How the University Works; Reclaiming the Ivory Tower
Source Louis Proyect
Date 08/08/08/18:04

A COUPLE OF months ago I reviewed Frank Donoghue’s “The Last Professors“, a study of the disappearance of full-time tenure positions in higher education. This is a follow-up with two equally valuable books on the same topic. One is “How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation” by Marc Bousquet that is distinguished by its grasp of the overall political economy that has encouraged an attack on teachers. The other is Joe Berry’s “Reclaiming the Ivory Tower“, a handbook for adjuncts who are trying to organize against the university power structure.

I feel a particular obligation in calling attention to these three books because there are hundreds of students on the Marxism mailing list or who read my blog that might be planning to become college teachers themselves one day. They should be aware that the profession is not what it once was. Considering the fact that most of them are probably humanities majors, they are particularly vulnerable to the attacks taking place there–much more so than in business or the science departments. With the dissertation process amounting to a kind of ordeal, it is shocking to think that after 5 to 10 years of a very frustrating and isolated exercise of brainpower (as well as a major cash expenditure) that you will end up as contingent labor with no health benefits, no pension, no office and no guarantee of employment from semester to semester.

In his introduction, Bousquet compares the growth of contingent labor in academia to that of HMO’s. In many ways, his outrage will remind you of Michael Moore’s “Sicko”. As chroniclers of the decay of American society during the epoch of downsizing, privatization and growing class differentiation, such social critics have their hands full. It is a boom time for both hedge fund managers and latter-day muckrakers.

In many ways, it is not surprising that a two tier system is developing in American colleges, with mostly older, white males in tenure positions and women in adjunct positions. This mirrors what has happened in a number of the old-line basic industries organized by the AFL-CIO that used to be a source of good pay and job security, even if under dangerous working conditions. The UAW, the Teamsters et al are glad to cut deals with the boss that preserve traditional wage and benefit structures for the older worker while allowing the younger ones to drift toward the bottom. The same thing is true in high technology with Microsoft relying heavily on contingent labor, thus prompting the same kind of outrage and activism now being manifested in the academy.

Being a drone in an administrative department of a major research university (Columbia) for over 17 years makes me less susceptible than other people to accept the myth of a benign nonprofit dedicated only to its students and the community. But I never dreamed that things could have reached such a stage before reading Bousquet. In chapter two, he discusses William Massy’s “Virtual U”, a “computer simulation of university management in game form” that was designed by a former Stanford vice president with a $1 million grant from the Sloan foundation.

Trevor Chan, who designed “Virtual U”, also designed “Capitalism,” another game that the Virtual U website described as “the best business simulation game ever created.” According to PC Gamer magazine, “Capitalism” is “good enough to make a convert out of Karl Marx himself.” Bousquet points out:

Massy’s game is a budgeting simulation. It draws upon two prominent strains of thought in contemporary university management, the “cybernetic systems” model of university leadership developed by Robert Birnbaum and resource allocation theory, specifically the principles of Revenue Center Management (RCM), of which Massy is a leading proponent.

The players of this game treat faculty, students and staff (like me) as inputs into the maw of management. If you play the game right, you can get maximum results from minimum input. In keeping with the mindset of the game’s creator, there are no unions in the simulation.

In the next chapter, Bousquet uncovers more evidence of how the university has become a guinea pig for all sorts of “management revolution” theories like RCM-all calculated to enhance the power of the administration over everybody beneath them as it cuts costs ruthlessly, especially teachers’ salaries.

Evidently, “Toyotism” has descended upon the university in a bid to emulate the “success” of the Japanese auto giant:

In addition to its cultural dimension, Toyotism represents a genuinely radical transformation of the work process, which most workers have experienced as profoundly dystopian. The core concept is of continuous reinvention of the work process-often called, following Deming, “continuous quality improvement,” where “quality” means efficiency, so that managers are continuously being asked to improve efficiency, that is, to continuously produce more with lower labor costs…

In its academic version, the Toyotist work regime is supported by a triumphalist administrative literature-e.g., Quality Quest in the Academic Process, On Q: Causing Quality in Higher Education, Continuous Quality Improvement in Higher Education, the Total Quality Management in Postsecondary Education newsletter, etc-as well as by a series of active financial and philosophical partnerships with legislators and corporate leadership, such as the multi-company 1988 TQM Forum, IBM’s 1991 TQM competition and its successor TQM University challenge, funded by Motorola, Milliken, Proctor and Gamble and Xerox, all of which provided major grants to universities adopting “Quality” initiatives, including prominent public research institutions such as Penn State and UW-Madison.

In order for these management initiatives to succeed, it is necessary to keep drumming into the heads of tenured faculty members that they are part of management. In this respect, it is essential for them to conduct classroom evaluations of adjunct professors on a regular basis. This device and others was crucial to a landmark Supreme Court decision that resulted in college professors being regarded as management, a key blow to trade union consciousness and organizing. In Appendix A of “How the University Works,” you can read the dissenting opinions by Brennan (supported by White, Marshall and Blackmun), which includes the following thoroughly uncontroversial observation:

The university administration has certain economic and fiduciary responsibilities that are not shared by the faculty, whose primary concerns are academic and relate solely to its own professional reputation. The record evinces numerous instances in which the faculty’s recommendations have been rejected by the administration on account of fiscal constraints or other managerial policies. Disputes have arisen between Yeshiva’s faculty and administration on such fundamental issues as the hiring, tenure, promotion, retirement, and dismissal of faculty members, academic standards and credits, departmental budgets, and even the faculty’s choice of its own departmental representative. The very fact that Yeshiva’s faculty has voted for the Union to serve as its representative in future negotiations with the administration indicates that the faculty does not perceive its interests to be aligned with those of management. Indeed, on the precise topics which are specified as mandatory subjects of collective bargaining — wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment-the interests of teacher and administrator are often diametrically opposed.

While I am no expert on trade union politics, it does strike me that this Supreme Court decision has had as much of an impact on the relationship of class forces in the U.S. as Reagan busting the airline controller’s strike. It strengthened already gestating anti-working class tendencies that have radically altered the academic workplace.

Those changes are most virulently evident in Louisville, Kentucky where a partnership between local colleges, including Bousquet’s U. of Louisville, and major corporations have created a virtual contingent labor nightmare.

Described in bloodcurdling detail in chapter 4 (available on Bousquet’s website), we discover how an outfit called Metropolitan College functions more or less like day labor hiring halls such as Office Temp or Handy-Andy. In exchange for tuition in a kind of earn-and-learn fashion, local students get to work in a UPS warehouse. Metropolitan College is a college in name only as their website admits: “Despite its name, Metropolitan College is not a college. It was established as a Louisville, Kentucky based partnership among Jefferson Community and Technical College, the University of Louisville and charter business partner UPS. This nationally recognized partnership provides eligible Kentucky residents access to a tuition-free post-secondary education and outstanding employment opportunities.”

I bused tables briefly as an undergraduate, but my experience was nothing like this:

Rather than relieving economic pressure, Metropolitan College appears to have increased the economic distress of the majority of participants. According to the company’s own fact sheet, those student workers who give up five nights’ sleep are typically paid for just fifteen to twenty hours a week. Since the wage ranges from just $8.50 at the start to no more than $9.50 for the majority of the most experienced, this can mean net pay below $100 in a week, and averaging out to a little over $120. The rate of pay bears emphasizing: because the students must report five nights a week and are commonly let go after just three hours each night, their take-home pay for sleep deprivation and physically hazardous toil will commonly be less than $25 per shift.

The contingent laborers at UPS do not get the wages and benefits of other workers covered by the Teamster’s contract. Despite a lot of hoopla about the UPS strike being conducted on behalf of all workers, the same pattern held as it did elsewhere in the traditional AFL-CIO bastions of heavy industry-a two-tiered system with older, privileged workers doing well at the expense of the younger ones. This is not the fault of the rank-and-filer workers, but the treacherous leadership so anxious to cut deals with the boss.

Although UPS and Metropolitan College have refused to release statistics, Bousquet is convinced that most students cannot keep up with the killing pace at UPS and quit their jobs before graduating, thus leaving them without the tuition benefit agreed upon initially. UPS gets low-cost labor as a consequence without having to pay the benefit, a perfect arrangement for a labor-hating company and the Toyotist college administrators.

The professors, who are barely a leg up from their students economically, have to go out to the UPS warehouse to meet with their students. One of them is Susan Erdmann, an assistant professor at Jefferson Community College. She and her husband belie the image of pampered academics:

With their combined income of around $60,000 and substantial education debt, they have a thirty-year mortgage on a tiny home of about 1,000 square feet: galley kitchen, dining alcove, one bedroom for them and another for their two sons to share. The front door opens onto a “living room” of a hundred square feet; entering or leaving the house means passing in between the couch and television.

No matter how modest their living standard, they would be the envy of the adjunct professors below them on the food chain. Described as a “lumpen professorate” by Cary Nelson, the president of the American Association of University Professors, they now teach up to 75 percent of all college-level courses. Bousquet insists that this is the goal of the graduate education industry, to turn out contingent labor. Despite expectations that a PhD will lead to a tenure-track job, the real purpose is to supply labor that will hopefully exhaust itself after 10 years and disappear-to be replaced by fresh blood from graduate school. In this respect, the adjunct professors are not that different than the student-workers being super-exploited by UPS and their cohorts on Louisville campuses. Bousquet describes it this way:

The academic labor system produces degree holders largely in the sense that a car’s engine produces heat-a tiny fraction of which is recycled into the car’s interior by the cabin heater, but the vast majority of which figures as waste energy that the system urgently requires to be radiated away. The system of academic labor creates degree holders only out of a tiny fraction of the employees it takes in by way of graduate education: leaving aside the use of M.A. students as instructional staff, doctoral programs in the humanities typically award the Ph.D. to between 20 and 40 percent of their entrants. And the system employs only perhaps a third of the degree holders it makes. Like a car’s engine idling in the takeout food line, the system’s greatest urgency is to dispel most of the degree-holding waste product.

While “How the University Works” is focused on the exploitative practices taking place on the college campus, Bousquet is by no means set on accepting this status quo. He is a tireless spokesman for the adjunct professors, graduate teaching assistants and students victimized by an ever-increasingly coporatized system. His website is at tremendous asset for everybody interested in these problems, including those of you who are currently working on a PhD or are planning to do so. I especially recommend his youtube video interviews with people involved in the struggle who through their willingness to stick with their profession are real testaments to the values of the university rather than the sharks who run it.

Joe Berry’s “Reclaiming the Ivory Tower” has a first chapter that overlaps with the material found in Bousquet and Donoghue’s much longer books and as such is a good introduction to the problem of contingent labor.

However, the main purpose is to offer practical organizing tips to non-tenured professors trying to build a union or enlist community support. Although I strongly urge everybody to purchase the Monthly Review book, I do want to point out that it seems to be based on Joe Berry’s dissertation “Contingent Faculty in Higher Education: An Organizing Strategy and Chicago Area Proposal” that can be read at the Chicago Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor.

This description of a “physical center” will give you a flavor for Berry’s “roll up the sleeves” approach:

Yet another aspect for the center would be as a social center, using “social” in the broadest possible term, meaning a physically safe place where contingent faculty can come together and talk without fear. Very little of the literature on contingent faculty seems to fully acknowledge this aspect of their lives and needs, with the exception of the memoir horror story genre written by contingent faculty themselves. This would be a place where refreshments would routinely be kept and an open door to socializing would be maintained along with a facility for more organized and formal social events.

Another use of this center would be as a physical location for the information and resources accumulated by the research function mentioned above. This would then dovetail into another function of the center which would be as a site for labor education. It is one thing to go to on campus professional development workshops based on subject matter areas, the requirements of curriculum or the particular administrative needs of a particular institution… Included could be not just unionizing information, but also information about activity in and by professional and disciplinary organizations. Likewise, information here could serve to connect contingent faculty to the broader labor movement through literature and the use of local labor education programs, contributing to broader solidarity and consciousness.

Finally, this site would be a physical location that would be a node of solidarity, for meetings and as a meeting place for planning actions by the organization but also as a physical location that others in the community, in the labor movement, on campuses and the press would come to know as the place where the new majority college teachers, as a whole metropolitan group, could be contacted for information, for assistance, or for any other purpose.

When I read this, I was reminded of another such physical center from about 70 years ago. Sol Dollinger’s “Not Automatic,” a chronicle of the Flint sit-down strikes in which his wife Genora Dollinger played a leading role through the woman’s auxiliary, describes an organizing center in downtown Flint that had exactly the same combination of socializing and solidarity. Given the attempts by the ruling class to turn back the clock to the 1930s, it is not surprising that the labor movement will begin to hearken back to its own best traditions.

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