Resisting the Corporate University

Few forces are better positioned to fight the corporate university than graduate student workers.

Chris Noel / Flickr

Graduate workers are on the front lines in the battle over the neoliberalization of higher education. As both students and workers, they’re doubly targeted: at the same time states and university administrations are raising tuition and fees, they’re cutting wages and benefits and weakening job protections.

And the assault knows no boundaries. Despite genuine differences in legal, political, and institutional contexts — public versus private universities, states with collective bargaining for public employees versus those without it — graduate workers from the University of Missouri to the University of Chicago to the University of Wisconsin are on the receiving end of a similar offensive.

Despite their vulnerabilities, however, academics-in-training have very real power in the workplace. As the struggle over the last month at the University of Missouri shows, these attacks can provide ammunition for organizing campaigns that challenge the neoliberal university. Mizzou thought they could push through any cuts they wanted on their already impoverished graduate workforce. Instead, they got a walkout which has since turned into a unionization drive.

On August 14, graduate workers at Mizzou were informed via email that they were losing their health insurance subsidies — just fourteen hours before their coverage lapsed. The university tried to appease the angry grads by offering a one-time stipend — worth less than half the value of the canceled subsidies — that would offset the costs of health insurance for one semester. After that, graduate workers would be on their own. Or they would have been. Instead, they mobilized.

They used existing organizations of graduate workers to call mass meetings. Hundreds showed up. Once the graduate worker leaders were able to hear from other students and assess the level of support for different actions, they issued a statement to the university. If the health care subsidies weren’t restored, graduate workers would walk out of classrooms, labs, and libraries on August 26.

They made several additional demands: more affordable housing and childcare facilities —benefits which the university advertises in order to attract graduate students but which have faced cuts — and a guarantee that no graduate worker would earn below the federal poverty line. Even though the administration realized they had overplayed their hand and immediately reinstated the health care benefit, they couldn’t stop the walkout.

The university’s attempt to strip graduate workers of their health insurance was actually its second attack this summer. In July, Mizzou announced that, beginning next summer, full tuition waivers — a standard benefit for graduate education — would no longer be guaranteed. Instead, waivers would be scaled to teaching appointments.

Those with a full appointment would continue to get the full waiver, but those students only receiving a half-time appointment would only have half their tuition remitted. Graduate workers, already underpaid at the University of Missouri, would be forced to cover 50 percent of their tuition and would only be allotted $6,000 in funding. Even students on full appointments only earn $11,000 a year — $770 below the federal poverty line for a single person.

Hallie Thompson, president of the Graduate Professional Council (an organization composed of graduate workers but which cannot take a stance on labor organizing because it receives university funds) explained to the Columbia Tribune how the changes would affect graduate workers:

From a student perspective, trying to live on that $6,000, there are one of two things you can do. They either have to get [another] job or go get student loans. Getting student loans when you are on a stipend seems a little bit silly, because you’re being paid for a job you’re doing, going to school, and you’re still reliant upon loans.

In recent weeks, similar attacks on graduate worker benefits have occurred across the Midwest.

The University of Chicago — home to a sprawling, world-class medical campus that over the last five years has pocketed more than $850 million in after-tax profits — notified its graduate workers via an August email that, beginning in September, their deductibles for in-network care would jump to $500, and to $1,500 for out-of-network care. Paying a $500 deductible to access health care is not feasible for most graduate workers. $1,500 is unthinkable. With such skyrocketing out-of-pocket expenses, many will simply lose health care access.

Although University of Chicago graduate workers receive better funding than those at the University of Missouri, the bulk of it is eaten up by student fees — graduate workers shell out more than $1,000 annually on these charges, which have risen an average of 12 percent a year despite a freeze on teaching wages since 2009. In addition, because the federal government has ruled that graduate students at private universities are not workers, their wages and research funding are treated as “gifts” and therefore taxed at a higher rate than wages.

In Wisconsin, the attack on graduate workers is a part of a multi-front offensive being waged by Gov. Scott Walker. In addition to its anti-union components — the elimination of collective bargaining for public-sector workers, including graduate workers, and the erection of massive barriers to organizing — Walker’s 2011 Budget Repair Bill also more than doubled the cost of health insurance premiums for public workers.

But Walker wasn’t finished. Beginning on January 1, public workers will see additional cost increases: a $250 (single) or $500 (family) annual deductible (there was none before); doubled out-of-pocket costs for HMOs (to $1,000 for individuals, to $2,000 for families); and a higher ceiling for prescription medication copayments.

And because health care benefits for public workers are now directly legislated rather than bargained over, the grad workers’ direct employer, the UW, is prohibited from providing better health care benefits even if they wanted to.

In addition to across-the-board cuts to public services, in 2011 Walker decreased the state’s contribution to the UW system by just over $250 million. The budget Walker signed this summer doubled-down, further reducing the university budget by $250 million (down from his preferred $300 million, but still amounting to a 13 percent cut).

On top of this, the state statute protecting faculty tenure — hardly a fiscal concern — was drastically eroded. Now tenured professors may be fired “when such an action is deemed necessary due to a budget or program decision requiring program discontinuance, curtailment, modification or redirection” — that is, for virtually any reason, without just cause or due process.

But while the state onslaught has been unrelenting, the UW’s hands haven’t been clean either. Grad student take-home pay in real terms is 11 percent lower today than it was in the 2002–03 academic year — a consequence of not just rising healthcare costs, but also the university’s refusal to waive ever-increasing student fees for graduate workers (currently about $1,150 annually and scheduled to increase by hundreds of dollars in the next few years) and their failure to provide consistent cost-of-living adjustments. If not for recent wage victories, UW graduate workers would be making some 20 percent less today than they were in 2002.

In addition, Walker didn’t just force a smaller budget on top UW administrators. The UW System president, the regents, and the campus chancellors effectively requested less money, thus satisfying their end of the bargain to increase the university’s “flexibility.” That is, university administrators sought to free the university from state regulation and oversight, allowing them to weaken worker protections, avoid state-mandated tuition caps, and raise money more easily from non-state entities (for example, by independently issuing bonds).

Tenure, now virtually eliminated, is now in the hands of the regents. And while they have verbally committed to upholding previous tenure policy, the regents’ clamor over the last several years for greater “flexibility” to fire workers doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.

In short, the UW administration was more than willing to have UW students and workers pay for their neoliberal restructuring plan in order to expand managerial authority. $300 million was a bigger pound of flesh than the administration was expecting, and they won themselves some decent PR by openly denouncing the size of the proposed cut.

But from the start they always defended some trimming as necessary, parroting Walker’s line about the state’s budget crisis. UW workers and students, meanwhile, are left to fight tooth and nail to avoid bearing the full burden of the $250 million reduction in the form of tuition increases, wage cuts, program closures, layoffs, and the rest.

Corporatization and Casualization

The attacks on graduate students are part of a broader restructuring of the US university system that has proceeded on a number of fronts: students are treated as “consumers” making an “investment;” declining state aid causes tuition to soar; universities increasingly push the pursuit of profitable research and the privatization of research as public funding dries up. More broadly, university structures are increasingly corporatized — administrations act as profit-maximizers and are treated as high-paid corporate executives, while university workers are increasingly casualized.

The offensive against public universities has come at a time of skyrocketing enrollment. In 2014, 68.4 percent of recent high school graduates enrolled in college, compared to just 45 percent in 1975; 90 percent of those recent high school grads enrolled in college full-time. But simultaneously, more students need to get a job on the side to make ends meet. More than 70 percent of undergraduates work while in school (up from 35 percent in 1970), and the number of students with full-time jobs has more than doubled since 1970 (with most of that increase occurring since 2002).

Academic programs have shifted accordingly. Universities push fast-track programs for undergraduates that favor speed over intellectual and personal development, packaging them as “value education.” And for graduate students, creeping neoliberalism has meant not only increased teaching and research loads, but programs that increasingly emphasize “professionalization” — the development of networks rather than craft — to ready them for the perilous job market.

The restructuring of the higher ed workforce — characterized by labor casualization, declining pay and benefits, and ideological attacks on the academic profession — has also been key. Driving down labor costs improves the bottom lines of universities and allows them to accumulate massive amounts of capital, while simultaneously reducing the ability of faculty and students to resist.

In this climate, some might write off graduate workers as too weak to put up a fight. But such skepticism ignores the strategic position that graduate students occupy in universities.

In the post-WWII period, with matriculation soaring and the supply of PhDs relative to demand dwindling, universities came to depend on graduate students for instruction needs. Between 1940 and 1960, college enrollment nationwide climbed from 1.5 million to 3.6 million, an increase from 9 percent to over 22 percent of eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds. In the following decade, enrollment spiked to 8 million — over 32 percent of the same cohort.

Universities’ reliance on graduate assistants increased accordingly. Nationally, from 1955–1965, the number of TAs employed by public universities jumped 241 percent. The experience of UW was typical: before the war, 24 percent of the instructional staff at Wisconsin were tenured professors. That number dropped to 18 percent only a couple years after war. In 1940, the UW employed 665 graduate assistants in teaching and research; in 1948, there were 1,400 and by 1971, 3,000. Today, there are over 5,300 graduate assistants working at UW.

Of course, the reality of graduate student indispensability undermines the notion that the graduate assistantship is an award for talented students — a line that university administrations, especially those at private schools, still spout.

It’s brilliant on their part: if universities are benevolent grantees, the proper graduate worker response is to express gratitude, not make demands. Management also uses the threat of competition to induce quiescence, alluding to the thousands of underemployed graduate students ready to snatch up the jobs of discontented TAs.

In other words, administrators alternate between treating assistantships as awards (given on the basis of talent) and as jobs (in which the troublesome worker can be replaced) depending on which is most expedient.

There was a time when graduate students could take comfort in knowing their poverty and exploitation was transitory — a temporary holding station on the way to tenure — but the deteriorating state of the academic labor market has made this less and less true.

Before the 1960s, demand for PhDs exceeded supply. Increasing graduate student enrollment resulted in more PhDs, however, and a nationwide shift toward graduate student labor (and contingent academic labor more broadly) undercut the position of all academic workers. In 2013, the last year for which data are readily available, some 175,000 doctorates were awarded. Yet job postings list fewer than 14,000 new professorships, a disparity typical in recent years.

Not Waiting to Fight

The 1960s and ’70s saw the first wave of graduate employee organizing, with new unions forming at places like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Florida, and dozens of others launching ultimately unsuccessful attempts. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, there was another series of unionization victories that brought more graduate workers into the labor movement.

We may now be witnessing the start of a third wave. UConn and NYU grads both handily won their union authorization elections, and union drives and organizing committees have been established at Missouri, Yale, Harvard, Columbia, University of Chicago, and Cornell (most of these are private universities where, even still, graduate workers are not legally considered employees).

Unionizing will be key to rolling back the casualization of academic labor. But as Mizzou graduate workers have shown, students don’t have to wait for a union to stand up to administration attacks. These workers won back their health care and are fighting for much more.

Wisconsin grad workers, in the context of one of the most dramatic defeats of the labor movement in a generation, have been able to win higher pay hikes than the state-mandated maximum increases. UChicago graduate workers, despite lacking legal status as employees, have been able to win pay raises and, with the help of campus allies, increased stipends for child care and separate lactation rooms across campus.

Critical to these efforts will be building alliances and resisting administration carrots, as the Mizzou graduate students demonstrate. Aided by broad community and campus support, they walked out on August 26 because their principal demands hadn’t been met — despite some concessions from management.

Now with their eyes on a union, Mizzou graduate workers are taking aim at the incredible income disparities between workers like them — who make well below the Columbia, Missouri $18,102 living wage — and administrators like Mizzou’s chancellor, R. Bowen Loftin, who is paid $1.1 million. These disparities reflect the priorities of the neoliberal university: consumers instead of students, precarious staff instead of engaged faculty, administrators instead of educators.

In the fight against this corporatized university, change won’t come from the chancellor’s office. It will come from below. Yes, from students and staff and the community. But perhaps most pivotally from graduate workers — the people who are increasingly relied on to teach the classes, run the labs, and produce the research.

If you like this article, please subscribe or donate.