The "Eds and Meds" Sector Needs a New DealRoundup
tags: higher education, labor, academic labor, colleges and universities
Ian Gavigan is a graduate student in the Department of History at Rutgers, where he is writing a dissertation on the history of the socialist movement in the twentieth century. He is an Executive Council member of Rutgers AAUP-AFT and organizes with Higher Education Labor United and Scholars for a New Deal for Higher Education.
Jennifer Mittelstadt is Professor of History at Rutgers University, where she studies the history of politics, movements, and the state in the United States. She is a member of Rutgers AAUP-AFT and a founder of Scholars for a New Deal for Higher Education.
When Rutgers University announced in March 2020 that it would shut down its campuses due to the coronavirus, we were in the middle of a busy season. A tenured faculty member and a graduate student, both in the history department at New Brunswick, we frantically scoured the library and our offices for anything we might need for the next several weeks. An online world would demand double-time labor just to meet basic obligations of teaching classes, giving exams, course scheduling, and more. In the early days of the pandemic, we were too overwhelmed by our workloads to see what was happening.
Later that spring, Rutgers administrators declared a “state of emergency” and unleashed a wave of freezes and cuts. Departmental budgets and research funds were frozen or slashed. Deans canceled new hires and contractually guaranteed raises. They laid off nearly 1,000 non-instructional staff and contingent instructors and refused to extend graduate student research funding.
The cuts and layoffs made little sense. Senior administrators were presiding over bulging “rainy day funds” of more than $500 million. They had access to unprecedented new federal funding. Rutgers alone took in $286 million in three COVID-19 relief packages. More than half of that money went to the university’s general operating budget, with few strings attached. And by the end of the summer, after sustained advocacy from Rutgers unions, the New Jersey state legislature announced that there would be no cuts to the state’s higher education budget after all.
There was nothing close to a financial crisis facing the university. But flush with cash and operating with near impunity thanks to the state of emergency, administrators used the opportunity to cut labor costs and hammer unions. They aimed to downsize the workforce while intensifying workloads. Today, workers are doing more while often receiving the same or less in return.
Rutgers administrators weren’t acting alone. In the first eleven months of the pandemic, college and university administrators across the country cut 650,000 jobs. Layoffs have been especially harsh on non-instructional workers and adjunct professors, two of the worst paid and least protected groups in the industry.
COVID-19 cuts were only the latest blow to the sector. Over the past thirty years, public funding for higher education has declined on average from 15 percent of state spending to 9 percent, with a 30 percent decline since 2001 in per-student spending. Meanwhile, the cost of attending a four-year college increased almost 200 percent between 1997 and 2017, and student debt has skyrocketed to over $1.6 trillion. Today only about one-quarter of faculty are full-time, tenure-track workers. Alongside the pivot to casualized labor, institutions have increasingly turned to private creditors to cover costs. As education scholar Eleni Schirmer has shown, these lenders push institutions to maximize so-called “creditworthiness,” a process that rewards spending on vanity projects, such as on athletics programs, flashy new buildings, and administrative salaries, and downgrades unionized workforces and investments in education and curricula.
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