The Nation: House of Cards: Can the American University Be Saved?, by Daniel Bessner University of Washington):
The Covid-19 pandemic has revealed the glaring contradictions in American higher education. State research universities are preparing to decrease services in light of anticipated budget shortfalls as small liberal arts colleges teeter on the brink of financial ruin. Meanwhile, Ivy League and other rich universities have refused to dip into their massive endowments and have instead chosen to pursue austerity while increasing tuition—and increasing debt—for their students.
Across the country, universities are canceling classes and furloughing workers, leaving thousands stranded without income. Though some schools have lengthened the tenure timelines of assistant professors, the majority have refused to extend a similar courtesy to graduate students. Staff members and adjuncts have likewise been abandoned—forced to work fewer hours or unceremoniously let go. The situation is likely to get worse as students refuse to shell out tens of thousands of dollars to take subpar online courses while sitting in their living rooms. Without exaggeration, American higher education may be on the verge of a total breakdown.
To those who labor in universities, the precarious condition in which academia finds itself is no surprise. For years, the university system has been operating on borrowed time. Beginning in the 1980s, college administrators, often employing high-fee consultants, hollowed out the academic workforce, replacing full-time jobs with contingent positions that were poorly paid and benefited. At the same time, exploding tuition costs obliged students to take out enormous loans that compelled them to view higher education primarily as a precursor to employment—employment that, as the economy worsened, was rarely guaranteed. This house of cards, built on exploitation, anti-intellectualism, and massive debt, was doomed to collapse.
In the past decade and a half, many people involved in the system have begun to do something about it. Undergraduate students have formed organizations that challenge their teachers’ poor working conditions, graduate workers and adjuncts have unionized and demanded respect and compensation for their labor, and even tenure-track and tenured professors have started to unionize and recognize their contingent peers as colleagues. Throughout the United States, there is a dawning awareness that saving the university requires cross-occupation solidarity, in which people working at various jobs in the academy come together to demand transformation.
Yet in the face of administrator intransigence (the failure to recognize graduate unions, improve salaries and benefits, and abandon contingent labor), the situation remains dire. ...
The major crises of the contemporary American academy—increasing debt, administrative overreach, the casualization of labor, the instrumentalization of knowledge, the collapse of the humanities, and the growing reliance on anti-union consultancies and law firms—emerge from a broken system that overrewards the few at the expense of the many. These crises are fundamentally tied to the political economy and will not be solved by confining agitation to the university. Only an extra-university movement, connected to other anti-capitalist movements and dedicated to reallocating power to workers, can save higher education and those who have devoted their lives to it. Absent such activism, the American university will remain a site of exploitation and anxiety in which no one’s genuine interests—to learn, to earn a living, to discover new things—are truly met. As we head into the fall semester, in which the coronavirus will inevitably endanger the lives of professors, university staff members, and students, building the solidarity upon which the transformation of higher education relies remains as important as ever.