As the Covid-19 pandemic and economic crisis continue to converge, the future of higher education is shrouded in fear and uncertainty. While trying to manage anxieties about the potentially devastating risks to public and personal health that campus–re-opening plans pose, faculty and staff workers around the country are also worrying about whether or not their jobs, programs, or even their institutions will survive — and, if they do, what they will look like.
Many fear these crises have provided the grim opportunity for administrations to drastically reshape the purpose and functioning of higher education itself, accelerating trends that have resulted in so many academic and nonacademic workers on campus being contingently employed with little to no say in top-down administrative decision making. As some universities push forward with plans to reopen in person in the fall, against objections from some faculty and staff, while announcing layoffs, furloughs, and cuts in (or the elimination of) academic programs, such fears are not unfounded. But across the varied landscape of higher education — across differences in institutions, disciplines, geographies, and professional circumstances — workers are attempting to band together, build solidarity, and fight to keep the promise of higher ed as a public good alive.
Given the precarious conditions of employment many university workers are currently facing, The Chronicle Review spoke to four faculty members with stronger job protections — Max Kullberg (associate professor at the WWAMI School of Medical Education at the University of Alaska at Anchorage), Adom Getachew (assistant professor of political science at the University of Chicago), Boyda Johnstone (assistant professor of English at the Borough of Manhattan Community College of the City University of New York), and Jennifer Fredette (associate professor of political science at Ohio University) — about the situations at their institutions and how their respective struggles are connected.
Maximillian Alvarez: What’s happening at your institutions now? How are you and your colleagues dealing with it?
Boyda Johnstone: What we’ve seen here since mid-March is the problems of austerity reaching a boiling point. It’s not that something new has been created so much as all of the defunding and disinvestment in public education that’s been building up for decades, the over-reliance on contingent workers and adjunct faculty who comprise about 60 percent of the CUNY system — all of a sudden, the worst effects of these trends have simultaneously surfaced with a vengeance.
Grad students at the CUNY Graduate Center have been trying to fight for an extra year of funding. International-student workers are especially at risk because their residency here is contingent on their employment, and they don’t even know if they’re getting classes in the fall. The abhorrent fiasco with the Trump administration’s recent announcement and subsequent rollback of visa rule changes for international students has highlighted the very real threat of deportation for so many.
Every week — every day, really — the picture of what will happen in the summer and fall has changed. A few weeks ago, for instance, I would have told you that up to 40 percent of faculty members at John Jay College of Criminal Justice were facing non-reappointment or getting laid off — and those were all adjuncts. My group within the union really fought back against that, and now they’re saying that only 10 percent are being laid off. But even 10 percent is too much. It should not be the people at the bottom who are on the chopping block; it should be the administrators and those making six figures.
There are different ways we can handle this. For example, in his recent article in The New Yorker, Corey Robin writes about the history of CUNY and how, during the Depression, three new schools were created as a result of decisions to invest in public education and to take in refugees from Nazi Germany. Our response to the crises we’re facing today has been the exact opposite. CUNY has 25 campuses and serves 275,000 students, roughly 70 percent to 75 percent of whom are nonwhite; many are working-class students of color. We should actually be pouring money into education right now, not making more cuts.
Max Kullberg: In the University of Alaska system, we have three separately accredited universities — Southeast, Fairbanks, and Anchorage — all tied together through a statewide systems office. There’s one system president who oversees the coordination of all three universities, even though they operate independently and in very distinct geographical areas. Our problem is really twofold. We have a financial crisis, and that’s because of a trifecta of problems: (1) Our governor has cut the budget of the university significantly; (2) we’re an oil state, and oil production is down; (3) Covid-19. But we also have an administrative strategy for dealing with the crisis, overseen by the president, that puts our core academic mission at risk and completely ignores input from students, faculty, staff, and community voices.
Essentially, until he announced his resignation, which took effect on July 1, President Jim Johnsen of the U. of Alaska said that cost savings would come largely from reducing the number of faculty, despite the fact that faculty make up only 16 percent of the entire university cost, and we have a high level of administrative bloat (an analysis by the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems showed that we spend 170 percent more on administration than our peers). Bringing our administrative costs in line with other universities would save $53 million and immediately solve our financial crisis.
For the administration, there are two ways to go about reducing the faculty: cutting academic programs and/or merging these independently accredited universities. To counter these measures, a core group of faculty is organizing both at the faculty-governance level and at the union level. We’re reaching out to our colleagues at different accredited universities, because if we don’t work together, we’re screwed. We’re also trying to reach out to authorities that would have some leverage over the president and the board of regents, because attempts at shared governance from inside have failed. So, we’re reaching out to the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, news outlets, the legislature, and we’re trying to get the public worked up.
What we’ve seen here since mid-March is the problems of austerity reaching a boiling point.
Adom Getachew: I’m based at the University of Chicago and, like everywhere else, there have been huge budget shortfalls this year, and there are probably three main sources of those shortfalls. First, there is a huge hospital attached to University of Chicago Medicine, which is often a big revenue generator. The primary driver of that revenue is elective surgeries. Of course, there haven’t been elective surgeries during the pandemic, so like every university hospital, they’ve lost money. On top of that, the endowment question is very much up in the air. There were obviously huge stock-market losses, especially at the beginning of the crisis, so there’s much uncertainty about what the standing of the endowment is and at what rate the university will be drawing on it for the upcoming year. And then there were the costs associated with moving students off campus, transitioning to online education, etc.
I’ve been at U of C for five years, and we’ve basically been under budget cuts since I arrived, which had to do with costs and debt around capital projects. This was supposed to be the first year we emerged out of budget cuts [laughs]. But that’s obviously not happening. The university has tried to cut from nonpersonnel sources like discretionary funds, research funds, and so on, which I’ve been really glad to see. However, the administration has recently announced cost-saving measures that include voluntary and mandatory furloughs.
We are a well-resourced institution compared with many, so faculty have been pushing for time-to-degree extensions for graduate students. We’ve also been pushing for additional funding for graduate students, especially those who are in their upper years, given that there will basically be no new academic jobs for them. And then we’ve been making demands concerning our non-tenure-track faculty and postdocs, trying to provide some sort of relief or extension of contracts for them. The university had already decided to extend its tenure clocks for tenure-track faculty, so that was our premise for making these demands. But so far they have not been met, and the analogy to those on the tenure clock has been disputed.
Jennifer Fredette: Ohio University is located in the foothills of rural Appalachia, and we have a longstanding reputation for providing a world-class liberal-arts education. This is now under siege: Research funds are being swept back; the teaching mission is being threatened; and extensive staff layoffs are hurting our local community.
Tenure-track faculty spent weeks on pins and needles this spring after chairs told them they might be subject to unprecedented layoffs; an assistant professor in African American studies was explicitly told in writing that he was going to be laid off. When no assistant professor was laid off, the university provided no explanation for why chairs would have ever told any assistant professor their job was at risk or even to be terminated.
Meanwhile, many of our instructional-faculty colleagues have been laid off. Most of them are employed on a year-by-year contract, though many have been here for upward of five, 10, even 20 years; they are some of our best teachers, and many of them continue to do research even though they are not recognized for it. Fourteen instructional-faculty members were laid off last spring; this spring, 53 were laid off. Their median salary is $54,000 a year; it is hard to see how any budget is getting balanced on their backs, and even harder to understand why we would make the cuts there, when we spend nearly $30 million a year on athletics. Moreover, rather than showing gratitude for the essential work they do to keep us safe during a pandemic, OU executives laid off over 100 of our custodial-staff workers.
Alvarez: We recently published a piece by Rebecca Givan in which she asks, “If our core values are sacrificed to save our universities” during this pandemic, “will the institutions that emerge have been worth saving?” Are these converging crises compounding long-simmering trends, or is higher education going in a completely different direction?
This is the moment for academics to realize: You can see your future happening in Alaska and at Ohio University. This is where we’re all headed.
Kullberg: At our university, it has vastly accelerated us down the path that President Johnsen wanted to take already. Since I moved here five years ago, there’s always been this question of merging the three universities — and now we have this fairly extreme financial crisis. Administrators have a saying: “Never waste a crisis.” That’s what’s happening here.
What this merger would look like is, you’d take these three separately accredited universities, which serve very distinct populations, and you’d immediately get rid of the chancellors and the provosts; then you’d get rid of a third of the faculty in each of those universities, essentially combining colleges, and you’d implement distance learning for students to take classes across those universities. Over the last couple of years, we were able to defeat this holistic merger, but under the smoke screen of this financial crisis, they’ve reintroduced the idea of merging University of Alaska Southeast and the University of Alaska at Fairbanks.
At our last board of regents meeting, the regents voted to cut or eliminate over 40 academic programs while announcing that the merger plan would be temporarily put on hold pending an in-depth review. The program cuts have a projected savings of four million dollars, which is 0.5 percent of our total budget. At the University of Alaska at Anchorage, they eliminated 13 very successful programs, serving 550 students — programs like sociology. We had the only remaining sociology program in the state; now we’re the only state in the union that doesn’t have a sociology program. And this is Alaska, where we have some of the most difficult social and mental-health issues, including alcoholism, homelessness, and sexual abuse. Now we don’t have sociologists we can send out to the community. They eliminated the master’s in fine arts — our creative-writing program that puts out some of the best writers in our state. They did all this to save a projected $60,000 (and that projected savings isn’t even taking into account the loss of tuition dollars from those majors). So, they’re making these decisions to eliminate academic programs that have developed over decades, and that serve our community, in order to save what amount to just drops in the bucket.
Getachew: This is the moment for academics to realize: You can see your future happening in Alaska and at Ohio University. This is where we’re all headed. There are some estimates that about 40 percent of private institutions could disappear within the next couple of years. A few years from now, whether you’re tenured or not, your department can just disappear, your tenure lines can disappear.
This is an opportunity to rethink the public-private divide. If you look at the moments in the 20th century that saw growth in public investments in higher education, those were also moments when public systems bought out and incorporated private institutions. The University of Pittsburgh, Temple University — these were private institutions on the brink of bankruptcy that got bought out, and now they’re key parts of the public infrastructure of Pennsylvania. The only way to save public higher education is for all of us to fight for the same thing, which is public investment in higher education. And we need to have a three-pronged approach: cancellation of student debt, free tuition, and state investment in public higher ed, and all of that needs to be tied to reversing the trends of the casualization of academic labor. That is the only thing that will save the industry — otherwise we’re just plugging holes in a sinking ship.
Some projections suggest that we have a 17–percent increase of just summer enrollment at CUNY, and colleges like Arizona State have experienced similar jumps. I think that’s partly because people are like, “Why would I pay private-school prices when I’m going to be on Zoom regardless of where I am?” That’s something I find really encouraging, along with the current political uprisings and demands around defunding the police and getting cops off campuses. It’s illustrating that people understand that it’s not about the lack of money, but it’s the way that money is allocated. Also, I think the experience of things happening that you never thought would happen in America, like the government sending people checks in the mail — even if those checks were inadequate — I think all of this has given people a sense of possibility, even in a moment that is incredibly bleak.
Fredette: Here at Ohio University, people are saying “enough is enough.” And when I say “people,” I mean faculty, staff, students, and especially alumni. They’re raising questions on social media, phoning and writing elected officials, signing petitions by the thousands, writing newspaper editorials, and sending messages to President Nellis and the Board of Trustees. Can you imagine what they would have done if we had not all been social distancing since March?
A common refrain among the broader OU community is that we are a state-funded, nonprofit, public institution, and that means — or ought to mean — that we have a special obligation to serve the public good. You get the sense that we are now on the knife’s edge between two very different visions of what the future university will be: one that is, to quote our President Nellis, “nimble” and able to “pivot” to whatever the market demands; and one that is an enduring institution that can weather fads and crises, thanks to an unshakable commitment to education for the betterment of our community and our nation.
A university that could give Americans of all backgrounds a place, the opportunity, the tools, and the support to reflect and grow — yes, as earners, but also as thinkers and human beings. That kind of university needs more excellent faculty, not fewer; it should provide its local community with more avenues for social uplift, not lay off people in the hundreds while its leaders still earn enough to buy several houses a year here in the poorest county of the state. It is, in short, not cheap. But given the alternative, it is absolutely worth it.
Kullberg: Listening to everyone here makes me realize that we all are really in the same boat. We’re facing the same struggles, just to different degrees. At all of our institutions we’re trying to augment the voice of faculty through the union or the faculty senate, but that voice is being silenced. All of this comes down to a common theme: the disappearance of shared governance.
Johnstone: In terms of shared governance, we also need to seriously challenge the two-tier system that keeps part-time workers in this contingent category and gives full-time workers more stability. Because, as the Ohio University example shows us, none of our jobs are actually that stable right now. While perhaps the ethical nature of the fight for adjunct jobs should be enough, sitting idly by while contingent faculty jobs are cut additionally ignores the fact that full-timers are next. This is why it’s been really important for me and my union group within the Professional Staff Congress (PSC), Rank-and-File Action, to build relations between tenure-track and contingent faculty and to push for more democratic representation and more militant actions.
Getachew: Part of the challenge is that the model of shared faculty governance is attached to an older period in higher education’s history in which faculty were actually thought of as co-creators of the university. That’s not really the case anymore. And I think this is connected to the casualization of academic labor and the erosion of job security for many (faculty governance is something that is largely limited to tenure-track faculty, at least at the University of Chicago).
For me, the thing that’s been most inspiring politically over the last couple of years was the teachers’ strikes in Chicago and across the country. What public school teachers have been able to do is make an argument for themselves, as workers, that ties the conditions of their work to the conditions of their students’ learning experiences, thus demonstrating how their working conditions are a public concern. Faculty at universities have not made this case for ourselves. I think the public kind of hates universities. That’s representative of anti-intellectualism of a certain kind, of course, but it’s also not clear to folks outside higher ed what it is that we do and why what we do is a public good.
Fredette: Shared governance these days means meaningless consultation. Like at U Alaska, OU’s faculty senate overwhelmingly passed a vote of “no confidence” against President Nellis. He then went to a Board of Trustees meeting where no single Trustee asked him why, and they all praised one another’s “courage” for making such “difficult decisions” like laying off the lowest earners whose contracts are easiest to end or not renew. Ask yourself: Could your Faculty Senate veto the university athletics budget, or call for the removal of the president? If the answer is “No,” then your working conditions are the same as most other workers in the United States, and your choice is either to organize as workers, or be exploited as workers.
Alvarez: How do we bridge those gaps between institutions, between employment levels, between the different student bodies that you serve, to reignite the belief in higher ed as a public good?
All of this comes down to a common theme: the disappearance of shared governance.
Kullberg: The situation at each of our institutions is unique, but we have these common problems. The University of Alaska at Anchorage serves the highest number of Alaska Native students of any university in the country, and Alaska in general is a very diverse state. In Anchorage most of our students are nontraditional, with 90 percent of students working to put themselves through college. So, any time you decrease the effectiveness of the University of Alaska system, you’re already targeting a diverse population.
These are unique issues we face here, but our inability to address them is tied to the same problems everyone here has described. I guess I’d tie it back to the issue of shared governance; shared governance means that we have to band together with our communities, faculty, staff, and students if we’re going to shape the university into what it needs to be. What encourages me is hearing the other professors on this call and learning about what they’re doing to address these problems. We feel so isolated up here in Alaska — and, honestly, hearing these stories gives me hope.
Getachew: In the contexts of Covid and online learning, the deep inequalities in our education systems and in people’s living conditions have been revealed.
The CUNY stats about how many students, faculty, and staff have died or have lost loved ones are really shocking. But students at the University of Chicago have also lost loved ones to Covid-19. And with students trying to take classes from home — a lot of them are embarrassed about their living conditions, so they don’t want to be seen on Zoom and won’t put on their videos. Or they have incredibly sporadic internet access, maybe they’re using their neighbor’s internet. It’s just making it painfully clear that the traditional classroom, especially at well-resourced institutions like U. of Chicago, can mask a lot of inequalities. Students have been very active advocates for each other around this question, issuing calls for universal pass-fail on grades this semester, which were successful at Yale, Harvard, and Columbia, but not successful at the University of Chicago. They model a form of solidarity for us to learn from.
I mentioned before that, in addition to being faculty members, it’s important to think of ourselves as political actors and workers, and collective governors of the university (and higher education writ large). To give just one example of how people are working to make that happen, there’s an effort being organized primarily by historians, including myself, that we’ve called a New Deal for Higher Ed.
To have tenure and to stay in your lane is to be complicit with the injustices of the system in which you have secured this privilege.
It focuses on reductions in tuition, increased public funding, transforming contingent labor into stable forms of academic employment. We’ve collected a lot of individual signatures on our petition, but most importantly we’ve been trying to collect institutional endorsements from academic unions, from AAUP chapters — it recently got endorsed by the national American Federation of Teachers and the national American Association of University Professors., The idea is to try to push for this New Deal at the state level, especially in states with Democratic governments, and at the national level if there’s a Democratic takeover of the White House and the Senate.
Fredette: I’d also like to weigh in on this question of how we build common struggle, from the perspective of a rural, predominantly white institution. Academia is a very elitist space. But there is a way we can use one of the tools of academia’s relentless elitism to actually build common struggle. Tenure is the power to say what needs saying about the working conditions of your employer without fear of reprisal. Tenure is the luxury to decide “My research is important to me, and still, I will delay this book project to organize for my colleagues on contingent contracts and my colleagues on custodial staff.” Tenure is akin to white privilege (and, disproportionately, a privilege held by whites, because it all intersects): If you have it, the only ethical thing to do with it is to mobilize it against oppression. To have tenure and to stay in your lane is to be complicit with the injustices of the system in which you have secured this privilege.
There is typically nothing in a Ph.D. program that prepares a professor to be an ally or an organizer. But there is also typically nothing in our doctoral programs that prepares us how to teach, and many of us work independently to develop this skill anyway, because we think it is important. Well, the fate of our universities is important. And it is part of the shared struggle for education in America right now. So we need to work on it.
Johnstone: Right now, there really is a great opportunity to reach beyond institutional divides. In many ways, the barriers between our institutions don’t matter anymore; we’re meeting on Zoom, we’re meeting on social media. And hopefully, we can all unite around this shared understanding that coronavirus is a disease that affects everyone, racism is a disease that affects everyone (and, because of injustices baked into a system that connects all of us, both disproportionately affect people of color). The fault lines in our society are really becoming clear right now. That’s given us an opening to organize around demands like getting cops out of schools and out of unions, and to to move beyond the public-private divide in colleges.
I love what Adom said about students modeling solidarity for us. There’s a major problem among professors (especially full-timers) not trusting students to be able to understand the inner workings of the university, and to stand up and express outrage along with us. Every time I explain to my students that many professors teaching their classes are hired like Uber drivers, on a case-by-case basis, I can see their minds being blown, and they get angry. They ask, “Where are my tuition dollars going? How could the university treat my professors this way?” We’re all in this together and they really do understand that. So, it’s not just about shared governance but about shared struggle.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.