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From the Guest Editors: Visions against Politics

By Eileen Boris and Annelise Orleck

We confront a challenge much like that which faced President Franklin Roosevelt in 1933. The nation is reeling from the politicization of a raging pandemic that has brought death to hundreds of thousands and unemployment to tens of millions. During summer 2020, millions marched for racial justice and an end to police violence against people of color. These events have deepened decades-old crises in higher education, particularly at public colleges and universities, historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), and nonelite private colleges. Scholars for a New Deal for Higher Education, a group to which we belong and whose work helped inspire this special issue of Academe, contends, as FDR did almost ninety years ago, that the time for shrinking government and increasing economic inequality has come to an end. We believe that a twenty-first-century New Deal for Higher Education must go beyond the first New Deal, combating anti-Blackness, advancing racial and gender justice, and promoting substantive equality for all. Without expansive and targeted government programs, our current crises will only deepen. We use the slogan “New Deal for Higher Education” not only in reference to the 1930s but as a vision for the future, in the spirit of those who have called for a “Green New Deal” as a way out of the current climate morass.

The campaign for a New Deal for Higher Education focuses on the ways that interlocking crises have damaged and now threaten the future existence of higher education in the United States. This special issue embraces the call for national measures but also claims that local organizing by campus unions, faculty senates and other governance bodies, student councils, and community stakeholders are necessary to turn any federal policies we may see enacted into real change that brings better working and learning conditions for all. Only mobilization by those who labor and learn within the academy, at the grassroots, can transform advocacy campaigns and legislative proposals into tools for substantive reconstruction of higher education. We offer perspectives from varied constituencies within higher education—and roadmaps for both collective and individual action.

There has been much discussion of the costs to colleges and universities of remaining open during the pandemic. But COVID-19 did not cause the current crisis in higher education. Decades of declining federal and state funding have slowly starved higher education in our country. The cuts started when greater numbers of first-generation students and people of color were entering college and women students became a majority on many campuses. Adjunctification of the profession intensified just as prospective faculty members from previously underrepresented groups began seeking tenure-track positions in greater numbers. Increasing government aid, however, is only a first step. Some universities spent 2020 stimulus funds to retire institutional debt instead of giving short-term relief to adjunct faculty or student workers, providing care assistance to workers, or using funds to bridge the digital divides between tenure-line and contract faculty and between affluent and poor students.

A crisis is an opportunity for bold action. As the essays in this issue argue, now is the time to end the starvation of higher education through cutbacks in local, state, and federal government funds; to reemphasize teaching, research, and learning as core priorities; to stop the endemic wage theft faced by contingent faculty and graduate student instructors alike; to forgive individual student debt and make college accessible to all students, regardless of their ability to pay; to provide living wages to college and university staff, including maintenance crews and health aides, clerks, and lab assistants; to end the subcontracting of essential services and extend to all education workers the right to join a union and engage in collective bargaining; to enhance democratic governance; to support HBCUs; to restore higher education teaching as a middle-class profession rather than, as it too often is, a poverty profession; and to make college education an affordable path for all people.

A New Deal for Higher Education calls for a return to the belief in higher education as a common good; it is not enough to keep the doors open and provide opportunities. The New Deal offered part-time jobs to students through the National Youth Administration, but it also developed a range of venues for continuing education and jobs for scholars and creative artists through various projects that documented the nation’s history and cultures and enhanced the built environment. The GI Bill allowed millions of veterans to pursue higher education after World War II, training a generation of innovators. In 1960, California established a comprehensive system of community colleges, professional training institutions, and research universities. Despite varying admission requirements, this system was based on principles of universal access without tuition. The same was true of the City University of New York system. The Higher Education Act of 1965 introduced student loans and work study, offering individuals the means to finance matriculation but also opening the door to greater debt.

More than a slogan, then, a New Deal for Higher Education is an economic agenda, a campaign, and a vision. Without an educated populace, lies can more easily be portrayed as facts. Technological and scientific discovery too easily becomes privatized, owned by for-profit entities. Without humanities and humanistic social sciences, we might make a living but do so at the expense of living. Without ethnic, feminist, gender, and area studies, we lack a basis for empathy and putting an end to festering inequalities.

This special issue offers voices from varied constituencies as well as analysis of the current crisis and possible roads forward. AAUP president Irene Mulvey and American Federation of Teachers (AFT) president Randi Weingarten address key aspects of the joint campaign for a New Deal for Higher Education: tuition, finances, student debt, racial and other inequalities, labor practices, academic freedom and governance, and further challenges. Lisa Levenstein and Jennifer Mittelstadt lay out the vision of Scholars for a New Deal for Higher Education.

Subsequent articles illuminate the concerns of specific sectors. Charting the impact of austerity on the City University of New York and the California State University systems, Alejandra Marchevsky and Jeanne Theoharis argue for enhancing the ability of these “people’s universities” to provide a first-class education to a diverse working class. Beverly Guy-Sheftall and Kimberly M. Jackson underscore the pandemic-era challenges facing HBCUs, which continue to provide indispensable resources for Black and brown students and faculty—more vital than ever in the struggle against white supremacy. Terri Smith and Adom Getachew, writing on behalf of Scholars for Social Justice, emphasize the transformative necessity of defunding the police and abolishing their presence on campus, engaging in restorative justice, and investing in nearby communities to open colleges and universities to those who work at and live around them.

The next pieces highlight academic labor. The graduate student forum, organized by Justine Modica, features activists from across the nation who share their insights from struggles over the last year. Donna Murch and Todd Wolfson recount the history of the Coalition of Rutgers Unions that coalesced “to fight brutal austerity measures” and enact “bargaining for the common good.” Mia McIver and Trevor Griffey of the University Council–AFT lay out a range of policies and union actions to improve conditions for non-tenure-track and part-time academic labor. Finally, Christopher Newfield crunches the numbers and then shows how we can reach the “budget justice” that serves as a foundation for a New Deal for Higher Education.

We offer further important pieces in the digital version of this issue.

Eileen Boris, the Hull Professor of Feminist Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, writes on feminized labor in the home and other workplaces. Her latest book is Making the Woman Worker: Precarious Labor and the Fight for Global Standards, 1919–2019. Annelise Orleck is professor of history at Dartmouth College and founding copresident of the Dartmouth AAUP chapter. She has written numerous books and articles on gender, race, immigration, and poor people’s movements.

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