Taking Back Our University

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OVER THE PAST YEAR, it has become almost impossible to
ignore the movement growing on college campuses both
within and outside the United States. While diverse in their
demands, seemingly independent local struggles converge
around a common critique of the corporatization and privatization
of public universities. Resulting in a demand that
students and workers take back these institutions and reimagine
their composition and function. I remember organizing
a Graduate Employees’ Organization (G.E.O) rally
that focused on this theme and receiving complaints that
the anti-corporatization message was “too abstract”. Today,
in the throes of a financial meltdown, the vast majority of
the campus community recognizes the devastating effects of
University corporatization and seeks meaningful solutions.
Here at the University of Illinois we—students and workers
– are faced with an exciting and momentous opportunity to
help build an international movement to take back our public
universities, democratize them, re-imagine their composition
and function, and extend access to all.
What do corporatization and privatization mean in the
context of public universities? Put simply, they refer to an
increasing dependence on private funding and corporate
models of administration with devastating implications for
all members of the campus community. The effects of this
encroachment are tri-fold: (1) the delimitation of access to
higher education along class and racial lines, (2) the promotion
of an unstable and inequitable labor system, and
(3) the erosion of democratic structures of accountability
and decision-making.
Different groups on campus experience the effects of
corporatization and privatization in different ways, largely
as a result of their position within the university’s hierarchical
structure. Unsurprisingly, those at the bottom of the
pyramid have tended to be the first to recognize the problem.
Undergraduate students—particularly working-class
students and people of color—were the first hit as hikes in
tuition were utilized as a mechanism to subsidize the
growth of the University while state funds stagnated.
Despite all the talk of an “Inclusive Illinois” and the integrity
of the University’s land-grant mission, the reality is that
the administration of this University—like others across
the country—has already delimited access to an elite few.
The promotion of an unstable and inequitable labor system
has been one of the hallmarks of the corporatization of
the University. As management sought to expand enrollment,
they did so on the backs of a new, largely contingent
labor force. Graduate employees, adjuncts, lecturers, and
undergraduate TA’s are being utilized as a form of cheap
labor. Many work for low pay and no benefits. Of course, the
tenure system has also been eroded, ensuring that the majority
of contingent workers now have little or no hope of ever
attaining job stability in the field for which they trained.
Those that do “make-it” are confined to a field in which corporate
logics powerfully shape the distribution of funds and,
concomitantly, the range of acceptable intellectual projects.
All of these changes have been enacted by a corporate
management structure in which decision-making is centralized
in the hands of a few non-representative, highly
paid administrators who have little understanding of the
day-to-day realities of learning and labor on this campus.
Systems of shared-governance that have traditionally functioned
as important mechanisms of accountability and
oversight have been eroded and compromised. Decisions
are made behind closed doors with little input from those
that will be affected by them. In this context, it is no surprise
that academic institutions are the hottest spots for
unionization in the United States today. The academic labor
system is in flux, workers are alienated from decision-making
processes, and the only way we can get our voice heard
is through collective bargaining. For the most part, management
resents the presence of unions and their incessant
demands for better pay and benefits. Whenever possible,
management seeks to limit the power of campus unions by
excluding union representatives from important decisionmaking
processes, engaging in aggressive bargaining practices,
and outsourcing jobs to non-union workers.
While the problems faced by faculty, graduate employees,
adjuncts, staff, service-workers, and students appear
disparate, the reality is that they stem from the same root
cause: corporate encroachment. Many of the aforementioned
changes have been taking place for several decades,
but when state and national financial structures imploded
in 2009, campus workers and students were forced to navigate
hostile labor negotiations,
tuition increases, and furloughs
rendering the implications of corporate
approaches visible to all.
Administrative scandals and
cover-ups, incompetency in
financial management, skewed
priorities manifest in poor investments,
and a long-term failure to
secure adequate state revenues
have led most of us to believe that
a new approach is necessary.
Now it is time for us—students
and workers—to struggle
collectively to take back the University.
We must come together
and develop a new vision for a public university that is
equitable, accessible, and democratic.
If we really believe that students from all backgrounds
should be given the opportunity to attain a college degree,
we must take a principled stand on halting tuition increases
now. We must inform the Board of Trustees that as a
campus community we will no longer allow them to balance
the budget by restricting access to the privileged few.
Rather, we should take a unified stand on public funding
increases for higher education and back that up by lobbying
in Springfield and staging major rallies and protests in
solidarity with our peers on campuses across the globe.
While we push for these larger fiscal changes, we also
need to educate each other on the administrative operations
of our campus by studying the budget and taking collective
stands on how funds should be allocated. The
administration has shown that its priorities are inconsistent
with the rest of the campus community. We must articulate
our own priorities and organize to ensure that they are represented.
While we could utilize the language of “excellence
in teaching and research” that has often characterized
demands in higher education—we might also add new priorities
reflective of our broad-based coalition. These could
include the expansion of access, the promotion of a stable
and equitable labor system, and the fortification of meaningful
relations between campus and community.
Ensuring that our priorities resonate in the long-term
will require that we commit ourselves to the democratization
of the university. The interests of faculty, students, and
organized labor must be democratically represented at all
levels of decision-making from the smallest academic unit
to the Board of Trustees. While administrators are focused
on the bottom line, workers and
students are best situated to understand
the effects on the ground.
Our collective knowledge of what
works and what doesn’t is invaluable
to the effective operation of
this campus. Therefore, we must
fight to decentralize administrative
decision-making, restore and
enhance mechanisms of accountability,
and promote the practice of
participatory democracy.
If you would like to help build
this movement to promote an
equitable, accessible and democratic
university, please join us by
participating in the “March Forth on March 4th National
Day of Action to Defend Public Higher Education!”

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