Soft Promises, Hard Realities

The supports that make life in academe possible for so many of us -- especially those marginalized by race, class, gender, sexuality and disability -- are being revoked, writes Carolyn Chernoff.

December 4, 2020

After Bozeman’s only homeless shelter was closed in early 2020, Montana State University staff and faculty donated tents and sleeping bags so that people could sleep outside. There is a growing community of locals sleeping in their cars in the Walmart parking lot. And winter is coming.

Bozeman winter is known for plenty of snow and brutal temperatures. It’s nestled high in the Rocky Mountains, and temperatures hover around zero for weeks on end. The mountains, snow and thriving winter sports scene attract high-income tourists. Beyond winter, the town has become a Silicon Valley exurb, with rapid gentrification and an out-of-control housing market to match.

There is currently no vacancy for rental units in Bozeman. The median price of a single-family house is $575,000, and more recent data puts it even higher. Airbnb has decimated the city’s rental market, and off-campus housing at MSU has evaporated. Because this is Montana, there are few, if any, nearby towns, cities or suburbs with cheaper or more available housing. For university faculty and staff, subsidized faculty housing has been essential.

And now? Faculty and staff members who reside in the university’s Family and Graduate Housing -- a group that includes many Black, Indigenous and people of color -- are being evicted. Confidential sources report this from personal experience and observation; the university’s housing office will not release demographic information on its residents. Originally, the evictions were scheduled for winter. The Faculty Senate has managed to change the eviction date to June 2021. Regardless of season, these evictions are imminent, in a town with no available rental housing, no affordable housing beyond the boardinghouses run by slumlords and pitched at students, and no homeless shelters. Faculty and staff may be sleeping in their cars at Walmart in sleeping bags they themselves donated.

Housing is a human right, but for many university employees, it becomes a privilege. Right now, some of my colleagues are facing eviction from the university housing. This housing, although never part of a formal contract, was central to their ability to move to a fully saturated housing market like Bozeman. Especially for faculty and staff relocating from out of state or internationally, with heavy student loan or other debt, and no nearby family or support networks, the subsidized housing universities offer is a lifeline. They are often the only reason people are able to relocate to take jobs. For many faculty members, the soft promise of university housing is essential.

As with many soft promises, however, the realities are hard. Soft promises, like soft money, can be withdrawn at any time. And that’s what’s happening now, as the looming eviction crisis meets COVID-19 and the seemingly imminent collapse of the neoliberal university. COVID is accelerating the financialization of the university. The MSU example sits at the intersection of the pandemic, economic collapse, the housing crisis and the neoliberalization of academe, all of which can push institutions to put profits before people, remove safety nets and then blame people for structural failures.

For faculty and staff across higher education, the losses are staggering. Some people are furloughed. The historic protections of tenure are being weakened, if not revoked. Salary reductions are common. And the soft promises that make life in academe possible for so many of us, especially those of us marginalized by race, class, gender, sexuality and disability? Those are being revoked. The results are devastating.

MSU is the flagship land-grant university of Montana. It is a major, well-funded top research institution that was not struggling financially before COVID hit, and by all accounts, it is not struggling now. Enrollments are on the rise, and huge construction projects are underway. The university says that with rising student enrollment, faculty need to move. They do not talk about whether students will be charged more than faculty pay in rent, or why enrollments continue to be raised without adequate infrastructure. They don’t seem to consider that students deserve a quality education, and that faculty cannot teach well when they are housing insecure.

Like other university-related issues, housing is an issue of racial equity. Bozeman is 92 percent white as of the 2010 Census, but MSU’s family housing is, by some accounts, 50 percent BIPOC.

Irving Elementary, the zoned school for MSU faculty and graduate housing, is 68 percent white. The public school that serves families in university housing -- again, a number of whom are BIPOC -- is dubbed “the international school” because it is the only school with an ethnically and linguistically diverse student body. Out of eight Bozeman public elementary schools, Irving is the only one whose mission statement even mentions a commitment to ethnic and cultural diversity. According to state data accessed through the Bozeman public school website, five out of eight elementary schools have too few English language learner students to record any data at all. While three of the eight elementary schools do have data showing ELL students making progress towards proficiency, Irving and one other school have ELL students making progress towards proficiency at rates of 62 percent and 69 percent, respectively. This all means that many families evicted from university housing would not only have to try to locate nonexistent housing but also pull their children from the one school in town with the resources to educate them.

When the local newspaper finally covered the looming evictions, it mostly repeated the university’s perspective. No one was willing to talk on the record, but the majority of those willing to talk under anonymity were custodial staff. The university denied the plan to evict faculty and staff from university housing in the middle of winter. Then tenants were given until June, they said. Again, confidential informants have documents from Faculty Senate meetings showing that the initial eviction date was extended after faculty and staff pushback.

No matter what the season, however, there’s no open housing, period, much less affordable housing for families. Where will they go?

Tenured and tenure-track faculty are reluctant to raise any issues. The threat of retaliation is real, even for those somewhat buffered from the harshest consequences by tenure. But someone has to speak out. And usually it’s people with the most to lose: those most marginalized by employment, race, class, gender, sexuality, immigration status and the like.

Marginalized folks with marginalized jobs stand to lose, well, everything if we speak out or question the neoliberal university. Who wants to be evicted, period, much less during a freezing Montana winter with no available housing? Again, people sleep in cars in the local Walmart parking lot. Of course, people also die of hypothermia that way.

While MSU is just one case, the soft promises made to recruit faculty to areas outside major cities play a major role in many people’s lives. Soft promises include housing, the likelihood of contract renewal, even things like discounted meals at university cafeterias. None of this is in writing, but without such supports, many faculty and staff members would not be able to live to keep the university running.

Will your tenure protect you? There are fewer and fewer guarantees, as COVID and the looming eviction crisis meet the aftermath of decades of neoliberal university policies that strengthen administration and weaken protections for faculty. At one time, tenure meant that you had a job for life. At this point, tenure is a hard “maybe” for more and more academics. We knew that adjunct professors teaching classes for $2,000 a pop were working past capacity and vulnerable to no end of misery. More and more people inside and outside academia have become aware of what an adjunctified university looks like, and the literal and metaphorical costs of running on precarious labor.

Many tenure-track and tenured faculty may still believe that they are invulnerable, while contingent faculty and staff are ringing alarm bells all around us. But the eviction crisis is looming, and combined with COVID and the collapse of the neoliberal university, it should be clear: your tenure will not protect you. Your CV will not protect you.

However, your colleagues, especially staff and precariously employed scholars, might. Make no mistake: this is a structural problem. It requires structural solutions, not individual ones. As I’ve argued before, tenured faculty can and should use their limited power in solidarity with their contingent peers and especially in solidarity with staff to push for such structural solutions.

The U.S. housing crisis is inseparable from the contemporary neoliberal university, from rapid gentrification to lack of faculty and staff support. The COVID crisis has simply accelerated the pace of cuts. In some cases, publicity and pressure seem to help. What’s happening in Bozeman is not isolated -- just one of many cases to come.

I hope I’m wrong. Please, prove me wrong.

Inside Higher Ed reached out to Montana State University, which had the following comment:

Montana State University appreciates the courtesy Inside Higher Ed extended to respond to Carolyn Chernoff’s editorial. The decision to ask the 78 faculty and staff in those housing units to leave by June 30, 2021 was not made lightly. Like in so many other cities around the globe, affordable housing is a scarce resource in the Bozeman community. When any institution is faced with having to make decisions about [scarce] resources it does so by following its primary, guiding reason for being -- its mission. As a land-grant university, the mission of Montana State University is to serve the sons and daughters of working families. As difficult as it may be for faculty and staff to find housing -- faculty and staff who are employed, receive a salary plus benefits and in some cases have lived in these below-market units for up to eight years -- it is orders of magnitude more difficult for our students.

Our students are the most vulnerable part of the equation: they are trying to get a start on their lives and they are paying tuition. Some of them arrive as single parents seeking family housing. Many come from other countries or other parts of Montana and the United States and they know little to nothing about the city. At MSU, we have called these units “Family and Graduate Housing,” because the units are intended for graduate students and for undergraduate students with children, including single parents, who may be first in their family to pursue a college education -- they could be … if the units were not being used by employees.

For eight years and more, a tiny minority of the university’s employees have lived in below-market rate housing that is only made possible by the fees students pay into the overall university housing enterprise. The other thousands of the university’s employees have never enjoyed such largess, nor have the more than 78 students who could have been living in those units. It is worth noting, the university gave this group of 78 employees nine months advance notice.

There will be no change in the cost of rent when these units become occupied by students, as Chernoff implies. Indeed, the employees living in the units now pay student rental rates. There is no profit motive in this decision to return these units to their first and primary purpose, only a devotion to the very reason for the university’s existence -- to serve students, who, likewise, cannot learn when they are housing insecure.


Carolyn Chernoff is a sociologist of everyday culture and inequality. She earned her Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania and has taught at Ursinus, Skidmore and Muhlenberg Colleges and Moore College of Art & Design. She is a board member of Philadelphia’s Leeway Foundation, the co-founder of the Girls’ DJ Collective and an inaugural fellow at the Soapbox Community Print Shop & Zine Library. She is also the co-editor, with Janise Hurtig, of Contested Spaces of Teaching and Learning (Lexington, 2019).


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