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Us Versus Them: Laboring in the Academic Factory

Laboring in the Academic Factory

Michael Yates is a labor educator and professor of economics at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown. He is the author of Longer Hours, Fewer Jobs and Why Unions Matter (both published by Monthly Review Press). This essay was presented as a talk to the faculty at Jamestown Community College where they are in the midst of a bitter struggle for a new collective bargaining agreement. Notes to the essay are available from the MR office. Contact the assistant editor using our contact form.

Ten Tales from Academe at the End of the Century

Consider the following items culled from some of the journals, newspapers, and email discussion groups to which I subscribe:

  1. Administrators at York University in Toronto solicited corporations to place corporate logos on online courses conducted by the University, for ten thousand dollars per course.
  2. City University of New York canceled most of its remedial classes. The University of Pittsburgh eliminated special programs for underprepared (and typically poor and black) students while beginning an honor’s college.
  3. The University of Pittsburgh, awash in corporate and defense department money, canceled sabbatical leaves at our campus without faculty input. The VPAA, formerly just Dean, has begun to unilaterally implement major changes in tenure requirements.
  4. Several universities have cut lucrative deals with credit card companies, allowing them campus monopolies as credit purveyors. At one campus, the credit card company pays for student radio and television shows.
  5. The so-called “University” of Phoenix, a private, for-profit virtual college, now has ninety-eight campuses in thirty-one states and enrollment of more than fifty-five thousand students. “It has aggressively applied business strategies such as convenience, customer service, mass production, and corporate partnerships on its march across the country. “Phoenix has heavy-duty corporate customers, including Kodak, IBM, and GE and will be aggressively competing for the millions of adult students preparing for the multiple job changes former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich says we will all be making over the course of our working lives.
  6. The California State University system was preparing to “hand control of its inter-campus computer and telecommunications system to a private consortia managed by Microsoft and its hardware allies, GTE, Hughes, and Fujitsu.” This privatization of public education (which, fortunately, has been stalled due to well-organized political opposition) was fueled by the same forces that have led to the privatization of all sorts of public services, from garbage collection to prisons to college food services and campus police.
  7. Historian David Noble tells us that “Educom, the academic-corporate consortium, has recently established their Learning Infrastructure Initiative which includes the detailed study of what professors do, breaking the faculty job down in classic Tayloristic fashion into discrete tasks, and determining what parts can be automated or outsourced. Educom believes that course design, lectures, and even evaluation can all be standardized, mechanized, and consigned to outside vendors. ‘Today you’re looking at a highly personal human-mediated environment,’ Educom president Robert Heterich observed. ‘The potential to remove human mediation in some areas and replace it with automation—smart, computer-based, network-based systems—is tremendous. It’s gotta happen.’”(“Digital Diploma Mills,” Monthly Review, vol. 49, no. 9, February 1998.)
  8. During the first week of this month, in Manhattan’s 229 dollar per night (a special rate!) Millennium Broadway Hotel, a conference was held with the title, “Market-Driven Higher Education.” The blurb for this conference reads, “It’s Not Just Business, It’s Your Future: Is Higher Education for Sale? You bet it is. And everyone—corporations, non-profits, government agencies—wants a piece of it. How do you take advantage of market-driven education?” At this conference one could hear such luminaries as Benno Schmidt (former president of Yale and advisor to CCNY for the Mussolini of New York, Rudolph Giuliani) expound on such topics as “What the Market Wants,” and “The University Toolbox” (to discuss “creating for-profit subsidiaries, finding start-up capital, structuring deals, solving intellectual property problems, and more.”) Remarkably, the organizers of the conference tell attendees that you will “learn new ways of doing business, explore innovative deals and joint ventures, discover what funding sources want for their investment dollars, cope with resistance on the home front, andstill retain your core values.”(emphasis mine)
  9. In Silicon Valley; in Cambridge, MA; Dallas, TX; and around the country, high-tech industries and their nearby universities are becoming more and more integrated as faculty and administrators spin off businesses from publicly funded research and businesses brazenly use the universities as launch pads for new products and technologies.
  10. According to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), non-tenure track faculty now account for about half of all faculty appointments in U.S. higher education. Part-time faculty now account for about 38 percent of faculty appointments. The AAUP further reports that, “The average of 38% of all faculty who are part-time reaches 52 percent of all faculty in community colleges…Some community colleges depend on poorly paid, non-tenure track faculty members to remain in existence. Many of these institutions have no tenure system and appoint only a few full-time faculty members to organize and supervise a large department of part-time faculty.”

Brothers and Sisters, We’d Better Wake Up

On the last page of the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels say, “Workers of all countries, unite.” Now, I know that today, if pressed, many—even most—college teachers would say that Marx and Engels were not talking about them. They might admit that business interests dominate their boards of trustees; after all, Veblen wrote about this in 1918. And they might agree that there is considerable disparity between the pay and power of college administrators and themselves. However, they would not consider themselves to be anything as common as workers. Some may feel this way because they share fully the business values of the board members and most administrators, or at least believe that such values are necessary for the efficient operations of the universities. Not a few of them may aspire to be administrators someday. Others may think that, despite the values of board members, colleges are still somehow different from other workplaces. Colleges are places where administrators and teachers are colleagues, where these two groups settle their differences peacefully and without rancor. Many professors think of themselves as professionals, insulated from the crassness of the marketplace and the hurly-burly of the outside world of work. They are economists or chemists or mathematicians, not employees, much less workers. Administrators are simply persons whose job it is to facilitate the professors’ search for the truth; they are not “bosses.” Unions may be all right for steelworkers and coal miners, as the chancellor of our university once said in an anti-union memo sent to the faculty during an organizing campaign, but not for these professionals.

I must admit there are a few colleges or universities in which this academic fantasy is at least partially true. The senior professors in Harvard’s economics department, for example, could not reasonably be described as workers. They really are “professionals,” allied closely with the society’s movers and shakers (among whom are members of Harvard’s governing board), as are Harvard’s senior administrators. But for most of the rest of us, toilers in academe’s lower circles, this fantasy is just that, a delusion we cling to at our peril. I do not think it ever had any real truth to it, but today, it has no connection to reality whatsoever. For one thing has become clear: our colleges and universities, more and more, resemble academic factories, workplaces not much different in terms of their mode of operation than the glass factory in which my father labored or the day care center in which my wife and my daughter once worked.

Radical changes are occurring in academe, and I predict that in a few decades most colleges and universities will be unrecognizable to those of us who work in them today; that is, of course, unless we are willing to do something about it. In higher education today, the primary logic of a capitalist economy has finally struck us with full force. Unless we act, the result will be nothing less than the devolution of academe into an academic factory.

Our economic system is driven by the accumulation of capital, that is, by an attempt by the small minority of persons who own society’s productive wealth to maximize both the profits and the growth of their enterprises. This drive is incessant and gradually engulfs not only all of the globe but nearly every aspect of life in every nation on earth. Before the Second World War, our colleges and universities essentially served as training grounds for the economic elite, preparing them both to run their corporations and the machinery of the state, which has always served to aid and abet the accumulation process. After the war, when the industrial working class was poised to alter radically the nation’s political economic landscape, higher learning was, for the first time, opened up to large masses of non-elites. These graduates filled the rising number of managerial and technical jobs opened up by the tremendous postwar boom in the U.S. economy. However, as business employed its battery of managerial control techniques, such as the detailed division of labor and mechanization, relatively fewer of these graduates were needed to do skilled work. At the same time, more and more working-class people were demanding access to higher education (for example, ethnic minorities and women), both energized by the civil rights movements of the 1960s. The cultural revolution of this decade helped to bring this contradiction to a head. In its wake, college administrators, spurred on by business interests and their political allies, began to push schools away from the potentially radicalizing liberal arts toward a more career-oriented and narrowly technical curriculum.

Just as these changes were beginning, the long postwar boom ended—the consequence of intensifying global competition and its resultant overproduction. Profit margins plummeted, and corporations began to scramble to restore them. Their strategy to do this involved, first, an all-out assault on workers and their unions and a restructuring of work organization that has come to be known as “lean production.” This managerial system involves the intensification of work (speed-up), the elimination of full-time jobs and the use of a variety of contingent workers, the outsourcing of as much indirect labor as possible, the use of work teams that are given the illusion of decisionmaking power by the employer, and the use of electronic technology (developed, by the way, at public expense), that reduces the need for skilled workers and improves management’s ability to monitor and control every aspect of the labor process. Second, corporations aggressively began to seek new fields of capital accumulation. For example, the growth of new, knowledge-based industries (such as telecommunications, computers, biotechnology, and electronics) led to the commodification of ideas, which soon became intellectual property, protected by laws and trade agreements. Third, business placed great pressure on government at all levels to cut severely all public expenditures not directly related to capital accumulation (broadly construed to include spending on defense and police).

This period of economic crisis had profound effects on our colleges and universities, effects similar in most respects to what was going on in the production of more mundane goods and services, from automobiles to airline tickets. Faced with budget crises, administrators became increasingly cost conscious. Cost cutting began in earnest, mainly through the employment of part-time and adjunct teachers and full-time professors outside of the tenure stream. A business mentality began to pervade the schools, and one result was the hiring of nonacademics to administer them. (The conquest of academe by this business mentality can be seen today in the corporate titles of administrators). Colleges also began to solicit corporate funding more actively, to substitute for the decline in public funding.

The closer interface between business and higher education opened the eyes of business to new opportunities to make money. Costs could be externalized if research and development could be done in the universities and transferred to corporations. This meant a de-emphasis on basic scientific research and a focus on research that would yield immediate returns. (Creative ways must sometimes be found to disguise research for a specific corporation as more abstract general research). A big breakthrough occurred when universities were given the legal right to own patents on university-conducted research. This was seen by schools as a potentially large moneymaker and by the corporations as cheap capital. All sorts of university-corporate deals were made; spinoff businesses were formed; and some faculty and administrators got rich. The consequences for most of us, though, were spiraling tuition, as the schools spent enormous sums on the fixed capital (labs and equipment, for example) necessary for the production of patentable research; swelling class sizes; falling real faculty salaries; and further use of contingent teachers.

Once a production space becomes a site of capital accumulation, the process becomes inexorable. As Noble points out, the commodification of academic research has been followed by that of instruction itself; in fact, he argues, this second commodification is being touted as the solution to the crisis in education caused by the first. Corporations and their academic allies are rushing to produce and sell software and hardware. As I have said elsewhere, “The electronic revolution confronts us with the most extreme assault on our traditional patterns of work. The handwriting is on the wall. The future will see more and more distance education, the cloning of lectures captured on video and sent out over the web, the forcing of faculty to put their courses online, increased electronic monitoring of faculty effort, and other such methods of substituting capital for labor.”

As any thoughtful person can see, these trends in higher education are absolutely incompatible with traditional academic work arrangements. The corporate-administrative juggernaut cannot do what it pleases as long as we control the conceptualization and execution of work, have tenure, and exert real pressure on managerial decisions. Therefore, we are witnessing the implementation of lean production inside of our ivy-covered walls. Tenure is on the ropes, to put it mildly, a victim of management’s war of attrition and a propaganda campaign portraying us as hidebound, lazy, and privileged. We are facing continual speed-up and denial of traditional faculty rights such as sabbaticals, travel budgets, and the right to be consulted before important managerial decisions are made.

What is more, the debasement of our labor coincides with the debasement of education. Management tells us that our students are consumers of a product, no different in principle than the fact that they are consumers of CD players and sneakers. We must be concerned only with the quality of our product, but the clear implication is that education must be put on a par with CD players if education’s quality is to be measured in the same way as that of the CD player. Measurable competencies are taking the place of all-round education, something which (by its very nature) cannot be measured or quality-controlled. And as students pick up on this notion of themselves as consumers of a measurable product, they come to treat education as a purchase. Just as it is unreasonable for the supplier to expect that any real effort beyond the purchase has to be exerted by the buyer of a CD player, so too it is unreasonable for us to expect anything from our students. In fact, in the new market-driven colleges, we more or less disappear, a part of the product purchased by the student-consumers.

What is happening in much of higher education is occurring throughout U.S. industry. An unstated reason for the attack on teachers is the unwillingness of corporate capital to tolerate the bad example that our traditional way of working provides for other workers.

No group of workers can be allowed to have real control over their work; this is the province of the management. But as our labor is daily demeaned and devalued, we become just like other workers. There is no basis whatsoever either for us to feel superior to other workers or for them to consider us as thoroughly unlike them. We have more in common with auto workers, meatpackers, and clerical employees than we have with our employers. And this offers us some hope. For it is possible to resist the corporatization of the academy. Some of us have unionized and are using unions to fight back. This is a very good thing and ought to be embraced by millions of other teachers around the country. Already the most exploited teachers (the graduate assistants, adjuncts, and part-timers) are organizing, and we should encourage and support these efforts.

However, we are going to need help, and the best source of this aid is the rest of the working class. We need to elicit the support of other workers, including many of our students. We need to ally ourselves with the other workers on our own campuses, supporting their organizing drives, bargaining, and strikes, as well as their informal struggles in nonunion settings. We need to participate actively in the central labor councils of our towns and counties, insisting on union support for our struggles and offering our support for the struggles of other unions. The same can be said for progressive community groups and their struggles. As educators, we might begin to offer informal classes for other groups of workers. And we can, whenever possible, bring a working-class perspective into our own college classrooms and discuss not only labor history and working-class culture but the nature of work itself, in general and in our own workplaces. Students need to know what awaits them unless they, too, fight back; they need to know that we are sympathetic and will fight for them and for ourselves.

All of these things matter greatly. Of course, unionization makes us much better off in terms of wages, benefits, and terms and conditions of employment. It gives us a voice in our workplaces, and it compels our employers to treat us with some dignity. But building bridges, building a movement, also pays off, as the great labor crusade of the 1930s demonstrates. A strong working class changes all political parameters and makes possible what is only a dream otherwise. If we want to reverse what is happening to us, we must participate not only in our own struggles but in the larger struggle to build an egalitarian and democratic society—one in which critical education is seen as a social good, and in which preparing students simply to be team players, adaptable to whatever the winds of economic change blow their way, is seen as a form of social insanity.

Let me conclude by rephrasing Marx’s and Engel’s famous exhortation: “Teachers of the world, you are workers too. Unite.”