How to Stop the CutsRoundup
tags: higher education, budgets, Faculty organizing, shared governance
Sara Matthiesen is an assistant professor of history and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at George Washington University.
By this point in the pandemic’s life cycle, we have three months’ worth of think pieces assessing its toll on all areas of life. Academe is no exception. In higher education, we have grieved sickness and death, as well as layoffs of those thought to be “safe,” the future of graduate education, and even the viability of the liberal-arts college. We have been reminded that while aspects of the current situation are different, academic losses themselves are nothing new. And we have been warned that if we do not capitalize on this crisis to remake the university anew, others will.
We have heard far less about how to do it. While there is of course no single blueprint for building faculty power, I suspect the reason we have so much analysis and so few models is because academics tend to overestimate the power of their own craft: marshaling evidence to make a claim about how things were or are or will be. Both analysis and action are necessary — but they are not the same thing.
At the start of my "Introduction to Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies" course at George Washington University, I explain that while it will teach students how to name problems and even imagine new ways of living, to make practical use of these skills they must become experts on power. Who has it? How do they maintain it? What forms does power take? How do those with less power successfully build more? Why have certain organizing strategies brought losses while others delivered gains? I do not allow my students the false assurance that knowledge alone will make them powerful.
Faculty members shouldn’t either. Even before three months of pandemic analysis, we knew a lot about the costs of turning higher education into a profit-making venture. We are now fully aware that decades of running universities like corporations has left our institutions unable to weather what should be a short-term crisis. This is valuable knowledge, but it alone will not deliver meaningful faculty governance, more tenure-track positions, free public college, or a more equitable educational experience.
To achieve those aims, we need to get clear about how power operates within our respective universities, as well as where our leverage as workers of varying ranks lies. This is how the faculty at Oregon State University, who agreed to terms on their first union contract in May, successfully protected 2,200 workers’ salaries from university deficit reductions during an economic crisis.
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