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I've been wanting to write about the ongoing labor action between the University of Michigan and the Lecturers' Employee Organization (LEO), the union affiliate representing the non-tenure track faculty at U of M's three campuses, but rather than opining on events distant from my specific, personal experience, I've asked Phil Christman, a lecturer at the University of Michigan and member of LEO to share his perspective. For more of Phil's writing you can subscribe to his Tiny Letter or check out his website. - JW
A Season of Strikes
By Phil Christman
You can tell a lot about a person by asking them which crisis they think American higher ed is in. On one hand you have cultural conservatives hawking a free speech crisis that more rigorous surveys have largely debunked, or finance types decrying the university’s supposedly ripe-for-disruption business model. But you don’t need to be a conservative—or a consultant hawking some useless piece of ed-tech—to worry that today’s students, burdened with debt and desperate for any advantage in an ugly job market, might be forced to prioritize the stuffing of resumes over the development of minds.
Then there’s my crisis: faculty labor. At the same time that universities have became widely seen as charging too much for too little, non-tenure-track faculty have notoriously grown in numbers while seeing precious few of those tuition dollars. (Where does the money go? To so-called academic capitalism, in some cases. To administrator salaries, in others. To open corruption, in others.) In 2018, faculty at campus after campus—from Loyola-Chicago, where faculty anger over stalled progress threatened to disrupt March Madness, to nearby University of Chicago, to Illinois’s Black Hawk College—-have responded to this absurdity by striking. That possibility still looms over negotiations between my employer, University of Michigan, and my union, LEO.
What goes too often unnoticed, though, is that the devaluation of learning and the devaluation of teaching are the same problem. Universities have come to understand themselves, at the highest levels, not as an investment for the public but as investment opportunities for one-percenters—with implications for everyone else.
As with so many other, similar shifts, in which public goods came to be seen as private opportunities, we can trace this one back to the ‘80s. It’s a complicated story—more like a set of overlapping causes that each intensified the other than a series of dominoes falling—but one convenient place to begin is with the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980. Cosponsored by Indiana Democrat Birch Bayh and the Kansas Republican Bob Dole (he of the ubiquitous commercials, oddly self-referential speech habits, and weirdly persistent campaign website), this act turned university faculty research from a collective, government-owned endeavor to a private, competitive pursuit. As Tressie McMillan Cottom and Gaye Tuchman have written, Bayh-Dole “encouraged higher education institutions to earn funds by patenting faculty inventions.” At the same time, anti-tax movements (such as the one that resulted in California’s notorious Proposition 13) left universities scrambling for new sources of revenue. “What forms of knowledge matter most” is a philosophical question, one that can be fruitfully debated but never answered. But “What forms of knowledge will get this university more patents” has a pretty easy answer. (Ironically, it’s not clear that patenting has proven to be the cash cow some universities may have hoped.)
Colleges also turned to corporate philanthropy—not to mention constant increases in tuition, which is often an unrestricted source of funding and thus a good way to “match” donations—to replace state tax dollars lost to the stagflating seventies. But humanities philanthropists, though they exist, are rarer than their corporate cousins, and rarer still is the Silicon Valley check that has no strings attached. This influence, far more than the vastly overstated effect of a STEM or business major on one’s job prospects, accounts for the predominance of these fields. It’s in corporate America’s interest to offload job training onto colleges. In the 1980s, as Michael Lewis points out in Liar’s Poker, it was normal for Ivy League English majors to find themselves, after a short orientation, working at white-shoe Wall Street firms. Today’s corporations prefer for that orientation to take place over four years, on someone else’s dime. It all results in a “skills-gap” myth that devalues liberal education and the critical-thinking skills it builds.
Meanwhile, if universities must make themselves attractive to the private sector, they’d need to be governed by people other than professors—that notoriously unruly bunch. Thus, as Mark Olssen and Michael A. Peters write, college government during this period saw “a shift from collegial or democratic governance in flat structures, to hierarchical models based on dictated management specifications of job performance.” And thus the explosive growth of higher-ed admin.
In an atmosphere like this, the central work of a university—teaching and learning—might look increasingly quaint: a case of Baumol’s cost disease waiting to happen. So it must be devalued. At University of Michigan, our institution, non-tenure-track lecturers at this world-renowned and well-heeled school make less than nearby community college teachers (despite those schools’ far smaller endowments). An audit found that lecturers receive back a tiny fraction of the $377 million dollars in surplus revenue we generate. It’s no surprise, then, that Michigan’s non-tenure track faculty recently voted to authorize a work stoppage. (For now, that possibility has been put on hold as negotiations continue in a somewhat more serious vein.)
What is surprising—and heartening—is the way faculty and students alike have found themselves realizing the promise of liberal education in the very act of preparing to bring their teaching to a temporary halt. University of Michigan students have responded to lecturers’ complaints with an outpouring of sympathy and promises of action. All semester, students have appeared in teachers’ offices, buttonholed lecturers after class, and signed up for picket shifts, driven in part by compassion, but equally by a burning intellectual curiosity about the nature of this place where they live and study. Some go even further. As Jon Marcus writes for The Hechinger Report, “one of the most active student clubs at Michigan State University” spends much of its time reading through forbidding financial documents to see how tuition dollars are being used. Community college instructors have done the same in Colorado, and similar efforts are underway among students at University of Michigan. Students and faculty coming together, in their free time, to engage in the close reading of hard texts, the untangling of difficult math problems, and the critique of powerful institutions: It’s enough to make you believe universities have a future after all.