Austerity, Labor Exploitation, and the Academic Stretch-Out

On job losses and expanding workloads.
By Jill Penn

rope breaking on a thread

Those of us working in higher education are all too familiar with austerity cuts. Often alongside initia­tives to lower taxes, especially for the wealthy, state governments cut budgets under the guise of eliminat­ing wasteful spending. Austerity measures inevitably result in stagnant wages, low morale, and attrition. When frus­trated academic employees leave, increased job responsibilities fall on the faculty and staff who remain, with no increase in pay. One term for this situation is the academic stretch-out, some­times called a speed-up. Georgia exemplifies how the stretch-out happens and whom it affects.

State appropriations for higher education in the United States have been declining for decades, and the state of Georgia is no exception. In 2000, state appropriations covered 76 percent of higher educa­tion funding, and the remaining 24 percent came from tuition and fees. By 2021, the amount covered by state appropriations in Georgia had fallen to 48 percent.

State funding first fell below 70 percent at the beginning of Governor Sonny Perdue’s administra­tion in 2004. A steep decline occurred after the 2008 recession, when a decrease in state tax revenue led to budget cuts and furloughs of faculty and staff. In 2009, the University System of Georgia (USG) imposed on students a Special Institution Fee (SIF) to make up for decreased appropriations. When Georgia’s and the nation’s economies later improved, the SIF was kept in place, and state appropriations stayed below 50 percent. Years of economic prosperity did not put an end to austerity. The figure below charts Geor­gia’s decades-long decline in the percentage of state appropriations toward the higher education funding formula.

Although the economy was healthy when Governor Brian Kemp took office in 2019, he found ways to implement more budget cuts and reallocations in the name of austerity instead of reversing twenty years of cuts. In December 2019, the Governor’s Office of Plan­ning and Budget requested that all state agencies think strategically about workforce needs and how to lever­age existing positions to maximize efficiencies. This resulted in the USG’s implementation of a “critical hire justification” process for all twenty-six colleges and universities in the system. The process required addi­tional levels of review and approval prior to posting full-time faculty or staff positions, with approval only for those deemed critical hires. In its guidance, the USG stated that “many positions within the univer­sity system are important to institutional success but would not be considered critical. Important positions will not be approved while the critical hire process is in effect.”

As a result of the critical-hire justification process, institutions were not allowed to replace employees who retired or left their positions for better-paying jobs. Instead, remaining employees took on addi­tional labor without increases in their pay. In practice, the critical-hire justification process led to a vicious downward spiral. As employees became dissatisfied with their unreasonable workloads and low pay, even more workers left their positions for better opportunities, exacerbating the stretch-out. In a thriving economy and after decades of underfund­ing, this policy was at best unnecessary and at worst tremendously cruel.

Austerity cuts are not only bad for morale; they also lower the quality of education we can offer our students. On one Georgia campus, faculty members who taught lab-embedded lecture courses were forced to take on a 25 percent increase in teaching loads without any increase in pay but with the same expectations for service, advising, scholarship, and publications. They put in up to eighteen contact hours a week—working directly with students in the classroom or laboratory—which leaves insuf­ficient time for planning lessons, grading, advising students, writing recommendation letters, mentoring student research projects, serving on committees, attending mandatory meetings, writing grant pro­posals, and publishing papers. Colleagues in other states often ask me, Isn’t this a violation of your bargaining contract? Unfortunately, the answer is no, because Georgia’s public-sector employees do not have the legal right to bargain collectively with their employer to improve pay and benefits or to ensure high-quality working conditions and public services.

In March 2020, Georgia’s state legislature was suspended because of the COVID-19 pandemic, resuming two months later. At the end of June, Governor Kemp signed a budget that included a 10 percent cut to higher education for the next fiscal year. By 2021, this resulted in a net loss of more than four thousand jobs throughout the USG system (excluding Georgia Tech). Job loss had a dispropor­tionate impact on Black workers and those working in service positions (including facilities, grounds, dining, transportation, and clerical roles). Job loss included layoffs but also the use of attrition to cut lines. Many of those who were let go were devas­tated, having lost not only their jobs but also access to affordable healthcare benefits during a global pandemic. Some laid-off workers were just a year or two away from qualifying for retirement benefits.

When jobs were lost, the work of former employees still needed to get done—once again, without additional compensation for those who took on extra duties. Exemplifying this stretch-out, one college in Georgia split the duties of a recently retired administrative staff member among three fac­ulty members. Each faculty member earned a course release for taking on the additional service work, and a part-time instructor was hired to teach three classes. This was not about getting the work done efficiently but about cutting full-time positions and disempowering employees.

Exploitation of part-time instructors has been a long-term problem in academia. In 1970, part-time instructors accounted for 22 percent of faculty, according to data from the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statis­tics (NCES). By 1990, that figure had more than doubled to 46 percent. The reliance on contingent positions, a stop-gap measure in the 1960s and 1970s, has become a long-term management strat­egy, even at times when the economy is thriving. Furthermore, the stereotypical adjunct professor in 1970, a specialist with a full-time nonacademic job who shared professional expertise by teaching part-time, is now a rare exception to the norm of part-timers who would prefer and constantly seek full-time or tenured positions in academia. They are dedicated to their fields and to teaching but often lack a livable wage, health insurance, or even an office space.

Clearly, we have not been swimming in gravy over the past several decades. Public higher education in Georgia becomes more emaciated each year. Increas­ingly difficult working conditions—combined with few cost-of-living adjustments, salary compression, loss of tenure protections, and forced in-person work during the COVID-19 pandemic without reasonable precautions like universal masking—have led campus workers of all job titles to join the “Great Resig­nation.” The loss of workers has made it obvious how impossible it is for one person to do the work of three. Workers at Georgia’s twenty-six public colleges and universities report widespread declines in the ability of their institutions to operate. With understaffed departments unable to fulfill the basic needs of the college, supplies requested in March were not ordered until June; elevators went months without being fixed, even though employees with disabilities needed them to get around campus; and ceiling leaks were left unrepaired while a hand­written note affixed to a large trash barrel warned workers not to move the can that catches the water whenever it rains.

Now, under former Georgia governor and cur­rent USG chancellor Sonny Perdue, we are being told to prepare for additional cuts because of expected enrollment declines likely to result from the coming “demographic cliff.” The Great Reces­sion led to a birth-rate drop in 2008 that has led some groups, especially those that endorse the austerity model, to predict lower numbers of high school graduates and prospective college students beginning in 2026. Some of the articles about enrollment declines in publications geared to higher education administrators have cited studies based on questionable data from private organizations. It’s important to note that, by contrast, the NCES predicts slight increases in enrollment through 2029, the latest year for which projections are available. As academics, we should be leery of data from private organizations, especially if they differ from data pro­vided by impartial and peer-reviewed sources such as the NCES. The demographic cliff may be a manufac­tured crisis used to promote further austerity.

Georgia’s population has been increasing, and growth is expected to continue. Among the reasons for its growth, one that gets little attention beyond the circles of urban planners and environmental scientists is climate change. As our warming planet causes sea levels to rise, the city of Atlanta and its metro area have the higher elevation that climate refugees in the United States may be seeking. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, many people from New Orleans resettled in metro Atlanta, and it is a likely destination for people from Miami and elsewhere for similar reasons.

Higher education in the United States has endured more than twenty years of austerity cuts that were almost always unnecessary. Decades of underfunding have led to a corporate-management model where education is seen as a commodity purchased by individuals rather than as a universal public good. With a focus on attracting consum­ers, decision makers spent billions on housing and fitness centers while claiming there was no money to hire full-time professors. Davarian Baldwin explains in an interview with Jennifer Mittelstadt in this issue of Academe the interrelationship between the defunding of public education and the involvement of universities in commercial real estate and entre­preneurial projects. In many instances, such revenue generation undermines universities’ educational mis­sion and destroys surrounding communities through loss of housing, cultural heritage, diverse jobs, and services.

The result of this combined austerity and financialization in public education is severely understaffed and underresourced institutions, unrea­sonable workloads, and increasingly high tuition. As Elizabeth Tandy Shermer notes in her article in this issue of the magazine, federal and state lawmakers have slashed higher education aid since 1970 while increasing opportunities for students to borrow money for tuition and fees. Shermer argues that bankers benefited when states began experimenting with student loan programs.

While public higher education funding in the United States was insufficient and far from perfect in the 1960s and 1970s, it was much better than the current situation. In 1965 President Lyndon Johnson signed the Higher Education Act, which included provisions to make college more affordable and enabled more students from lower-income families to earn a degree. This was a great benefit to many in the baby boomer generation who paid little out of pocket to attend public institutions. Over the last two decades, some of the same people who benefited from lower college tuition costs went on to posi­tions in state legislatures where they consistently cut funding for public higher education every time the stock market dropped. When the market recovered, funding remained low until the next drop, when they shamelessly cut funding even further.

Reversing the trend of state funding cuts is long overdue. It will take hard work, dedication, and organizing, but it is possible. Since public higher education requires state funds and because state governments have done much of the recent damage, it is essential that academic workers regularly speak to their statewide elected officials about their first­hand experiences. Many elected officials understand very little about the conditions we are working under and how those conditions affect our students. I have had a variety of discussions with different legislators in Georgia. Over time, the interactions have become more fruitful, and my colleagues and I have developed some allies. Organizing annual lobby days or advocacy days for union members is another way to show legislators that fully funding higher education is important to a large group of people. Faculty members and staff could even invite their state representative to spend a day with them on campus so they can see for themselves. If you aren’t already a full member of your AAUP chapter or local union, join it! If your campus does not have a chapter, start organizing!

After decades of decline, union membership is on the rise, although right-to-work laws impose obstacles in many states. Passing the Protecting the Right to Organize Act and the Public Ser­vice Freedom to Negotiate Act will be crucial to strengthening the collective bargaining rights of workers in both public and private sector unions; progress is slowly being made on their passage. In the meantime, if higher education workers become more active in their union’s committees and cam­paigns, their efforts will pay off. Unions have successfully campaigned for a $15 minimum wage and for increased state appropriations in order to eliminate a recession-era Special Institution Fee.

At the federal level, higher education work­ers of all job categories are joining Higher Ed Labor United (HELU), a national coalition work­ing to build solidarity and collective power across the country. In less than one year, more than 130 unions and allied organizations representing over 500,000 higher ed workers have joined HELU. One of HELU’s goals is to reverse decades of austerity cuts by pressing for reauthorization of the 1965 Higher Education Act (HEA). Since 1968, Congress had reauthorized the HEA every four years until 2008; that authorization expired in 2013. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Senate was close to reaching a deal to update the HEA but put the dis­cussions on hold.

In order to reverse the trend toward austerity in US higher education, we need to promote public education as a common good that is worth funding for the benefit of all. Education is rarely the great equalizer, the remedy for inequality, or the tool to fight poverty that it should be. Imagine the benefits to individuals and society that could result from fully funding education for all. Accessible, govern­ment-supported public education is necessary for a robust democracy, civic engagement, and media literacy in a society bombarded with disinformation. It is in everyone’s best interest to contribute to the education of future generations by fully support­ing a higher education system in which workers and students have a real voice in decision-making.

Jill Penn is associate professor of biology at Georgia Gwinnett College, where she is active in statewide organizing. Her email address is [email protected].