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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.

Title

Lessons in Leverage in the Time of Coronavirus

Those with leverage are using it. Those without it must find new ways to influence those who hold power.

August 5, 2020
 
 

The opening of college campuses to face-to-face instruction has become increasingly contentious the closer we get to the actual date for the start of class.

In a lot of cases, schools are admitting to the inevitable and saying they’re either going to start the semester online with the hope that they can shift to in-person instruction at some point, or they're declaring outright they’re going to spend the entire semester online.[1]

According to data from the C2 Initiative, as of July 31, 2.5 percent of institutions they track plan for fully in person, 21 percent are primarily in person, 16 percent are hybrid, 4.7 percent are fully online and 24 percent primarily online, with the largest proportion, 26 percent, still TBD.

The rationale for in-person instruction -- that schools cannot operate without the revenue students bring with their bodies to campus -- is becoming more and more plain and is mounting evidence of the terrible cost of allowing our public universities to become privatized as schools try to operate in the midst of an unchecked pandemic.

We are also getting lessons in how leverage works inside these ostensibly public institutions that are, in reality, pretty much wholly privatized.

The University System of Georgia is experiencing what I would call extortion at the hands of the company to which it outsourced the construction and operation of its dormitories. This process involved the creation of debt that the USOG agreed to secure through student housing fee revenue. Corvias, the company that took over the operations of the dorms, made it clear to the USOG that it would be collecting that money whether students were present or not.

Of the three options open to board of the University of Georgia System (BORUSG) -- fill the beds with students, pay the fee but leave the beds empty, negotiate an out with Corvias -- the BORUSG has chosen to try to fill the beds.

Here we have a clear example of leverage, perhaps the most powerful form of leverage -- a threat over money, lots of money. I would call this a scandal, except it’s all in the contracts the institutions signed of their own free will. Doesn’t mean it shouldn’t make us angry, though.

There’s another group recognizing its leverage and using it to protect their own interests -- the football players of the Pac-12 conference, who say that are going to opt out of participating in both preseason training and regular season games unless their demands for improved COVID-19 safety protocols, attention to issues of racial equality and disputes over the rights of athletes to profit from their own likenesses are resolved.

We’re looking at the potential for a direct labor action, even in the absence of a union, and it is happening because athletes are realizing how much leverage they have over a multibillion-dollar business that makes coaches and television networks extremely wealthy but provides them nothing beyond a college scholarship and a small chance at a likely short professional career.

Good for them. I hope they hold strong.

One of the things we’re seeing in this period is how little leverage most faculty have over the decisions of their administrations. In a lot of cases, faculty (provided they are tenured) may be given some measure of autonomy over their own choice -- to teach in person or remote, for example -- but little to no say over the broader institutional policy. Shared governance has devolved to some faculty being able to opt out of things they don’t want to do … maybe.

At best, in many cases faculty are only left with writing public criticisms and petitioning their administrations, as illustrated by this effort at Kutztown University, identifying what they see as problems with the university’s back-to-school plan. By itself it’s just a plea for those with the power to change their minds with little leverage behind it.

As part of this larger context, I was interested in the actions of a group of faculty from the University of North Carolina who chose to write not to their administration, but directly to undergraduate students in an open letter.

In it they express a strong desire to teach in person that cannot be fulfilled because they cannot “in good conscience” perform this role when the best way to stay safe from COVID-19 is to have as many people stay home as possible. They state their underlying ethos here:

Keeping one another safe and healthy over the next several months has to be our collective goal. We are teaching online as part of our contribution to that effort, and we invite you to join us. We have spent much of the summer working hard to ensure that our online classes are the best that they can be. We are confident that what we offer you, safely, online, will be better than what we can do under the compromised conditions of the face to face classroom during the pandemic.

As an appreciator of rhetoric, I am fascinated and impressed by the choice to speak directly to students themselves, rather than petitioning the administration. In many ways, this is a tacit admission of the lack of leverage that faculty have in this scenario.

But just as importantly, it is a recognition of where faculty believe they may actually have the most influence, with students. The call to stay distanced as one stemming from matters of “conscience” is also noteworthy, and in stark contrast to UNC administrators who, as reported by The Washington Post, are concerned about “revenue losses.”

The faculty open letter positions them not only in opposition to the administrative decision, but opposed to the underlying rationale that revenue trumps concerns of safety and community well-being. Long term, this creates an obvious tension between those who run the university’s operations and those who do the labor of the university.

My view is that the letter draws those with the leverage -- tuition-paying students -- to the side of faculty. We will see what consequences this may bring over time.

That we are even having these problems is a statement to how very far our ostensibly public institutions are from being able to carry out a public mission. In a world where public higher ed hadn’t been privatized, you would see the vast majority of institutions having declared intentions for a remote semester with a reversion to face-to-face if possible months ago. We are in fact seeing this with community colleges, which are the category of institution closest to a truly public mission, and less likely to be beholden to privatized sources of revenue like dining and dorms.

This is just another reason why I believe public higher ed needs a significant remaking so our institutions can actually live by the values they claim for themselves.

--

I’ll be offering a blueprint of how we can remake our institutions in Sustainable. Resilient. Free.: The Future of Public Higher Education, available now for preorder.

As always, if you want to reach me directly, you can find me at [email protected].


[1] Robert Kelchen keeps a running tally on Twitter.

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