Rutgers Strikers Ran the Table; Is This the Way out of Higher Ed's Crisis?Roundup
tags: strikes, higher education, Rutgers, labor, academic labor, Graduate Student Labor
Jonathan David is a folklorist, writer, and former adjunct instructor who lives in Philadelphia.
Institutions of higher education in the United States are in crisis. Essential research is suffering. Highly qualified instructors lack job security and struggle to make ends meet. Students graduate saddled with debt. Public universities, the backbone of our system of higher education, have been starved of funding. Recently though, a ray of hope, in the form of a series of innovative strikes launched by segments of the higher education faculty at universities around the US, has emerged from the debacle. Most recently, last week’s tentative victory in a strike of the three faculty unions at Rutgers University in New Jersey has shown a way forward. At the three Rutgers campuses, graduate employees, adjunct instructors, non-tenure-track professors, tenured faculty, and others had been working without a contract since July 2022. Although represented by different unions, they faced down together the administration’s threats of court injunction to secure a victory against the short-term contracts and low wages that have long bedeviled American colleges and universities.
Public universities such as Rutgers have helped to make this country a powerhouse. The United States established publicly owned land-grant institutions of higher education in laws passed in 1862 and in 1890. These laws gave federally owned land to individual states as a means to raise money to establish such institutions. These colleges and universities were to focus on curricula devoted to cutting-edge practices of agriculture, science, and engineering. Though they were racially discriminatory, and their legacies often marred by expropriation of lands that had been Native American, their mandate was to benefit the people of their states through teaching, research, and service. Land-grant colleges and universities are by no means America’s only public institutions of higher education. State universities—formerly called teachers colleges—and community colleges have offered upward mobility to many. Together, these institutions have contributed mightily to the United States’ ascendence as an economic superpower with unparalleled levels of scientific research and technological innovation, while also offering upward mobility to millions.
The fabric of this national patchwork quilt of public higher education began to fray in the 1970s. Government anti-poverty and education programs of the 1960s helped many people. Black, Latin, LGBT, and female students gained new rights and new access to education and jobs, with much of their political activity taking place on campuses. Not surprisingly, a political backlash against education funding ensued. Free tuition in states such as California and Florida, as well as at City University of New York, came under attack. Funding declined. In 1969, over 75 percent of faculty were tenured or tenure track. By 2016, 73 percent of college instructors were not tenure track; instead most were low-paid, temporary employees. Tuition increased and student debt skyrocketed. Yet the number of administrators with six figure salaries also shot up.
Faculty activists have begun to fight back. In 2022, graduate employees at Indiana University struck for better pay and better work conditions. The successful strike of 48,000 graduate employees across the entire University of California University system and another at University of Illinois at Chicago rang in the year 2023. Grad employees at Temple University in Philadelphia followed with yet another successful walkout. Then at Rutgers, something new unfolded. While the prior strikes of university professors were mostly limited to one part of the professorate, Rutgers faculty prepared for their negotiations with the university’s administration by uniting the three unions representing the diverse sections of the academic workforce behind a single set of demands. In a labor action not focused on raising salaries of the privileged, strikers instead aimed to do what they could to ensure equal pay for equal work, measured by academic credit, among all sections of the faculty, and to end contingent labor among instructors.