“Decisions about when and how to reopen campuses, modalities of instruction, class size, tuition, campus services and facilities, staffing levels, and working conditions have been dictated not just by the human needs of those who work or those we serve, but by the bottom-line priorities of upper administrators.”
As UMass Boston continues into the fall semester amidst a global pandemic, it would be nice to think that public health and educational concerns are being put first. However, too often, across our higher education system today, the health and educational needs of students, faculty, staff, and the communities we serve must take a back seat. Instead, decision-making is dominated by financial concerns about budgets, revenue streams, and paying down debt—putting health and educational needs at risk.
Even during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, decisions about when and how to reopen campuses, modalities of instruction, class size, tuition, campus services and facilities, staffing levels, and working conditions have been dictated not just by the human needs of those who work or those we serve, but by the bottom-line priorities of upper administrators. At UMB, fall classes are being taught in tightly packed rooms that do not allow the space to social distance and may lack adequate ventilation. Faculty were assigned face-to-face classes and ordered not to change modalities—even after a student in their class tests positive for COVID. Faculty, many over 65 and with serious health conditions, or with vulnerable people at home, were told they must still show up in-person, without assurances that other exposed students in the class will be tested. This leaves UMB faculty (especially those lacking tenure) with two bad options: continue to teach face-to-face and put ourselves and our loved ones at risk, or keep ourselves and our students safe—say, by taking an exposed class online (pending class-wide negative test results)—and risk losing our jobs. (Note: as of this writing, we are finally seeing movement from administration on this important issue.)
Why is this the case? Does it have to be this way? While the tendency is to focus on immediate administration decisions, the current crisis stems from larger forces, and has been a long time in the making. For decades, federal and state aid to colleges and universities has been declining while a dominant corporate management ideology has been on the rise. These two interlocking trends have combined to push even a public campus like UMass Boston toward privatized and “market-oriented” competition and narrow profit- (“efficiency”) oriented metrics—as borrowing capital from investors becomes the substitute for shrinking state subsidies, and chasing tuition dollars becomes the top priority. Across the country, this has led to spiraling tuition and fee increases, an arms race for luxury campus amenities, expanded dependence on out-of-state and international students, short-sighted cost-cutting and under-staffing, intensified worker exploitation and faculty precarity, and ballooning debt both for individual students and their families and for the institutions themselves.
Consider parking and transportation here at UMB. A truly “anti-racist and health-promoting” institution that wanted to combat global warming (by reducing carbon emissions) and reduce health inequities (by reducing dangerous levels of urban air pollution) would be doing everything it could to enable its commuters to cut down dependence on cars, perhaps by working with city and state governments to provide students, faculty, and staff with free MBTA passes (and expanded local T service), as well as other incentives to bike, walk, or carpool to campus.
But our recent administrations have yet to take up such an effort. Instead, our transportation needs are seen from above as a revenue stream, a chance to wring another $15 a day from each commuter. (As we write this editorial, our staff, grad student, and faculty unions are preparing to push back against proposed parking fee increases yet again.) Privatization and state underfunding has led the UMB administration to create a perverse—and environmentally toxic—structure where our “health-promoting” institution now has a direct financial incentive to discourage public transportation. Meanwhile, traffic in Dorchester, and all across Boston, snarls and snags and chokes in new ways, setting records. How many hours are lost by our community each day in traffic? How many more asthma cases occur in nearby communities because of the particulate pollution? How much CO2 does our commuter campus add to the atmosphere each day? We should want to do better, and our new chancellor speaks strongly on these sorts of issues. But chasing parking fee dollars has a way of making the common good an afterthought.
Let’s be clear: it’s not just a UMB thing. Across the country, rather than treating higher education as an institution for safeguarding our collective future, the pursuit of knowledge, and the common good—one that warrants full public investment—our system has come to view college as a strictly financial investment to be funded by individual students and their families. The perception of individual students as the sole—and strictly monetary—beneficiaries of the college degree impoverishes the educational mission itself, narrowing it from a pursuit of knowledge and development of talents to a pursuit of immediately marketable job skills. Likewise, the public social mission of urban universities like ours—which still inspires many of us—shrivels from a transformative force to marketing rhetoric. Increasingly students are seen as customers and revenue sources, universities as competing brands, and administrators as corporate managers putting bottom-line returns ahead of all else. In this environment, we are all taught to look out for ourselves and compete for scarce resources—like drivers in traffic cutting each other off and honking at those who get in our way—rather than to cooperate and really take care of each other as we work to change the world.
Many common sense health-, equity-, and education-promoting solutions for reducing COVID-19 risk on our campuses exist, from decreasing class sizes (and hiring more faculty to cover those smaller classes) to running more campus shuttle buses, creating more outdoor meeting spaces, and increasing mandatory coronavirus testing. But through the lens of cost containment, such easy solutions can be deemed “unrealistic” and set aside. So far (as of this writing), UMB has not adopted any of these solutions, except for offering free—but still voluntary—testing. The consequences for those of us at UMB, as well as higher ed workers and learners nationwide, is greater risk of exposure, illness, and even death. (At universities without a vaccine or mask mandate, the dangers are surely far greater.)
What would it look like if the common good of the people, in terms of physical well-being and education alike, were truly put first?
This summer, across the country, hundreds of campus faculty, staff, and student activists from 90 union locals (representing nearly 500,000 higher ed workers in total) came together to form a new nationwide coalition: Higher Ed Labor United (HELU for short). We come from across faculty ranks and worker categories, including both tenure-track and tenure-excluded faculty, professional and classified staff, undergraduate and graduate student workers. We’re from small private colleges and large public universities like UMB, as well as state and community colleges. HELU is united in the belief that we need a higher education system that works for all and puts the common good first. We also believe that we cannot depend on upper administrators or distant politicians to lead us towards this promised land: We, the students and workers of higher education, must lead the way ourselves.
After decades of hitting walls at the state level, where revenues are often scarce (though here in Massachusetts we’re working to change that) the HELU coalition has set out to build a truly national effort, linking campuses and our existing local and national unions to apply pressure at every level, from campus administrators and trustees, to state legislatures, to the federal government itself, where key decisions are made that affect us all. As we speak, HELU is presently working with Bernie Sanders, chairman of the U.S. Senate budget committee, and a growing list of congressional representatives in D.C. to leverage the ongoing budget reconciliation effort to address the needs of higher education, students and contingent faculty in particular, winning more public funding, while mandating that those funds go directly to expanding access and to improving learning and working conditions. (This September we need to push our MA Senators Elizabeth Warren, 202-224-4543, and Edward Markey, 202-224-2742, to support this call as well.) This is our short-term goal, but HELU is in it for the long haul.
Higher Ed Labor United has five main goals (spelled out in more detail in our Vision
*Invest in Higher Ed for All: Free access to both two- and four-year public institutions.
*Guarantee Job Security, a Living Wage, and the Right to Unionize: For all campus
*Close the Pay Gap: Pay workers the same wage for performing the same job.
*Expand Tenure to End the Adjunct Crisis: All faculty deserve job security and
*Cancel Student Debt: Release students and institutions from crippling debt burdens.
We are far from the first to raise such demands, but we are building a new kind of nationwide coalition, rooted in local activism and union organization, to push for adopting them at all levels, from the campus to the Congress. It will take a broad push, from our campuses and our communities. We ask you to join us in this fight to build a united national higher ed worker and student movement by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or contacting us below. Together we can reclaim power on our campuses and across our county, and turn quality higher education into what it should be: A core right that belongs to us all, and that puts the common good first.
If not now, then when? If not us, then who?
Linda Ai-Yun Liu is a lecturer in the UMass Boston Sociology Department, and is a representative for non-tenure track faculty on the executive committee of the Faculty Staff Union (FSU/MTA).
Joseph G. Ramsey is a senior lecturer in English and American studies at UMass Boston, and is co-chair of HELU’s collective action committee.