October Links Round-up: Special Edition on Social Justice and the University

This month, Erstwhile blogger Caroline Grego compiled links related to social justice issues within the university. This focus was largely unplanned: as she reached the end of the month and checked what she had bookmarked, most of the articles were related to adjunct labor, histories of racism, student debt, and graduate student wages. This did, however, make for a tightly focused set of articles for the month.

“Dormitory Doorway,” Sara Allen Quadrangle, Photograph by Andrew Feiler

Graduate Students Nationwide Press for Right to Form Union by Ned Resnikoff

Earlier this month, graduate students at a number of prestigious universities held a day of action to support unionization of their labor. While the graduate students voiced a wide range of concerns, most grievances focused on low pay and inadequate benefits. The students are, however, fighting against the grain of the law itself. In 2004, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that graduate students, even those with teaching and research assistantships, cannot be considered university employees and are thus ineligible to unionize—a decision that would surely make FDR weep, were he alive to hear of it. The university officials quoted in Resnikoff’s article echo that ruling: graduate students, they say, are not traditional employees, and unionizing could damage the unique relationship between graduate students and the professors with whom they work, whether as TAs, RAs, or advisees. Graduate students across the nation have nonetheless organized, often under the umbrella of the United Auto Workers. In 2013, New York University, for example, granted its graduate students the right to unionize. But this voluntary compliance with graduate student demands prevents them from filing a suit against the NLRB’s decision, thus stymieing legal action to overturn the ruling.

University rhetoric against graduate students unionizing is, personally, particularly frustrating. Because we graduate students did choose this path, we are often met by the same refrain that greets most people in low-paid, creatively oriented jobs: we love what we do, and we labor for low wages because we love our work. However, this is not a hobby: this is our profession, into which we have sunk many years of our lives, thousands of dollars, and countless hours of grading, teaching, research, writing, and volunteer work to develop our department’s communities. We are both students engaging in work that we love and employees who deserve fair pay and benefits for our labor. The two need not be mutually exclusive, but the NLRB and university administrations too often focus on the former.

Injustice at Universities Runs Deeper Than Names by Tressie McMillan Cottom

Cottom’s piece for The Atlantic surveys the legacies of racism within universities. Cottom notes the literal inscription of racist figures on university campuses—(she points to a college at Yale University named after South Carolina senator John C. Calhoun)—not to suggest that their names ought to be scrubbed from buildings or their statues toppled, but to remind readers of the entanglement of universities, money, and slavery. Alongside the physical reminders of racism, she argues, is the “persistence of inherited privilege that shapes the composition of the curriculum, the student body, and the faculty.”

Her article includes a literature review of books (some of which are, admittedly, favorites of mine) published over the past five years that examine the centrality of slavery to the development of the United States’s global power and economic might and the histories of racist and anti-Semitic admissions practices at top American universities: Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton, Ed Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told, Greg Grandin’s Empire of Necessity, David Brion Davis’s The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation, Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Craig Steven Wilder’s Ebony and Ivory, and Jerome Karabel’s The Chosen. Cottom’s exploration of universities’ deeper histories of economic reliance on racist practices suggests that perhaps increasing neo-liberalization of the university is not a new development. Perhaps the university has always been a much more conservative, corporate-minded institution than we idealistic liberal academics have wanted to admit.

There Is No Excuse for How Universities Treat Adjuncts by Caroline Frederickson

This excellent survey of the origins of the proliferation and current state of adjunct labor is sobering. Adjunct professors, usually as well-educated as full-time professors, provide instruction comparable in quality to that of full-time professors but are paid only by class and are left without university benefits. They often work multiple jobs to make ends meet. But nonetheless, 31% of part-time faculty live below the poverty line. Universities benefit. Often, administrations claim that adjunct labor makes the university more responsive to changing student needs and lowers the cost of education, but instead adjunct professors are struggling to survive, with no significant tuition cuts in sight.

Frederickson ties the rise of adjunct labor to increasing reliance on part-time, contract labor throughout the U.S. job market. And this shift, within the Academy in particular, has been shocking: as Frederickson relates, “[i]n 1969, almost 80 percent of college faculty members were tenure or tenure track. Today, the numbers have essentially flipped, with two-thirds of faculty now non-tenure and half of those working only part-time, often with several different teaching jobs.”

After reading this piece, consider a few questions: does adjunct labor, with underpaid and overworked professors, foster a healthy university community? Are students truly receiving a superior education, or are they shouldering increasing tuition costs as their adjunct professors suffer under the weight of poverty, while universities gain? What sort of university is emerging from the degradation of the tenure-track system (which is admittedly not without faults) and massively inflated tuition fees?

Students in Debt, Professors in Poverty — What’s Going Wrong? by Laurie Jones and Wanda Evans-Brewer

Within this article’s lead is Brave New Films’s short film “Professors in Poverty,” well worth watching. This piece is more straightforward and less exploratory than Frederickson’s article, but it also has a more activist bent. At its end, it plugs a Congressional briefing brought forth by a number of organizations with the goal of raising awareness of the plight of adjunct professors in poverty and links to a petition in support of stabilizing and supporting adjunct labor.

Without Regard to Sex, Race, or Color: The Past, Present, and Future of One Historically Black College, photographs by Andrew Feiler

I close with this photo essay by Andrew Feiler, a native Georgian who received his MA in American History from Oxford University. Feiler photographed the abandoned Atlanta campus of Morris Brown College, a historically black institution of higher education founded in 1881. He argues that the most important theme embedded within his photographs, which show empty classrooms, decaying dormitories, and crumbling dining halls, points to the tragedy of higher education’s risings costs.

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