“Shock Doctrine” in Higher Ed: Class Struggle in the Pandemic

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With the pandemic and economic downturn, faculty are facing the threat of a “shock therapy” in higher education bringing sweeping changes to their working conditions. To meet this crisis, they need to organize for worker and student control of colleges and universities.

Students being kicked out of their dorms (Photo: Lauren A. Little/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle)

The coronavirus pandemic has brought chaos to colleges and universities. Closing campuses and moving courses online, administrators left many in the student body unsure of where they will live or how they will eat. And even after that, many librarians, security guards and others were needlessly kept in harm’s way by being forced to continue reporting to campus. Meanwhile, mass layoffs have already started for many campus workers. 

The contingent majority of faculty, like others in the working class, are forced to continue working without health care and sick leave, and to perform additional, unpaid labor to make the shift online. While crowing about “continuity of instruction” and “operation,” campus bureaucrats have been far more concerned with maintaining the flow of money than with the people who make universities run. 

But the pandemic also threatens to give campus administrations cover for a “shock doctrine” imposed on higher education: making the shift online permanent for a range of classes, enacting mass faculty layoffs, increasing class sizes, and intensifying the attacks on faculty job security and benefits in order to slash costs and maximize revenue.

The response by academic trade union leaders has been weak at best. Offering demands and recommendations to administrators, they are silent about the most powerful tool faculty have to confront the threats facing them: the refusal to work. But reformist trade unionism’s approach, incremental and polite bargaining, will be unable to either protect faculty now or fend off the “shock therapy” on its way.

To meet the crisis, we need radical caucuses inside and beyond our unions that can link faculty, students, and other campus workers in a mass, militant, and independent rank-and-file struggle — one unafraid to buck union leadership to disrupt and stop work en masse. In other words, the current situation calls not for reformism but for a class struggle unionism that fights for worker and student control over the university.

Students, Workers, and the Priorities of Administrators

The current and impending attacks on faculty are developing against the backdrop of chaotic campus closures that show administrators’ primary focus: safeguarding the flow of money.

For students, the closure of campuses was often confusing and even traumatizing, leaving many unsure of their financial aid, their ability to travel home, their housing options, or even a clear sense of how to obtain food. Administrators have offered little to address the mental health of students or others working amid the stress of the pandemic and campus closures. At the same time, many student workers lost pay and are left unsure if they have jobs when campuses reopen. One thing has remained consistent, however: despite the chaos, no tuition will be returned. 

Meanwhile, the wider “support staff” in cafeterias, bookstores, campus facilities, and offices are left waiting to hear if they will have jobs when the pandemic passes — though the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard have already begun handing out pink slips for large sectors of their workforce. Other campus workers have been needlessly kept in harm’s way. President Cauce of the University of Washington, for example, announced a shift to “distance learning” starting March 9 because the administration’s “focus remains keeping this community healthy.” In the same message she added that all of UW’s “campuses will remain open” in full — even the “Husky athletic events” staffed by campus workers and attended by students and others. This, despite the fact that Seattle (home to one of UW’s campuses) had by that time become a national epicenter of the disease. The campus shifted to “critical” staff only on order of the governor on March 23 — although the chaotic decisions about who, and how many, will count as “critical” or “essential” at universities has typically been left up to managers themselves.

The situation was similar at CUNY, where the shift to fully online courses was initially to happen during an “instructional recess” between March 12-18 and the staffing of campus with only “essential personnel” on March 16. As late as March 18, after multiple positive cases of the virus were reported across CUNY campuses, many workers were needlessly required to report to work; managers were still “demanding meetings of multiple workers in small rooms, calling workers in for trainings that could easily be done online, senselessly keeping libraries open when public libraries across the city closed days ago.”  

A “Shock Doctrine” and the Position of Faculty

It’s well known by now that the vast majority of faculty today — about 70% — are contingent workers. Over half of all faculty appointments are now part-time, that is, held by adjuncts, “part-time lecturers,” or graduate students who very often work with little or no health insurance from their employers. About 25% of higher-ed teachers live in poverty. Like others in the working class, many will have to continue working in the pandemic without either health benefits or sick leave, while facing drastic financial hardship if a partner or spouse is laid off. The lurch online has also meant additional work, like learning new technology, changing course readings and assignment schedules, creating alternative learning plans for students who need them, and attending “optional” meetings with managers — all for free. Even a modest amount of extra work is punishing for adjuncts teaching massive course loads for multiple colleges. Furthermore, like many students and workers, faculty are left to navigate the change in working conditions amid constant anxiety and additional childcare.

But as Anna Kornbluth points out, the pandemic is also poised to help usher in a “shock doctrine” in higher ed. Crises are often used by the ruling class to aggressively push through a neoliberal laundry-list of changes against the working class that they’ve been pursuing anyway. In that “shock doctrine,” crises give cover for a fundamental restructuring of the workforce to be more precarious, more poorly paid, and with even fewer rights. In the same way, the pandemic offers administrators a “shock” to the system of higher ed they could use to accelerate and deepen the decades-long efforts to fundamentally transform faculty working conditions and rights. 

The sudden shift online only intensifies a longer trend in higher ed towards more online delivery, a key part of administrators’ strategy to reduce costs and increase revenue. As one study puts it, online course delivery has been attractive to administrators because the expense of adding extra students to an online setting is “negligible”: they don’t have to factor in classroom space, desks, or campus congestion. By making it easier and cheaper to increase class size, online classes also help contain spending on faculty. Larger classes mean fewer course sections and fewer faculty hires. If faculty pay is controlled, the study notes, “a 10% class size increase would save the university 10% in salary expenses.”

In other words, online classes make it easier and cheaper to ramp up faculty “productivity,” or the amount of revenue a professor generates over against the cost of instruction. Shifting more courses online was an important tactic in administrators’ responses to the 2008 crisis. In the economic crisis just now beginning, which looks to be more severe, many of them will be tempted to adopt a more aggressive version of that approach — especially given the already shaky finances of many schools. 

Even before the pandemic, 10% of U.S. colleges and universities were in extreme financial crisis, with another 30% in substantial financial trouble. The situation is now exponentially worse. Moody’s Investor Service recently downgraded the outlook for higher education to “negative.” Revenue at public and private schools will all most likely be in free-fall. The stimulus bill just passed will be woefully inadequate to buoy up higher ed.

Administrators’ tactics for dealing with this crisis will likely be quite limited. Paul Friga — a business school professor who moonlights as a consultant on higher ed budget planning — notes that after 2008, higher ed’s primary coping strategy was increasing tuition. But this time around, tuition increases can’t be primary, since the cost of college is already so high. Between the last crisis and 2015-2016, median income dropped by almost 7% while the average cost of tuition increased 30%. 

Friga points to two main tactics administrators will likely use to cut costs. The first is relying far more on online education than before, something college presidents themselves are saying as well. The second is intensifying the reliance on highly contingent, low-paid faculty and increasing the attack on non-contingent faculty positions. We will also almost certainly see major efforts to drive up the size of all classes, whether they are online or not, and to cut the number of faculty through layoffs. Because of their lack of almost any institutional power, contingent faculty will experience the increasing long-term shift online, mass layoffs, and increased class sizes first and foremost. 

Of course, educational “shock therapy” is far from unique to higher ed. Public school teachers, for example, are also under increasing pressure to shift their teaching online, despite hurdles like students’ vastly unequal access to the internet and reliable technology, and despite the glut of additional and unpaid labor the transition will mean. The danger here too is severe: after decades of the neoliberal gutting of public schools, and in the midst of the coming economic crisis, public school teachers will likely face even more intense pushes to slash costs and destroy unions. 

Union Leaders Respond — Weakly

The response by academic trade unions has been weak. 

Major bodies like the AFT and AAUP have been calling for administrators to impose clear safety protocols for students and workers, and both the AAUP and the NEA have issued statements about some of the dangers of the shift online. But little is said about the mass of contingent faculty whose pay will depend on working through the pandemic, or the impending layoffs and increases in class size that will affect them most readily. Nor do they grapple with the threat of further precaritization of the faculty workforce coming with a higher ed “shock doctrine.” But even if the unions had levelled stronger demands, they tacitly agree: faculty should keep working despite the major and unresolved issues that threaten them. Worse, while the AAUP has been critical of the long-term trend towards more online education, in the midst of the pandemic it offers a list of resources to help teachers make high-quality online content — content that will be owned by the school and could be used to build permanent online courses afterwards.

Union locals typically aren’t faring much better. In Philadelphia, for example, the citywide adjunct local of the AFT, the United Academics of Philadelphia (UAP), is using its private Facebook page to share tips on how to best develop quality online classes in the crises. At Temple University, where I adjunct, the main effort of the leadership of AFT Local 4531 has been, first and foremost, to help share the information coming from the administrators, and to transmit workers’ concerns and demands to them. Preparation for layoffs, it would seem, means directing contingent faculty to the state site for unemployment compensation.

But when union leaders encourage faculty to simply keep working without guarantees that crucial demands will be met, they engage in a rearguard, halfhearted fight at a key moment. Administrators are planning now for fundamental changes to faculty working conditions to cope with a profound financial crisis. Moreover, the current crisis hands faculty sudden leverage. Administrators’ panicked shift of courses online, apparently to justify cashing students’ tuition checks, places faculty at a chokepoint that could be used to win major concessions. At the same time, the chaotic closing of campuses has helped turn other sectors of campus — students and other campus workers — into possible allies. 

In other words, academic unions are caught unprepared at a moment calling for a far more militant fight. What faculty — and contingent professors above all — need are unions able to “strike first, then bargain,” refusing to work and demanding full pay and benefits until essential guarantees are won: sick leave and health benefits during the unprecedented health threat; no layoffs; no later transformation of “emergency” online courses into permanent ones; a freeze on class sizes; no push to further precaritize the faculty body; and more pay for those given more work without preparation time. Faculty need unions able to push militantly for these things and in support of the struggles of students and other campus workers.

Not that it’s surprising that academic trade union leaders have so far failed to make such a move. Trade union leaders tend to be reformist, since they are hemmed in by the state and narrowly focused on negotiating with bosses and lobbying politicians for incremental gains — not building up the power that would be needed to fundamentally challenge the authority of bosses over workers’ lives. And so it’s typical for those leaders to agree to a “no strike” clause in faculty contracts, giving away workers’ most important weapon as a cost of small concessions.

It is also true that most academic unions don’t yet have the mass, militantly organized base of faculty inside of them they would need to successfully pull off a strike in today’s conditions. But the major threats to faculty will only become more acute in the coming months. Even if academic unions aren’t prepared, now is the time to point out the utter failures of university administrators as well as the profound limits of reformist trade unionism and, most importantly, to build towards the kinds of unions we are going to need to fight back. 

Towards a Revolutionary Socialist Struggle in U.S. Higher Ed

To be able to challenge administrators’ attacks, faculty have to wage a mass, independent, and militant struggle that is unafraid to buck reformist leadership and organize widespread work disruptions and stoppages. That means building up revolutionary socialist forces inside and beyond our unions. To sketch some tentative ideas on how to do this, it’s helpful to adapt Juan Cruz Ferre’s outline of the role revolutionary socialists can play in trade unions. 

Shifting the balance of forces against administrators means developing revolutionary socialist cadres as well as launching broader, independent rank-and-file caucuses. To avoid the traps of trade union reformism, caucuses would need to build up a mass, activist struggle able to “take things into our own hands.” That would mean, instead of just appealing to union leaders or running reform slates, first and foremost acting directly and independently of union leaders: using work disruptions and stoppages against layoffs, attempts to make the shift online permanent, increased class sizes, or work without healthcare or sick leave. In other words, such caucuses would need to follow the lead of the wildcat strikes shaking the University of California system and CUNY’s “7K or Strike.” 

As the independent, activist base of workers becomes larger and stronger, the chances increase of forcing reformist leadership to support more radical actions, and preventing reactionary attacks by that leadership. But building that base also requires constantly agitating against the incrementalism of bureaucratic union leaders, hammering home that the administration and faculty have fundamentally divergent interests. Only mass and militant support would justify a caucus running an independent union election slate, which will be crucial as the clash between administrators and faculty becomes acute. Without mass support and pressure from below, the bureaucratic nature of union leadership makes it all too likely even an opposition slate would become reformist too. 

In other words, the task ahead is first and foremost the creation of caucuses able to advance large-scale class struggle unionism in a direct fight for control over our classrooms, our departments, and the university as a whole. 

To Ferre’s sketch we might add two important points specific to higher ed. First, the struggle for real workers’ power inside academic unions will likely need to root itself in the contingent faculty majority primarily (though not only), since they are the ones most at risk and with the most to gain. It’s no coincidence that the most radical examples of higher ed faculty recently come from UC Santa Cruz’s graduate students and CUNY’s adjuncts. 

Second, given the difficult economic situation of universities, winning fights against administrations will mean building caucuses that reach well beyond faculty, rooting themselves deeply in the militant layers of students and other campus workers for work stoppages and disruptions.

 In other words, the struggle for real faculty power is inseparable from the struggle of students and other workers. And the power we will need to challenge administrator attacks leads directly to the struggle for real worker and student control over campus life. 

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