth-century Colonial Mexico, and occasional contributor at Cyborgology. He hasn’t won any particularly fancy grants or honors, but the two years’ of organizing with SUGSE-AFT for a graduate workers’ union, is the most important academic labor he’s done to date. You can follow his organizing adventures on Twitter.

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2 comments on “Graduate Workers, Political Activism, and the Uncertain Futures of Cautious Universities

  1. Fabulous and powerful article, thank you Marley

    Like

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