Austerity Is Class War

The social wage and the assault on diversity.
By Rachel Ida Buff

University of Wisconsin campus covered with snow

The present assault on public education—what I have elsewhere described, using Naomi Klein’s phrase, as a regime of “disaster capitalism”—undermines the social wage wrested by workers and students over the course of decades of labor and civil rights struggles. The social wage consists of the various nonmonetary gains secured by these movements, including the rights to education, health care, and retirement security. Access to education is a central asset of the social wage, because it provides opportunities for a meaningful life as well as class mobility. In higher education, the social wage accrues in affordable tuition and financial aid as well as in security for educational laborers through health care, pensions, and job security, including the tenure system.

The logic of the social wage charges universities and colleges with making institutional space for diverse populations, many of which have been historically underrepresented there. Pushing back against the logic of the social wage, the class war of austerity operates through lived modalities of social identity, targeting people on the basis of race and national origins, gender and sexuality. While administrators attempt to massage their institutions’ public profiles by representing them as “diverse” and “tolerant,” they preside over a profound retrenchment from the terms of the social wage and a resulting plummet in democratic diversity.

While universities and colleges have sometimes been dismissively described as “ivory towers” of unworldly remove, the compact secured by labor and civil rights struggles opened the towers and transformed them into democratic public spheres that respond to and serve the communities around them. The post–World War II GI Bill and the landmark civil rights policies of the mid-1960s made the “ivory tower” less white and less removed from its surroundings, though the project of truly democratic access remains far off. Educational democracy aims to maintain the university’s unique qualities of reflection and analysis while affording broad access to them.

In universities and colleges around the world, the regime of austerity confiscates the social wage, diminishing democratic access to education. As a result, educational labor—the work of studying and teaching—is becoming increasingly precarious. The austerity regime undermines the tenure system, assaulting it directly through ideologically driven public policy as well as by rationalizing underpaid and contingent academic labor. As tuition soars both at formerly state-supported and at private universities and colleges, working-class students, many of whom are foreign-born and students of color, are disproportionately affected. Newly imposed austerity metrics closely scrutinize both class time and extracurricular activities on campus.

Austerity politics transform campuses from sanctuaries of reflection into terror domes, in which precariously employed faculty instruct students who accumulate life-impeding debt, compounded by the classroom hour. Deploying a funhouse-mirror interpretation of freedom of speech concocted in the laboratories of the far right, virtual lynch mobs and state legislators nip at the heels of women and people of color in particular, scolding about “civility” at the same time that they advance “open-carry” legislation to ensure that increasingly besieged campuses bristle with weapons. Far from the meditative climate of the ivory tower, denizens of campus become wary of being ensnared in yet another highly publicized conflict generated by the right-wing spin machine.

In this terror dome, educational laborers contend with administrators who often seem reluctant to protect us from the forces assailing our campuses. Many administrators avoid acknowledging the importance, or even the existence, of the social-wage compact. Expanding at a time of supposed austerity, university and college administrations are beholden to the corporate logic peddled by private consultants in the name of “efficiency,” austerity’s avatar in polite company. The terms set by this corporate logic dictate a steady and lucrative increase of funds for administrators and private consultants and the concomitant pressure to strip the social wage for educational laborers. Tuition and student debt soar; job security mutates into precarious employment; spaces of reflection are ridiculed for sheltering “snowflakes.”

Manufacturing Austerity in Wisconsin

At the same time that students face mounting economic obstacles to access to higher education, the kind of education available to them is being transformed. Under the austerity logic of corporate administration, thriving programs in the humanities and social sciences at the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point faced closure and faculty layoffs in 2017. The UWSP administration rationalized this decision, arguing that “too much choice” in their coursework (as opposed to declining state support and soaring tuition prices) led students into debt. These comments reveal the deep disregard of administrators for the democratic project of higher education, as well as an intentional misunderstanding of the economics of student debt.

Similarly, the Huron Consulting Group brokered the restructuring of the UW college system, which is likely to result in campus closures and will surely mean diminished access to higher education throughout much of rural Wisconsin. From the perspective of austerity, administrative decisions that result in declining educational access and diversity are good for the university, because they “help” students and faculty make better choices. Austerity puts education out of reach for many students, results in the elimination of steady jobs, and installs policies that make campuses far less democratic for those who manage to remain.

The austerity regime mandates cuts in the programs historically responsive to the demands of women, LGBTQ communities, and communities of color for representation in the university. Many activists on and off campus struggled to create ethnic studies and women’s and gender studies programs, creating institutional space and securing access to the social wage. Under the austerity regime, these programs receive treatment as “third-class citizens,” as feminist scholar Karma Chavez observed about cuts at the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 2015.

I direct the Cultures and Communities Program at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. Devised during the heady days of the “Milwaukee Idea” in the early 2000s, the program is one of the institutional mechanisms supporting the mission of UWM as the “urban campus” of the UW system. The Cultures and Communities Program supports collaboration between university and community and affords institutional space to support the work of understanding diversity on and off campus.

At its height, the program had a $250,000 budget. It offered community partnership grants to university employees working in collaboration with community groups. When I took the job in summer 2017, the operating budget was $25,000. The community partnership grants were gone. The program survives, but barely, much of its budget and institutional power a casualty of the austerity regime.

UWSP student Zantasia Johnson summarized the effects of austerity at her campus: Women and people of color tend to go toward humanities, so if you’re trying to say that this is an inclusive campus, why would you cut the only majors that are mostly women, and mostly people of color?

Humanities are the only majors where you learn inclusivity, and you learn how to have those conversations. In what other majors are you going to learn that? If you cut all these humanities classes, where are you going to learn inclusivity? Where are you going to get your diversity?

While the move to undermine ethnic studies and gender and women’s studies programs has sometimes been articulated ideologically, the assault on these programs by the regime of austerity is presented as economic and pragmatic. But the austerity regime travels in company with a broader project that lays siege to the achievements of the civil rights and labor movements.

Administering White Supremacy

A host of recent policy initiatives curtails democratic access to higher education, making it more difficult for particular groups of educational laborers to claim the social wage of education. The Accenture consulting group contracts to recruit border patrol agents and develop high-tech border security at the same time that it works with universities to develop austerity programs like “shared services.” The connection between the xenophobic regime of immigration control and the austerity regime in public education is not coincidental.

Educational laborers have been targeted by specific austerity programs on campuses and affected by public policies that generate inequality and fear. The 2017 travel ban discourages many international students and faculty members from coming to the United States while also impeding the lives of those already here. The curtailing of the Deferred Access for Childhood Arrivals program renders the presence of many undocumented students, staff, and faculty members on campus increasingly precarious. Withdrawal of federal policies supporting bathroom access means even routine acts of personal hygiene are difficult for transgender people. Operating through the modalities of social identity, these policies become part of the austerity regime, limiting who gets to be on campus and how.

The assault on free speech on campus is also a component of the austerity regime’s attack on the social wage. In October 2017, the University of Florida was compelled to spend $793,000 on security to protect white supremacist Richard Spencer. Forcing public universities to bear the costs of such appearances is a deliberate strategy of the “alt-right,” white nationalist movement. Spencer insisted that the outlandish financial burden of providing security for his appearance be assumed by the university. Such costs are financed quite literally at the expense of the social wage.

As funhouse-mirror interpretations of free speech on campus mandate increased policing of campus events, enhanced uniformed presence marks the university as menacing and potentially dangerous for many educational laborers: the transgendered, the undocumented, and people of color. At an appearance at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee in 2016, Milo Yiannopoulos exhibited an image of a transgender student and publicly mocked her. The message was clear: “free speech” at the university operates only to protect some (white, male, cisgender) people.

Undermining Diversity

While the continued legal erosions of programs like affirmative action make headlines, the ongoing assault on diversity on campus continues, stealthily. Because it happens under the banner of austerity rather than as explicit public policy, the demise of diversity on campus raises few alarms.

For example, the crisis caused by the $250 million budget cuts implemented by Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin in 2016 led to the implementation of Strategic Position Control (SPC) at UWM. A top-heavy program, SPC represents a heady blend of cost-saving practices recommended by the for-profit consulting agency Education Advisory Board. UWM subscribes to the Education Advisory Board at a cost of close to half a million dollars annually.

Under SPC, any faculty lines that become vacant through retirement, resignation, or death revert from individual departments or programs to a universitywide special office. The Office of Strategic Position Control is maintained by the university administration with an advisory board composed of appointed representatives from the faculty, staff, and student government. Each college in the university has been compelled to create an SPC plan. In the fourteen plans created by administrators at fourteen distinct colleges, not one mentioned the maintenance of racial or gender diversity as an outcome or even a consideration. As a result, the campus has become far less diverse in the two years since SPC was implemented.

Austerity in Wisconsin has resulted in a general hemorrhaging of faculty and staff. People who planned to make their lives here have picked up stakes and left for other universities; some of them have left the field of higher education entirely. At UWM, this exodus has been particularly marked among faculty and staff of color. And because our austerity survival plan—Strategic Position Control—focuses only on the bare math of the situation, little attention is paid to maintaining diversity as a positive good in the university. This takes place not because of direct assaults on diversity in hiring but because the austerity regime replaces the logic of the social wage with corporate logic.

Data obtained from UWM’s Office of Institutional Research indicate a general decline of about 9 percent in the number of faculty on campus after the implementation of SPC: from 774 in 2016 to around 700 in 2018. Numbers of faculty of color, always quite small, have also declined precipitously: UWM has lost 10 percent of its Latinx and African American faculty, 6 percent of its Asian and Asian American faculty, and 25 percent of its American Indian faculty. While these numbers are part of a broader picture of faculty flight, the lack of discourse about the importance of diversity in the austerity-driven SPC means that departing faculty of color are not being replaced. Along with the legal assault on affirmative action on campus, austerity practices like SPC trouble the broad access mandate of the social wage.

The Campus as Sanctuary

How might we begin to reclaim the social wage? We might return to the idea of the campus as a refuge—the ivory tower, or, to phrase it another way, the sanctuary campus. Inaugurated in 2016, in the climate of austerity and fear that followed the election, the movement for sanctuary campuses seeks to defend foreign-born students from the deportation and exclusion perpetrated by federal policy. Sanctuary-campus platforms vary widely, but they generally include demands that the university live up to the social-wage compact by ensuring that campuses continue to provide access to diverse populations of educational laborers.

The logic of the social wage in education has always included broad access to the intellectual and cultural refuge of the university. Historically, universities and colleges have been sanctuaries for freedom of thought and expression. As Judith Butler writes, “The resistance of the university to external political interference demonstrates the relationship between academic freedom and the idea of the university as a sanctuary.”

Sanctuary in these terms hearkens back to the idea of the ivory tower. The phrase first appears in the Old Testament in the Song of Solomon, as part of a litany of desire—carnal or spiritual, depending on the reader. The phrase became associated with universities in the mid-nineteenth century, as a way of distinguishing them from the more worldly, less remote pursuits associated with the rise and expansion of industrial capitalism.

Contemporary demands for sanctuary campuses reassemble the logic of the social wage against the false pragmatism of austerity. Emanating from organizing among undocumented students, sanctuary becomes an axis of solidarity, maintaining the ongoing struggle for the social wage.   

Rachel Ida Buff teaches history and comparative ethnic studies at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, where she also directs the Cultures and Communities Program. She is faculty editor of the AAUP’s Journal of Academic Freedom and is a founding member of the recently revived UW–Milwaukee AAUP chapter and Wisconsin AAUP conference. 

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