Wednesday, March 13, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: A New Class Consciousness

A New Class Consciousness:

Labor Strife and the Future of the University

Randall Auxier

Southern Illinois University, Carbondale PHOTO: Michael Steinbach

Originally published in the September 2012 issue of Empirical

They don’t make bosses like they used to. Back in the day, you could at least count on your boss to know what was in his own interest. As the USA unionized, from the 1870s to the 1930s, the class of people who fought against the unions was a 1% of self-made millionaires, savvy and ruthless. They believed (and not without reason) that nature favored them for a fitting survival, and that, in turn, entitled them to wield power. Were they anti-democratic? Not in the least. As they understood it, democracy meant that those who excel by wit and sweat are rewarded with, well, whatever they want. A visit to the vacation homes they built in places like Newport provides a sense of what they wanted. They all wanted to be country squires who dressed for dinner.

Fast forward a hundred years and so much has changed. The corporate shark of century number twenty-one is no captain of industry. And as much as it might seem otherwise, government is not nearly as much in the thrall of corporations as it was when, for example, J.P. Morgan personally financed our national debt to prevent default (1893) and bailed out Wall Street (1907). Moving in the circles of privilege then really did involve smoky backrooms and unmarked envelopes. Today’s rise to power is only partly a matter of access and pedigree. There is also a mind-numbing conformity of speech and dress, along with a willingness to force top-down thinking on the little people. Anyone with those characteristics and a “plan” for re-organizing the business to cut labor costs can succeed.

Back when Americans actually manufactured products for markets, the result of an “innovation” was more palpable: quality was maintained while costs were cut, resulting in lower prices and a competitive edge. But when the “product” is a service, as it is today, it isn’t easy to determine right away whether quality has been maintained, and prices can rise even when costs are cut. Education in the US is an example of one such service, and public sector services in general is the category that came to national attention due to the draconian decrees of Wisconsin governor, Scott Walker. The strife in Wisconsin is symbolic of a full-court press on labor, whether organized or not, that is happening nation-wide, led by Walker and Governors Snyder of Michigan, Corbett of Pennsylvania, and Brewer of Arizona. In these cases, the “industry” is service and the “captain” is a Governor. This is new territory for labor. They don’t send Pinkertons with clubs, they just send pink-slips.

Protest in Carbondale, Illinois PHOTO: Aaron Veenstra
In a quiet little corner of rural Illinois, a community got a chance to explore this new territory last year. I should alert you that the community is mine and that I was no detached observer. I cannot bring you an account that is “fair and balanced,” any more than can the network whose slogan I mock. I have been a negotiator for my union for a half-dozen years. But my union isn’t your classic Hoffa-headbusting closed shop. It is the Faculty Association of Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Membership is voluntary and hovers around 50% of those eligible to join, but we do see spikes when the administration is being especially naughty. In November of 2011, the faculty was driven to strike for the first time. I was on the inside of all that. I don’t want to tell you what that was like, but rather what I think I know now that I didn’t know before.

First, there are forces that were beyond anyone’s control. The baby boomers have been unwilling to pay for the higher education system their parents and grand-parents built. That is true all over the country, and in all fairness, perhaps the idea has run its course. My story is typical. My own grandparents never finished high school but vowed that their children would. They did, and the younger ones, with help from elder siblings and scholarships, managed to go to college. Then, my parents’ generation provided for every need and most wants for their children, the boomers, and happily poured their considerable taxes into creating a system of higher education unequaled in the world, and indeed, in the history of the world. Those lucky kids partook and became the best, most widely, most highly educated generation of all times and peoples. We had ours. But, perhaps we have not appreciated the sacrifices that made that possible.

Such a service provided to so many isn’t cheap. The collective will no longer exists to pay for it. Smart public universities, like the University of Colorado in Boulder or Grand Valley State in western Michigan began to wean themselves from the public dole long ago, when the writing was on the wall but few were willing to read it. When things later crashed in Michigan and the public sector was squeezed until it bled, GVSU was creating new positions and hiring to serve its growing enrollment. At the time of the 2008 crash, Boulder’s total support from state budget was only about 8% of its annual revenues. When funding from the state was cut in half, it was a relatively minor and temporary annoyance. Compare that to Governor Corbett’s 2010 budget that slashed state funding to public universities in Pennsylvania by half, leading to layoffs and rumors of layoffs in places like East Stroudsberg and West Chester, and Kutztown, Altoona, Slippery Rock, and two dozen other towns.

My university did not have the foresight to take the reins of its own financial destiny, and actually very few public universities did. We remained dependent on tax money, which meant we were beholden to the good offices of the people of Illinois, and to their increasingly conservative baby- boomer representatives. As belts tightened around the country, and as academic leadership came increasingly to be drawn from semi-mindless climbers of the growing corporate culture (a sickness that had been seeping into the universities since the Reagan era), confrontation between the teachers and their masters became inevitable. There will be more of this in the near future, not less. But many teachers, especially college professors, have some difficulty seeing themselves as “labor,” even when they have no trouble in recognizing their administrators, school boards, and varying boards of regents and trustees as classic examples of management. What solidarity can we claim with people who, well, work for a living?

Many have been shocked in recent weeks as news became public about discussions within the Board of Visitors of the University of Virginia as they salivated at the potential savings in labor costs from having UVa students simply complete free on-line and distance courses offered by Harvard and M.I.T., retaining only those programs characteristic of UVa and the handful of professors who teach them. The context of their deliberations was an article in the Wall Street Journal, the essence of which is contained in the following lines:
[C]olleges and universities, whatever their status, do not need to put a professor in every classroom. One Nobel laureate can literally teach a million students, Protest in Carbondale, Illinois and for a very reasonable tuition price. Online education will lead to the substitution of technology (which is cheap) for labor (which is expensive)—as has happened in every other industry—making schools much more productive. (“Chubb and Moe: Higher Education’s Online Revolution,” May 30, 2012)
University of Virginia PHOTO: Phil Roeder

Finding UVa’s President, Teresa Sullivan, unwilling to comply with plans to have the students of that elite school take their classes on-line, the Board of Visitors ousted her. According to the Washington Post ( Jenna Johnson, Susan Svrluga and Laura Vozzella, June 21, 2012), board chair Helen Dragas said that “she and her supporters on the board were concerned that Sullivan lacked a long-range plan to find new revenue to supplant lost state subsidies.” Dragas gave ten reasons for the decision, most of which were factually false, according to the Post article. The firing of a sensible defender of public higher education triggered widespread protests, and the Board of Visitors backed down after two weeks of chaos and recriminations on campus. 

In the end, the dispute came down to what was described in the Post (Jenna Johnson, Anita Kumar and Daniel de Vise, June 26, 2012) as a “philosophical difference.” Sullivan sought to bring change to the university from the ground up, through a process of building consensus and empowering individual academic units. Dragas and her allies thought Sullivan was moving far too slowly in an economic climate that demanded swift and decisive action.

Unhappily though, the Board of Visitors is not wrong about what is happening to higher education, and they are not wrong to demand that UVa should be on the cutting edge of it. The enthusiasm for these changes is also defensible. As they said in the now infamous editorial, some parts of an elite education will now be available globally, and they faithfully report that the sponsoring institutions (Harvard, M.I.T, and Stanford) are currently uncertain of how their free programs will generate revenues, but then, no one was sure of how Google or YouTube would be viable businesses either, but these things have a way of being progressively worked out, especially by young people, who have the ingenuity to find the way through. It seems clear to me that advertising will eventually be sold somewhere, by someone. Where the Board of Visitors erred was in underestimating how old-fashioned its students and employees were.

But here is an uncomfortable fact: libraries are no longer book depositories, classrooms are no longer intimate spaces of communication mediated by only slate and chalk, and education is no more a hallowed human endeavor for those fortunate enough to get it. The mercenary and mass-market character of contemporary education is the natural expression of the values of our global society. The teacher is, therefore, not a professional, but a kind of technical laborer whose job is to move information from the databases into the skillsets of the students. There is precious little demand for non-technical thinking, and factual knowledge is available to anyone who can use Google. A teacher does not need to carry around a great body of knowledge in the coming world. This is where we are, whether we like it or not. This is what we built. It was our choice. The question it begs: “Is this really what we want?” The resounding answer from our baby-boomers is “yes, that is what we want.” President Teresa Sullivan didn’t get the memo, but she will land on her feet. If the UVa Board doesn’t come around to her way of thinking, some other old-fashioned southern university will quickly snap her up.

Because UVa is an important institution in American higher education and my own institution is a third-tier also-ran, our labor struggles at SIUC have gone under the national radar (and it didn’t help that our strike occurred at the same time the ugly and sensational story broke about child molester Jerry Sandusky from Penn State). Our labor troubles have a long history, beginning when a previous SIUC administration outright fired over a hundred cantankerous (liberal) faculty members in the early 1970s. Subsequent lawsuits led to their reinstatement. The story is well told in Richard Russo’s thinly fictionalized novel Straight Man. Russo was the chair of the English Department at SIUC when that meltdown occurred, and labor relations never really recovered.

University of Oregon PHOTO: Jeff Ozvold

I see SIUC as a coal mine canary when it comes to these matters. If something stupid is being tried in higher education, it is almost certain to come early to our campus, and to end in a major debacle. We have, for example, outsourced everything that can be outsourced, have suffered the consequences of that perverse economic arrangement, and found ourselves no longer able to provide in-house services when our corporate relationships soured. After all, once an outsourcing contract has been signed, it is in the service provider’s corporate interest to give as little service as possible to fulfill the letter of the contract, and to offer improvements only as the time approaches for renewal. Like the US military, then, we have had to settle for whatever quality of service the corporations are willing to provide, given what we can afford to pay. If you have been out of school for a while, you may not realize how corporate your own alma mater has become. In the same way that our labor strife at SIUC has a long and distinguished history that ran decades ahead of the curve,

I believe that our recent strike portends a sea change in higher education. After years of mismanagement and mistreatment, the tenured and tenure-track faculty (reluctantly) unionized in 1996. Instability in top leadership (eight chancellors and nine provosts have been named since 2000, each less competent and more corporate than the last) led to the further unionization of the part-time and non-tenure track faculty, and finally even the graduate assistants unionized in 2006. The problem was that with every new administration we had a “new sheriff in town,” each with a personal ambition to move from SIUC to some more prestigious institution, and this meant implementing policies that would look like growth and flourishing for about five years. That is how corporate success works. They all failed, however, dashed on the rocks of labor strife. SIUC is where administrative careers go to die.

We painfully attempted to negotiate for months with our current oligarchy of corporate yes-persons, but our administration demanded the “flexibility” to implement wage reductions whenever it “deemed them necessary,” and to lay off the faculty members it selected with thirty days notice, without specified cause, and with no clear right of recall. If you read between the lines, the first flexible bit eliminates collective bargaining and the second eliminates tenure, in effect. And third, they wanted the authority to assign distance-education sections to faculty members, without any recourse for faculty to decline. They also wanted the authority to beam our classes anywhere and to beam in classes from other places so that SIUC students could get SIUC credit for classes taught by non-SIUC faculty. That will sound familiar to the faculty of UVa. The faculty at SIUC was not asking for raises, and indeed, we were mainly trying to fend off those three demands. Nothing less would have motivated an actual strike.

Contract negotiations have been a nightmare from the beginning of our union. What is it like to sit in a room with management and labor negotiators? My experience with this must surely top a thousand hours by now, and it is not what most people imagine. People do not sit around yelling and making demands. It is more like a courtroom minus the judge, with every word choice carefully noted as the two sides attempt to discover what the other really wants and is willing to do to get it. Things do sometimes get testy, of course, and this time around our management had a large man with a big voice whose evident role in negotiations was to yell at us once or twice a week. We quickly learned to relax when he began, to ignore him until he wound down, to ask politely “are you finished?” and to resume the dialogue wherever it left off.

But our negotiations failed. I can speculate with some sense of confidence that the administration seems to have miscalculated the willingness and ability of the union to carry off a strike. Had they left either tenure or collective bargaining of wages intact, they might have prevailed over a faculty that, honestly speaking, lacked class consciousness and solidarity. But with all three of those major issues at stake, and assisted by a number of public relations blunders on the part of our administration, the faculty was just barely able to cobble together a successful strike. About 200 of the 650 tenured and tenure-track faculty did actually strike, and the administration was unable to cover the classes of a few indispensable departments, especially math and history (where solidarity was admirable and scab labor unavailable in such a rural setting).

Illinois has favorable labor law, if you happen to be on the side of labor, and our strike was entirely protected by law. Such is not the case in most states where public employees are concerned, but in Illinois, there are very strict rules about what management can and cannot do during a strike. To shorten the story, mistakes were made, and the students became increasingly agitated as the administration treated them like children, censoring their social media and ordering them around like bad parents do. Having sacrificed its credibility with the students, the size of student protests on behalf of the faculty steadily increased for five consecutive days until their emotions were beginning to auger a loss of control on campus. Occupy Carbondale was running the student protests according to its standard practices and the smallish band of faculty could not oversee or maintain what was starting to happen. The combination of riotous students, unhappy parents, nervous local leaders, and apparently a miffed governor (this has come out later), led to a resolution after five days. The faculty gained almost nothing except to maintain the autonomy and role in university governance it already possessed. In short, the effort to corporatize SIUC failed, this time.

Microsoft Campus, Redmond, Washington PHOTO: Wonderlane
Those of us who negotiated were aware that we were canaries. If this bumbling lot of corporate wannabes could succeed on our campus–a bastion of the radical left, unionized, in a blue state with arguably the best labor law in America–what will happen when they want to do this stuff at the University of Oklahoma, or South Carolina, or some other good university in a deeply benighted state? It felt a bit like defending the Alamo, but with the advantage of a modern air force. No one knew we were down here fighting, but at least the corporate raiders were charging uphill over open ground. We had advantages our compadres in Texas couldn’t imagine. But it was not our solidarity or our organizing that saved us. Nor was it our labor law or our governor. It was the students. And that would never have happened if our administration hadn’t unwisely angered them.

SIUC students, like students at other also-ran public universities, are not inclined to take sides in the troubles between faculty and administration. They like their teachers, but they know nothing about how universities are run or funded, apart from what they pay, which is always too much as far as they are concerned. They do not know that the graduate students who teach them are trying to survive on a thousand dollars a month, minus fees and taxes. They do not know that many of their teachers are parttime employees who get $1500 a semester to teach a class of forty, no benefits. Why should students know about such things, or care? They go to college only once and the aim is just to get the ticket punched.

Many young people nowadays are reckoning and recognizing that the outlay for a university degree does not warrant the promised return, and they are making other than traditional educational choices. A Microsoft certification is cheaper and worth more in practical terms than a bachelor’s degree in computer science, and Microsoft does a very rigorous job of preparing and testing those whom it certifies. Other proprietary schools, some accredited, some not, are forging ahead into the business of education, while the University of Phoenix does reach the masses. The proprietary schools squeeze traditional education from one side, while Harvard and M.I.T. now squeeze us from the other side. What place is there for a non-elite institution in the future? What value does its degree carry?

The answer many schools have adopted is to specialize. Why pay professors to repeat the generic education (the core curriculum) found everywhere when that can be had for free? The trick is to identify your strengths and co-ordinate those to your market niche. Then one must create and sell an image, recruit the targeted demographic, and “retain” them (that is corporate-speak meaning “give them the grades they paid for”). There is no need and no room for tenure or benefits in such a system, and the high pay must be reserved for those teachers who could command a high salary in the realm of the free market. This is certainly the future of the mass education market, and it is not only not far away it is already here. The question is whether anything ought to be done about it, and if so, who will do it?

PHOTO: Dell's Official Flickr Page

I am a realist about things like this, and a pragmatist in about the sense William James and John Dewey were. The key to a democratic future is to work with the habits people already have, to grasp what they bring to the table, and to turn those habits in the directions they already value. Throughout the endless hours of negotiation at SIUC, even during the actual strike (when everyone felt under siege), it was not hard for me to remember that everybody in the room wanted what was best for the university and for our students. We simply could not rise above our fears that if the other side got its way, the place would be wrecked.

The faculty admittedly wants the old-fashioned university, the place where professors are secure, well-paid, autonomous, and respected leaders of a campus community in which the adventure of learning is its own reward, the intrinsically valuable humanization of our wards. We want administrators who are drawn from the best of our peers and who accept their posts reluctantly, hating to leave the classroom and their research, and doing so only to take a turn at steering the ship. That sort of institution really only existed for about fifty years, following the Second World War and riding on the coattails of a public-minded and prosperous generation that was deeply concerned to educate its young people and to preserve democracy as the viable middle ground between communism and fascism. There was no vaunted golden age of enlightened devotion to the liberal arts, there was a Holocaust, a Cold War and an arms race, and since the liberal arts were already in place in our colleges, they got a hell of a ride into the present on a jet rocket called science and technology.

Professional administrators, for all their dullness, do grasp who pays the freight and how. It isn’t the traditional liberal arts and it never was. There will always be at least a small market for traditional liberal education, as a niche for old-fashioned people. Frankly, the University of Virginia is in a fine position to dominate that market, which its Board of Visitors might want to consider. But the pragmatist in me says we should look at what is redeemable or even good (God help me) in our habit of corporatizing ourselves. Is there not something here that can be directed to the betterment of all? Is this trend wholly corrupt? My emotional inclinations are to condemn it with no room for compromise, but teachers do not become teachers by following their feelings uncritically. There must be something at the heart of this struggle that points to a path forward.

Here are a few things to consider as we all attempt to cope with the massive transformation that is underway. First, our young people are every bit as curious, inventive, hard-working, and brilliant as any kids any generation was ever blessed with. They are also hell bent on thinking for themselves (nothing new there), and unlike their current generation of parents, they have a pretty good sense about whether to believe what they see on television or read on the internet. These kids do not write well or read books (that has become a specialty for those with the inclination), but they are very sophisticated about communication, and they manipulate and interpret images with a skill and daring that is awe-inspiring. When they create, they move from the image to the word, not from the word to the image. They cannot remember assignments they read, but they can recount the plots of movies and Facebook threads with remarkable accuracy. These kids are sharp, but they didn’t get this from their primary and secondary schools, and they definitely didn’t learn it in college.

Has no one noticed that today’s “students” are educating one another, largely outside of school? How long can it possibly be until it dawns on them that the stamps of approval offered by our traditional institutions are unnecessary? It is already a widespread fact of their consciousness. It is true that a Harvard degree is still worth the price, but a college degree isn’t. On the other side, when historians a thousand years hence comment upon the civilization that the Americans helped to build, one thing they are sure to notice is the brief period during which an astonishing university system was created to raise the educational attainment of the masses, and how its very own scientific and technological achievements made those institutions redundant after about a century. The institutions fulfilled their purpose and then were not needed.

I am a union activist mainly by circumstance. The teachers’ unions probably need to adapt themselves to the genuine prospects for public and traditional private education in the coming years. We are not here to protect the economic interests or job security of the teachers. There is only one thing we do that is not made redundant by the changes that the information age has wrought. We do know how to humanize our students, how to elevate their thinking, but even that has changed. In all the ages of humankind, the teachers taught in virtue of superior knowledge and lengthier experience. The rate of change in the last 25 years has set the old formula on its head, and I find myself being educated by the adaptability of my own students, by their willingness to continue to seek their humanity and to show me that I do not have the answers to their questions, but am only in possession of older ways of asking them. I belong to the last generation of traditional teachers.

If today’s teachers could imitate the culture of mutual peer education that our students have created, we might be able to shed the habit of seeing ourselves as little repositories of specialized knowledge that professionals have customarily been. In the age to come, the lawyer is not the one with the law degree, it is the one who knows how to use the law for the chosen ends; the doctor is not the one with the medical degree, but the one who understands how to preserve and heal the body; and the teacher is not the one with a degree attesting to the mastery of a traditional discipline, but the one who knows how to learn and to model learning in the presence of others for their freely chosen imitation and variation. The next generation of teachers will do this more easily. But the next 25 years involves getting dinosaurs like me to adapt and to pitch in to make the changes more smoothly. I think that those who can model the habits of learning will always be able to make a living, but I doubt whether special institutions that gather such people into one place will always be necessary.

Traditional educational institutions in America are not inherently democratic, but are only contingently so, and only in some cases. Their common reliance upon a revenue stream is now all too obvious, and the reduction of tax support has led them to corporatize on one side and to unionize in response. This is a dialectical tension that wastes everyone’s energy, destroys communities, and leads nowhere. By contrast, the democratic purpose of education is the creation of responsible citizens and communities, and that can be accomplished in many ways, as the Occupy movements have so well demonstrated.

The standard enemies of the good society are always among us: greed, narrow self-interest, weakness of the will, fear of the unknown, incomprehension of our own weaknesses, and hubris. These must be resisted in every society, but a society that aspires to be democratic has a peculiar enemy, and that is ignorance, writ large. I mean not the passing ignorance of geography or history or math. I mean ignorance of our interconnections and interdependencies as communities and communities of communities. The good news is, from my point of view, that I see less of that sort of ignorance among my students than among my peers. Now if only the faculty and administration in Carbondale could overcome its utterly false sense of its place in the present. Our struggle last year may have been a successful symbol of resistance to corporatization, but if our ideas about a path to the future involve only the continued delivery of an outmoded education, then we might have done better to lose and get it over with.

Occupy Portland PHOTO: Bart Howard Everts

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