Students and Staff Oppose COVID-Inspired Disaster Capitalism on US Campuses

More than 80 years ago, during the Great Depression, college endowments fell by 26 percent and donations fell by more than 70 percent. But rather than cutting back on what was being offered on U.S. campuses, the federal Works Progress Administration (WPA) hired 8.5 million people to lay more than 9,000 miles of storm drains and sewers, and build 4,000 new school buildings (most intended for K-12 instruction), 130 hospitals and 100 community arts centers.

In addition, during the eight years that the WPA existed (1935 to 1943), hundreds of colleges and universities benefited; by extending its reach to higher education, WPA laborers built classrooms and dormitories, and installed public artworks on campus lawns and inside buildings. The goal? To entice students to enroll and retain them until they graduated, assuring them of the skills they’d need to find work when the economy improved. Among the beneficiaries of these efforts were Alabama Polytechnic Institute (now Auburn University); Arkansas State; Arizona State; Brooklyn College-City University of New York; The College of William and Mary; Delta State; Howard University; The University of Iowa; The University of Pittsburgh; The University of Rhode Island; and Virginia Commonwealth University.

Fast forward to today. Similar to the Great Depression, the current economic crisis is raising important questions about government responsibility and whether or not state and federal lawmakers will use COVID-19 to gut public programs, including access to a high-quality public education, as they push more wealth to the top.

Writer Naomi Klein coined the term “disaster capitalism” to describe this phenomenon: the use of a social calamity or natural disaster to promote privatization and reorder priorities to benefit the wealthiest few at the expense of the many.

The upheaval resulting from COVID-19 is a prime example.

Pauline Lipman, professor of educational policy studies at the University of Illinois-Chicago, was part of an online panel sponsored by Labor Notes and the Public Education Workers Network in mid-May that addressed current threats to higher education. “Austerity is being rolled out as the administration weaponizes the crisis, but public higher education was already in crisis due to systemic disinvestment, outsourcing, privatization and increased tuition fees,” she said.

What’s more, Lipman continued, the pandemic “lays bare realities that were there all along,” realities that highlight the interconnections between public education, food insecurity, skyrocketing housing costs, available employment, health care access and incarceration — issues that directly impact students at every level, pre-K through university.

Still, if within every crisis there are also opportunities, COVID-19 could be a chance to reimagine and reframe what we mean by “the common good,” giving us a new platform to argue for free public education as a fundamental right. It might also, Lipman reminded us, be an opportunity to advocate for increased faculty governance, including the right to organize, form unions and protect public schools from closure, ban the outsourcing of services and stop privatization.

Winning won’t be easy, however, since retrenchment is already underway — and is assumed by many to be inevitable. An April survey of college presidents revealed that 72 percent expect to impose layoffs and budget cuts, freeze hiring, and halt new construction and renovations on campus within the next year.

As for potential job losses, teachers and administrators, as well as cafeteria workers, maintenance crews, residence hall staff and office workers are targets.

Cutbacks Already in Motion

The Boston Globe reported in early May that 345 colleges consider themselves “in peril,” at risk of closing due to anticipated under-enrollment for the 2020-21 academic year. This is largely because of a projected loss of full-paying international students and debts incurred by university hospitals, whose administrators predict that the cancellation of elective surgeries due to COVID-19 will result in enormous budget deficits. The unexpected toll of having to issue housing and meal-plan refunds in spring 2020 also set them back.

Budget slashing has already begun. Here’s a tiny sample:

  • The University of Louisville is “pausing” retirement contributions from May 1 to July 31, imposing a pay cut on those earning $100,000 or more, and instituting a two-month salary reduction of 1 percent for all faculty earning between $58,000 and $99,999 annually;
  • Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, announced plans to outsource maintenance and on-campus health services, leading to massive job losses that are scheduled to begin this July;
  • Harvard, a school with a $40.9 billion endowment, announced in March that it was going to fire approximately 275 dining hall workers. The administration eventually agreed to pay the workers through May 28, after a public outcry;
  • The University of Arizona is instituting graduated furloughs for those making more than $45,000, stopping new building projects, postponing the development of a strategic plan for the future of the college and delaying merit raises for staff;
  • Atlanta’s Morehouse College has announced the layoff of 13 full-time employees and has slashed the salaries of 200 others;
  • New Jersey’s Kean University is eliminating four undergraduate majors: music; sustainability sciences; theater and economics;
  • In college sports, Bowling Green State University in Ohio is dropping its baseball team; the University of Cincinnati has cut men’s soccer; Virginia’s Old Dominion University has eliminated wrestling; and Baylor, in Waco, Texas, is delaying the construction of a new basketball stadium that was slated to open before the 2022-23 season.

Marisa Allison is a Ph.D. student at George Mason University and the former director of research at the New Faculty Majority Foundation, an advocacy group that organizes support for contingent faculty. Allison notes that the most vulnerable teachers on college campuses are the non-tenure-track lecturers and adjuncts who often have little to no job security from semester to semester. Between 51 and 61 percent of those holding these positions are women, Allison says. In all likelihood, this means that retrenchment will hit the lowest-paid workers hardest and reinforce long-standing gender, race and class disparities.

But students and faculty are fighting back.

Activism on Campus and Beyond

Most campuses — especially those that are unionized — have adopted a two-tiered strategy: fighting austerity while also extending a hand to those who have lost jobs, both on campus and in the communities in which their colleges are located.

Barbara Bowen is the president of the Professional Staff Congress, a union representing 30,000 full- and part-time faculty employed by the City University of New York (CUNY). Bowen told Truthout that one of the union’s main priorities is getting the Shared Help Assessment to Rebuild Education (SHARE) Act passed by the New York state legislature. The SHARE Act, she explains, is a temporary tax on those earning more than $5 million a year, with the revenue raised earmarked for public schools and higher education programs.

“If we don’t see this passed, it means that state lawmakers have made a conscious choice to cut hospitals, housing for the homeless and poor, and education in order to protect the richest state residents,” she said.

Nonetheless, Bowen says that she is hopeful because union support for the Act, as well as resistance to cutbacks, has been unusually strong. For example, when the provost at CUNY’s College of Staten Island announced plans to cut 35 percent of adjuncts, department chairs issued a resounding “no” and refused to comply.

“The provost thought the adjuncts would be an easy target,” Michael Paris, chair of the college’s political science department, said at a press conference to demand increased funding for CUNY. “We pushed back. All 10 chairs of humanities and social science departments said that we will not be complicit.”

That said, Bowen admits that it has been challenging to come up with new organizing strategies, since demonstrations, sit-ins and civil disobedience are currently out of the question due to social distancing rules. “We had a car caravan that had great energy — folks drove in front of a building where a Board of Trustees meeting was taking place — but it’s not the same as a loud 2,000-person demonstration. At the same time, more people are attending virtual union meetings than had previously attended in-person meetings, so we’ve had great discussions.”

Bowen is further heartened because what happened at the College of Staten Island has been contagious and notes that department chairs at several other CUNY schools, including Brooklyn College, have also refused to comply with layoff demands.

This pleases undergraduate Michael Matteson. As a Brooklyn College student in a five-year dual-degree program in accounting and business administration and finance, Matteson says that he fears cuts will delay completion of his degree. “Already it’s hard to get the classes you need,” he says. “I worry that if they cut the number of classes offered, a lot of students will drop out completely. I also worry that teachers will be less motivated to teach, and larger classes — I registered for one in the fall that allows 130 students — will mean there’s no time for one-on-one conversations.”

Student Exhaustion Impacts Activism

Trevor Griffey, an adjunct professor of history at both the University of California, Irvine, and the University of California, Los Angeles, told Truthout that the lack of transparency about budgetary matters has galvanized staff throughout the University of California (UC) system. Nonetheless, he says that getting undergraduates mobilized to stop the cutbacks has been difficult.

“Students are preoccupied with the shift to digital teaching, the inferior quality of instruction and how onerous it is to do this work online,” Griffey says.
“The exhaustion, the anxiety, the stress on poor and working-class students has been an extra burden. UC students, like those at CUNY, are often the frontline workers, the ones facing eviction, the hungry and sick. COVID-19 has had a tremendous impact on those who are low-income, working-class and first generation.”

Add in speculation and uncertainty about the fall semester, and it’s not surprising that both faculty and students are on edge.

“The UC chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, our union, has created an online ‘picket line’ where we take selfies holding signs opposing layoffs,” Griffey said. “One good thing is that we’ve been able to watch our union bargaining with management online, which has changed a lot of people’s views about the school they work at. Things are still in the early stages, but at least at UC-Irvine, this has lit a fire under people’s feet. At the same time, we know we’re up against something pretty profound.”

Each UC campus, he says, has determined its own plan of action. At UC-Berkeley, according to Griffey, the lack of job security for lecturers, coupled with the fact that their median salary is $19,900, has led to increased militancy and mobilization.

For its part, UC-Davis has organized Strike University, described on its website as “a training school for a new generation of university unionists,” and is working to link current calls for austerity to a wider swath of social and political concerns. According to UC-Davis Ph.D. student and Strike University organizer Tory Brykalski, the project is an outgrowth of a 2019 wildcat strike by graduate students at UC-Santa Cruz that demanded a cost of living allowance in addition to their monthly teaching stipends. Citing prohibitively high housing costs in the area, the grad students eventually walked off the job. Later, hundreds of faculty members throughout the UC system withheld end-of-semester grades in solidarity. The university responded by terminating 54 of the striking UC-Santa Cruz grad students.

According to Brykalski, Strike University came together in mid-March to offer teach-ins on topics such as HIV/AIDS, COVID-19, environmental justice and police surveillance, and brought speakers like Cornel West and Tithi Bhattacharya to the student body through Zoom. A summer “camp” is in the planning stages but will tentatively focus on prison abolition. “We want people to think about what a society without prisons would look like,” she says.

Graduate students at the University of Illinois, Chicago, have taken a different tack, organizing — and winning — access to additional paid sick leave, coverage for teletherapy sessions and permission for international students to stay in dorms over the summer if travel restrictions bar them from returning to their home countries.

Likewise, several faculty groups on other campuses have organized to meet the day-to-day needs of their colleagues.

Seth Kahn, an English professor at West Chester University of Pennsylvania, is a member of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties (APSCUF). The 14 campuses that comprise the state system are united in opposing cuts, but Kahn reports that the union agreed, pre-COVID, to a series of retirement incentives to “trim the head count.” In addition, the West Chester chapter of the APSCUF has organized a financial assistance program, modeled on a strike fund, to help those adjuncts who need help paying for rent, food, insurance or other necessities. The fund has collected more than $30,000 from full-time faculty members and is exclusively for adjunct use.

Similarly, the New Faculty Majority has teamed up with Tenure for the Common Good to demand, at minimum, that colleges and universities not contest the unemployment claims of non-tenured faculty who file for them. “Adjuncts have had to fight to get unemployment when they are not given summer employment,” former New Faculty Majority Research Director Marisa Allison said. “The Department of Labor assumes that if someone has a reasonable assurance of employment in the fall, they are ineligible for benefits in June, July and August.”

Allison adds that it is high time for contingent faculty — a “group shrouded in elephant-in-the-room secrecy” — to be seen. Typically, Allison says, they are invisible to campus administrators because the only people they interact with are students.

But while adjunct issues are a major concern, Allison says that she’s keeping the big picture in focus — fighting austerity and making sure that colleges serve the students they enroll. It’s a mission she shares with Jasmine Banks, executive director of UnKoch My Campus, a national organization dedicated to fighting undue donor influence on college campuses.

“The rise of disaster capitalism is not new. The Koch network has been trying to destabilize public education for years,” Banks told Truthout. “They’re using COVID-19 to propagate the idea that online and privatized education are timely, that distance learning through private companies is the best way to educate students. This is the perfect moment for higher ed to look at itself, see how it has been infiltrated, and make education benefit the common good, creating a safe and supportive environment in which to learn and study.”

Correction: This article was updated on June 12 to reflect that the University of Arizona pay cuts are in place for those making $45,000 a year or more.