Visions against Politics

tags: higher education, austerity, HBCUs, academic labor, colleges and universities

Eileen Boris, the Hull Professor of Feminist Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, writes on feminized labor in the home and other workplaces. Her latest book is Making the Woman Worker: Precarious Labor and the Fight for Global Standards, 1919–2019. Annelise Orleck is professor of history at Dartmouth College and founding copresident of the Dartmouth AAUP chapter. She has written numerous books and articles on gender, race, immigration, and poor people’s movements.

Note: The Spring issue of Academe table of contents is here.


We confront a challenge much like that which faced President Franklin Roosevelt in 1933. The nation is reeling from the politicization of a raging pandemic that has brought death to hundreds of thousands and unemployment to tens of millions. During summer 2020, millions marched for racial justice and an end to police violence against people of color. These events have deepened decades-old crises in higher education, particularly at public colleges and universities, historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), and nonelite private colleges. Scholars for a New Deal for Higher Education, a group to which we belong and whose work helped inspire this special issue of Academe, contends, as FDR did almost ninety years ago, that the time for shrinking government and increasing economic inequality has come to an end. We believe that a twenty-first-century New Deal for Higher Education must go beyond the first New Deal, combating anti-Blackness, advancing racial and gender justice, and promoting substantive equality for all. Without expansive and targeted government programs, our current crises will only deepen. We use the slogan “New Deal for Higher Education” not only in reference to the 1930s but as a vision for the future, in the spirit of those who have called for a “Green New Deal” as a way out of the current climate morass.

The campaign for a New Deal for Higher Education focuses on the ways that interlocking crises have damaged and now threaten the future existence of higher education in the United States. This special issue embraces the call for national measures but also claims that local organizing by campus unions, faculty senates and other governance bodies, student councils, and community stakeholders are necessary to turn any federal policies we may see enacted into real change that brings better working and learning conditions for all. Only mobilization by those who labor and learn within the academy, at the grassroots, can transform advocacy campaigns and legislative proposals into tools for substantive reconstruction of higher education. We offer perspectives from varied constituencies within higher education—and roadmaps for both collective and individual action.

There has been much discussion of the costs to colleges and universities of remaining open during the pandemic. But COVID-19 did not cause the current crisis in higher education. Decades of declining federal and state funding have slowly starved higher education in our country. The cuts started when greater numbers of first-generation students and people of color were entering college and women students became a majority on many campuses. Adjunctification of the profession intensified just as prospective faculty members from previously underrepresented groups began seeking tenure-track positions in greater numbers. Increasing government aid, however, is only a first step. Some universities spent 2020 stimulus funds to retire institutional debt instead of giving short-term relief to adjunct faculty or student workers, providing care assistance to workers, or using funds to bridge the digital divides between tenure-line and contract faculty and between affluent and poor students.

A crisis is an opportunity for bold action. As the essays in this issue argue, now is the time to end the starvation of higher education through cutbacks in local, state, and federal government funds; to reemphasize teaching, research, and learning as core priorities; to stop the endemic wage theft faced by contingent faculty and graduate student instructors alike; to forgive individual student debt and make college accessible to all students, regardless of their ability to pay; to provide living wages to college and university staff, including maintenance crews and health aides, clerks, and lab assistants; to end the subcontracting of essential services and extend to all education workers the right to join a union and engage in collective bargaining; to enhance democratic governance; to support HBCUs; to restore higher education teaching as a middle-class profession rather than, as it too often is, a poverty profession; and to make college education an affordable path for all people.


Read entire article at Academe

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