Higher Education Is Now a Battlefield Between Workers and Corporatization

Capitalism eventually ruins all good things.

Corporate CEOs override COVID safety measures with demands to “reopen the economy,” a sanitized term for “keep our profits flowing.” Wall Street’s next quarterly earnings trump measures to address the climate crisis. Even social housing, food and medical programs originally intended to uplift humanity are disciplined to monetize everything and embrace business models that differentiate the “deserving” from the “undeserving.”

Higher education, too, has been a central arena of struggle between profit motive and social good. As Joe Berry and Helena Worthen note in their book, Power Despite Precarity: Strategies for the Contingent Faculty Movement in Higher Education (Pluto Press, 2021), in the last 40 years, “we have seen higher education transformed into a profit-seeking industry.… The flow of money through the whole project of academic research has distorted what is studied, what is judged, what is published and who has access to it.” And with soaring tuition, endless fees and hidden add-on costs, along with privatized student loans and soaring student debt, “The higher ed industry, like the real estate industry and its sibling, the finance industry, has found a way to suck down the wealth accumulated by the previous generation during the 1950s and 1960s.”

Look beyond higher ed’s Latinate mottos and lofty paeans to truth and knowledge to see what’s steering the ship of higher education: Just survey the building names at your local university. In my hometown of Seattle, you can stroll to the University of Washington’s Bank of America Executive Education Center (with its Boeing Auditorium), adjacent to the business school housed in PACCAR Hall, “named for the Bellevue truck manufacturer, PACCAR Inc., in recognition of its $16 million gift to the UW.” (Apparently with an eight-figure gift you get ALL CAPS naming rights.) Walk south and on your right, you’ll see the William H. Gates Law School, named after corporate lawyer and father of Microsoft founder and centibillionaire Bill Gates. Then go past the former Physics Building now christened after the elder Gates’s wife, Mary Gates, between the two computer science buildings bearing the names of Bill Gates and Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen, and across the pedestrian overpass to catch a basketball game at the Alaska Airlines Arena, or perhaps a tennis match at the adjacent Nordstrom Tennis Center.

Mind you, this is supposed to be a public institution.

The ego-boosting naming rights and the tax deductions that these elites reap, along with the governing board positions that their generosity purchases, are accessory benefits to their real objective: The creation and maintenance of a publicly funded assembly line producing the intellectual capital necessary to feed their voracious private profit machines.

Fortunately, this dystopian vision is not without organized resistance. It’s centered in the growing army of precarious university workers, who together perform most of the teaching and research in higher ed.

Fifty years ago, more than three-quarters of university faculty were tenure or tenure-track, and only one quarter were temporary teachers, or adjuncts. Today, those numbers have flipped, with 75 percent of college classroom teachers being precariously employed, as “adjuncts,” lecturers or doctoral candidate teaching assistants. They have no long-term job security. They must stay keenly on the lookout every year — or even every academic term — to secure their next teaching or research gig. It’s not that different from Uber drivers hustling for the next ride.

These are the frontline workers of the academy, and they see and experience firsthand the damage that corporatization inflicts: For students, the stress of deep debts, high rents and a lack of proper supports; for the teachers, poverty pay, housing insecurity, deferred medical care and the mental burdens that every precarious worker bears in the capitalist economy.

As administrations downsized tenure and conjured up a mass workforce of precariously employed teachers and researchers, the new proletariat organized. Today a significant percentage of the teachers, from community colleges to major public and private research institutions, have formed unions to battle for better job security, higher pay, decent benefits and reasonable workloads.

Power Despite Precarity takes a deep dive into one front in this global battlefield. Authors Berry and Worthen, who combined have decades of teaching and academic organizing experience, offer the reader an extended, classroom-level case study of how educators in the California State University system organized and built power: First, by taking on and overcoming institutional inertia and elitism within their own union ranks, and then, by challenging the university administration.

The authors describe how in 1960, California established a plan that intended to open up higher education broadly by making it free at all levels — community colleges, Cal State universities and the University of California system. This notion of education as a social good, as opposed to a commodity to be purchased, has been at the center of the struggle not just in California but nationwide over the last 60 years.

In California, the 1978 passage of Proposition 13 defunded education and other social services, triggering a seismic shift amplified by the subsequent budget choices of both Democratic and Republican state lawmakers. In the late 1970s, California legislators budgeted three times as much state funding for the University of California and Cal State systems as they did for state prisons. Forty years later, those state aid percentages are practically reversed. Thus, “state support was channeled away from public welfare to punitive functions that target marginalized populations,” note Laura Hamilton and Kelly Nielsen in Broke: The Racial Consequences of Underfunding Public Universities, another excellent book dissecting the corporate heist of the academy.

But defunding higher ed wasn’t enough to tilt the balance sufficiently toward corporate power. Worker power also had to be held in check through divide-and-conquer employment schemes. Berry and Worthen note that the same decade of the 1970s also saw a pronounced university tilt toward hiring contingent faculty, fostering divisions in the ranks of educators. “The creation of a permanent two-tier system within the faculty was a powerful weapon against the emerging faculty unionization movement,” they write.

At Cal State, it took a while for educators to fight back. Berry and Worthen trace the history of lecturers organizing and struggling to build unity with tenured faculty at Cal State’s 23 campuses. Poorly negotiated union contracts in 1995 and again four years later drove the educators — led by younger, more militant lecturers — to win a contested leadership election and begin to steer the union in a progressive direction.

The book describes a number of steps the new leadership took, each one an important element to rebuilding a union in any industry: The creation of organizing structures on each campus, one-on-one conversations to build membership and identify leaders, strategic planning to develop the union’s own vision for the future of the university, and contract campaigns that built toward strike readiness. Notably, the authors describe how the new leadership brought in Ruckus Society activists to teach the teachers how to carry out direct actions. It’s a good example of the sort of cross-fertilization that needs to be done more frequently in the labor movement.

As grassroots activists, Berry and Worthen do a thorough job of detailing — occasionally at a very granular level — the formative steps that activists took to reclaim and rebuild their union. Their paragraph-long quotations of union members properly lift up the voices and vital experiences of rank-and-file activists — all too often overlooked in union histories. They devote several chapters at the end of the book to important questions for any union organizer seeking to build power, including, “What gets people moving?” “Who is the enemy?” “Who are our allies?”

Berry and Worthen also dedicate two chapters to what they call “Blue Sky proposals,” in which they lay out a set of ambitious goals largely framed around union contract battles. All good ideas, to be sure, but contract bargaining over wages and working conditions is only an entryway into the larger fight for the soul of higher education. From the chapter titles, I was hoping for deep azure vistas but got only robin’s egg blue. I finished the book still hungry to learn more about how Berry and Worthen, as longtime socialists, would circle back to their opening critique of the capitalist hijacking of higher ed and apply their considerable experiences to articulate a social movement vision for higher education unions. Perhaps this will be their follow-up book.

That bigger vision is, indeed, urgently required today. The billionaires whose names adorn campus buildings across the country can correctly boast that they’ve made substantial progress in capturing control over higher education. The organized resistance of the academy’s workers and students is the only thing that stands in the way of a full takeover.

Fighting for good wages and benefits and greater job security in the manner that Berry and Worthen detail is an essential step in that resistance. But it is not sufficient. For instance, unions — whether in higher ed, transportation, warehousing or food delivery — must not limit their efforts to managing precarity in the near term, but rather should build fights demanding an end to job insecurity, period.

Contract bargaining in particular is a time for workers to issue these bold challenges. It’s also the right time to raise basic questions around power, control and the mission of the university, counterposing our vision of social good with their vision of private profit. And we should measure our progress, fight by fight, strike by strike, not just by the quality of contracts won, but also by the degree to which we succeed in loosening the profiteers’ grip and steering the academy back toward a place of learning that serves everyone and society at large.