From the President: Inequality, Corporatization, and the Casualization of Academic Labor

By Rudy Fichtenbaum

When we think of threats to academic freedom, legislative threats are likely the first thing that comes to mind. For example, bills that threaten to withhold funds from institutions that are members of certain associations or that simply run programs that teach about unions. We might also think of faculty who have been threatened with dismissal for their use of social media, removed from the classroom for teaching about controversial subjects, or who have had access to computer networks revoked because they have had the temerity to protest budget cuts that will result in firing of faculty.

While all of these are certainly examples of threats to academic freedom, they pale in comparison to what have become the two greatest threats to academic freedom: the growing use of faculty who are hired on contingent contracts, and rising student debt.

The growth in the number and proportion of faculty working on contingent contracts continues to be the centerpiece of the business community’s agenda to reshape US higher education to meet corporate needs. To accomplish this goal, self-styled “reformers” have defunded public higher education while supporting the metastatic growth of administrative positions, with the result that tuition and student debt have skyrocketed and higher education is being transformed into a private good.

The recent publication of Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-First Century has shown us that the real reason for the rise
 in income inequality in the United States has little to do with the gap between college-educated workers and less educated workers, and everything to do with the rising share of income that has gone to the top 1 percent.

Economists have referred to the period from the end of World War II until the mid-1970s as the “Great Compression,” a period in which growing productivity led to rising labor incomes and declining income inequality. This period ended when real wages stagnated and inequality began rising. With the link between rising productivity and wages broken, we entered a period known as the “Great Divergence.” It is no coincidence that this period also marked the beginning of the corporate trans- formation of higher education.

The goal of corporatization has been the transformation of what had been a world-class system of public higher education, whose aim was to provide high-quality education with a strong foundation in liberal arts and sciences, into a system more suited to serve corporate interests. The dream of the top 1 percent in what has turned out to be a new “Gilded Age” has been to transform higher education into a highly stratified system.

At the top of our higher education system are the elite private universities, funded with large endowments, where most of our top corporate leaders and politicians are educated. Just below these elite private universities are the top public research universities, which, in addition to educating large numbers of corporate leaders, engage in high levels of funded research.

Below this top tier of public and private institutions are the majority of public and private universities and colleges, as well as community colleges, where vocational training is increasingly emphasized. This emphasis, along with a concomitant undermining of a broad liberal arts education, serves corporate interests. Corporate leaders want workers with technical skills, but eschew the creation of an educated citizenry who might question growing levels of inequality, environmental degradation, and other social ills.

To accomplish their goals, corporate interests have eroded academic freedom and economic security, turning the majority of faculty into at-will or temporary employees and saddling students with debt. Both of these circumstances undermine the ability of faculty and students to resist.

Clearly, the corporate agenda for higher education seeks to destroy the ability of higher education to serve the common good, and to transform higher education into an institution that serves private interests at the expense of the broader public interest.

To resist these changes, faculty must engage in collective action by unionizing where possible and by engaging in other forms of organized resistance where unionization is not possible. We must form new alliances with students and others who support social justice, and we must work to elect political leaders who share our vision of higher education as serving the common good.