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Public Universities Run on Underpaid Labor. Now Grad Workers Are Fighting Back.

From Temple University to Rutgers, the devaluation of academic labor has its roots in decades of neoliberalism.

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The public university is at a tipping point, says Manasa Gopakumar, a fifth-year graduate worker in the Philosophy Department at Temple University in Philadelphia. Since last January, Gopakumar and other graduate workers in the Temple University Graduate Students’ Association (TUGSA) have organized around significant issues affecting them, including pay, health care, paid parental leave, workload and work assignments.

The cost of living in Philadelphia has been steadily rising, and TUGSA has demanded pay that compensates for this reality and for the work that graduate workers already do. TUGSA is asking for a $32,800 base salary, a reasonable demand considering how much of the University’s teaching and research currently falls on graduate workers, many of whom can no longer count on tenure-track careers post-graduation.

Unsurprisingly, the administration at Temple dragged its feet over the final months of 2022, leading TUGSA to declare a strike at the end of January this year. Lashing out, the Temple administration responded by cruelly stripping away tuition remission and health care benefits for striking grads.

“We’re hearing from so many graduate workers that if Temple doesn’t end up giving us respectable wages, then many of them are considering dropping out of their programs,” Gopakumar explained. “It’s just not sustainable, no matter how passionate you are, what your research interests are. If you can’t make ends meet, it’s just not worth it.”

Currently, Temple University graduate workers earn slightly above or less than $20,000 each year working 30-40 hours or more a week grading and teaching classes. This does not include additional hours spent on their own research projects undertaken to attain doctoral degrees that are often necessary to land more financially secure faculty positions.

“On top of your teaching duties, you have to somehow find time to do your actual research for your dissertation,” Gopakumar said. “It’s unbelievably stressful.”

Unfortunately, the crisis at Temple is not unique. Instead, it exemplifies a growing dilemma at many public universities.

The Erosion of the Public University

Since the 1980s, U.S. public universities have become vessels of neoliberal dogma, with administrators obsessed with finding ways to turn a profit rather than providing support for teaching and research staff. One of the major tactics for accruing more profit, wealth and influence for university administrations has been the process of cultivating a workforce of precarious labor, made up of graduate workers, adjuncts and non-tenure-track faculty. This workforce can be paid less while being compelled to do many of the same duties as full-time faculty, with little or no job protections. In a majority of states, those who are part of this precarious workforce are considered “at-will employees,” meaning their contracts can be terminated for nearly any reason.

This neoliberal thinking has also placed the public university on a dangerous and delusional long-term path. At public universities like Temple, Rutgers — where I currently study and teach — and others, such as the schools of the University of California system, a significant portion of the teaching course load falls on the shoulders of people who are not paid anything close to a living wage. Not being able to make a living wage while still having to teach and research can be overwhelming and will drain people of their passion for their academic work.

These developments may ultimately lead to graduate workers and adjuncts fleeing academia altogether, with classes being left without expert instructors, and research also deteriorating among graduate workers and faculty who depend on one another for research help. The public university, overall, will suffer. Not to mention the fact that this cost-cutting compromises the learning experience for most undergrads. Already we’re seeing universities like Rutgers siphoning off money from departments, forcing them to make do with less funding, which leads to larger classes and a lower-quality educational experience as a result.

“That is what we’ve been saying for more than a year since we started negotiating,” Gopakumar said. “The university doesn’t put education and doesn’t put people over profits. That is a big problem. That is self-destructive.”

Hank Kalet is the campus vice president of the New Brunswick chapter of the adjuncts’ faculty union at Rutgers. He teaches journalism in the School of Communications and Information at Rutgers and writing at Middlesex County College and Brookdale Community College, cobbling together classes to make some kind of living. He writes about his experiences as what he describes as a “gig worker” in academia for outlets like The Progressive, disseminating a historical view of the trajectory of the public university over the past few decades.

“This process started in the 1970s and was accelerated under the Reagan administration in the ‘80s,” Kalet explained. “You’d see state and federal funding for universities start to get stripped away, to get reduced really fast, and universities also were run by people seeking profit.”

It is important not to romanticize the public university, given its history of exclusion of women and people of color. Yet, just as such exclusionary laws and standards were being lifted in the 1950s, ‘60s and early ‘70s, public universities became places where a growing number of people could attend in the hopes of receiving post-secondary education with very little cost or debt. In fact, it was at public universities where leaders of radical groups pursuing justice, like the main co-founders of the Black Panther Party, had met and organized together.

This period of radical change was also seen as “chaotic,” especially by conservative firebrands, such as Ronald Reagan himself while he was governor of California. Reagan would have rather had a passive population taught U.S. exceptionalism and distortion instead of groups of people, especially the marginalized, tapping into knowledge that would empower them. As Nancy MacLean would document in her book Democracy in Chains, public university leaders and politicians paid heed to neoliberal thinkers, arguing that students and faculty had to be disciplined in some way. Too many were too free, according to thinkers like economist James Buchanan, to be “anti-American” and take part in antiwar protests and similar events across campuses. By the late ‘70s, states would rescind much of their financial support for public universities, and appoint administrators who saw the university as a “business” venture. Today we are witnessing precisely this model of a corporatized university driven by profits, replacing their mission to educate and provide access to those for whom a post-secondary education is out of reach.

Within the corporatized university department budgets were slashed, with the humanities and social sciences being the prime targets of such cuts. This was followed by the shrinking of available tenure-track lines. Fewer and fewer tenure-track lines are now offered due to an emphasis on contingent labor and as a result, those earning their Ph.D. are compelled to work in academia as adjuncts or non-tenure-track faculty instead. Meanwhile, as the number of tenure-track jobs has decreased, class sizes have expanded.

“In the 1970s, at least 70 percent of those teaching courses were tenure-track,” Kalet said. “Now, it’s reversed, with only 30 percent tenure-track faculty. At Rutgers, you have one in every three classes being taught by a grad worker or non-tenure-track faculty, one in three taught by adjuncts and one in three by tenured and tenure-track faculty.”

At Temple, many of the core classes that all undergraduates need to advance are also taught by graduate workers, Gopakumar explains. Similarly, graduate workers at institutions like Rutgers and others sustain prestige for the university’s image, much the same way as any faculty would, by attending conferences and producing research that increases the ranking of the university on major listings.

“We bring value to the university,” said Sarah DeGiorgis, a fifth-year Ph.D. graduate worker in public policy at Rutgers in Camden. “But we need better pay to reflect that value. And more time to do the research we need to do. We can’t be expected to teach multiple classes too when we’re stretched so thin.”

The American Association of University Professors and American Federation of Teachers (AAUP-AFT) for faculty and graduate workers have demanded that Rutgers increase the pay for graduate workers to $37,000, which is still far less than ideal for anyone living in New Jersey. Adjunct faculty are currently paid half of what non-tenure-track full-time faculty would earn for teaching the same number of classes. Hence, a critical demand has been “equal pay for equal work.” Non-full-time adjunct faculty also do not yet receive any benefits, including health insurance. Right now, Rutgers faculty and graduate workers are gearing up for what could be one of the largest strike actions at a public university.

“I want to stay in academia, and I research on a topic like housing, which has gained popularity at least,” DeGiorgis said. “But I know a lot of people who are leaving, from other departments like English. You have passionate people being driven out. Who’s going to replace them to teach all these classes?”

Rather than negotiate fairly and listen to demands, Temple has hired scabs, according to Gopakumar. These strike-breaking workers include some faculty who are now teaching classes outside their own expertise, such as economics professors teaching philosophy classes. But perhaps more shocking are individuals who were picked seemingly at random to teach at the university level. People outside the university, including those who work in real estate, were asked to teach some of the core classes. Such a tactic proves how university administrators are viewing education as just some packaged product that anyone can offer, rather than something that requires skill and a passion for the subject that goes beyond profit-making.

“The graduate workers, faculty and undergraduates who are here to learn — all of them are horrified at what is happening,” Gopakumar stated. “The administration is so out of touch with reality. They’re so out of touch with what makes a university thrive. Seeing them go about making such rash irresponsible decisions is extremely sad and disturbing.”

By not meeting the demands and interests of its employees, Rutgers, Temple, and others who follow this same management strategy will risk losing the people who’ve made the university vital to those who attend and to broader society. It’s at university where people can learn about the world around them, taking vital lessons with them to other parts of their working lives. It’s at public universities where educators encourage undergraduates, especially in the social sciences and humanities, to develop their understanding of how systems work, of how institutions operate. Overall, it’s university where people generate research and help others play a more significant role in shaping our society in a progressive direction.

I still remember taking undergraduate classes in race and ethnic politics, in law, and other similar subjects — the instructors and the topics they had us discuss deepened my comprehension of how government policies are made, how the U.S. civil rights movement and similar struggles prevailed and how they can be replicated. In my Asian American politics class, I teach my students not only about Asian American history, but to find connections between Asians, African Americans and Latinx peoples, connections that could be helpful when organizing for critical demands and interests among marginalized groups. Ultimately, such lessons help people learn ways to strengthen democracy, and to get others more involved in doing so.

“This is why this fight is important,” Gopakumar emphasized. “We need better pay, better working conditions, so the university can keep people who make university what it is. The faculty, the educators, the researchers from all backgrounds.”

TUGSA leadership and Temple University have reached a tentative agreement, made possible by the determination and dedication of graduate workers who had been on strike for weeks. Now, it is up to the TUGSA members to vote on whether to ratify the tentative agreement. If they vote not to ratify it, the fight continues, and either Temple, Rutgers and other public institutions pay workers what they’re owed, or they will erode from the inside out.

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