The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2020

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SEPT 2020 Issue
Field Notes Back to School

What’s the Use of a University?

Graduate workers assemble on UCLA's campus. Photo: Samuel Feldblum
Graduate workers assemble on UCLA's campus. Photo: Samuel Feldblum

The history of the University of California over the last half-century has been written through protest. Student movements and labor actions alike erupt iteratively in response to changes in the UC’s structure. Amid one longer struggle, each generation fights its own particular battles. Last December, when a group of grad students at UC Santa Cruz withheld grades from the winter quarter—and were summarily fired, prompting a full labor strike and solidarity actions statewide—they were targeting the material conditions of their labor and their housing. They were also rejecting the dictates of a university system increasingly run as a business, in which they represent nothing so much as a discounted workforce. The university greeted them with open hostility.

Santa Cruz provided the ideal tinder box for the conflagration. Housing costs are among the highest in the nation: the average monthly rent of a one-bedroom apartment in the county hovers just under $2,000, with affordability trending down as rent continues to outpace regional income growth. Like most of California’s metropolitan areas, the number of cost-burdened renters exceeds national averages, and the county’s per-capita homeless population has reached San Francisco levels. The university is not only far and away the county’s largest employer, but a major player in the real estate market, capable of exerting citywide influence on rent prices. On its campus, according to internal polling, most graduate workers are rent-burdened, paying more than 30 percent of their income toward rent; many pay more than 70 percent.1 The graduate workers’ contract signed with the UC in 2018, meanwhile, had been voted down by 83 percent of Santa Cruz graduate student workers.

Discontent boiled over into a December grading strike for a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) to keep pace with the overheated housing market. In the coming months, the grade withholding grew into a full labor strike on UCSC’s campus. The grad workers’ union had signed a contract with the UC the previous year with a boilerplate no-strike clause that precluded the union sanctioning any such action; the UCSC workers, on wildcat strike and thus unprotected, were fired en masse by the university, which in turn spread the strike—and demands for COLA—across the UC system.

University administration set about managing the fallout from the terminations: while claiming that they were unable to bargain with the striking workers based on the current contract, they simultaneously sued the union for tacitly supporting the strike, and attempted to negotiate with an obscure graduate-student governing body unaffiliated with either the striking UCSC students or the union. This chicanery was perhaps to be expected given the UC’s history. As labor historian Toby Higbie notes, in response to a climate of campus radicalism, universities turned to labor relations experts to manage labor conflicts and quell unrest. “Clark Kerr is the one who presided over the expansion of the UC system, and he was a labor relations expert. He was the director of the Berkeley Institute of Industrial Relations. In the sixties and seventies, a lot of university presidents were industrial relations scholars.”2

Kerr’s expansion of the UC system also set the stage for later transformations that would precipitate the COLA movement. In 1960, Kerr, then president of the University of California, and California governor Pat Brown spearheaded passage of the California Master Plan for Higher Education. An ambitious agenda committed to continual growth of the state’s higher education capacity to meet public demand, the Master Plan enshrined in law the “public good” model of the UC—stipulating that it would operate simultaneously as a vehicle of equal opportunity, individual upward mobility, and statewide economic development. In Master Plan California (so the theory went), tuition-free public higher education would propel the state toward an ever-increasing prosperity in which everyone could share, so long as they committed themselves to the form of self-improvement signaled by the attainment of a college diploma. Such an understanding of the personal and social value of the publicly financed university had a degree of plausibility in the postwar era, when rising productivity appeared unproblematically linked to rising wages and a Keynesian sensibility about state expenditure prevailed.

But as an ideological justification for unequal outcomes, the Master Plan was also compatible with an emerging neoliberal alternative, most prominently embodied in the thinking of Gary Becker, a University of Chicago-trained economist and later president of the Mont Pelerin Society, font of neoliberal thought. Seeking a way of accounting for disparities in the labor market, Becker developed the theory of “human capital,” a gloss on the “knowledge” and “skills” possessed by workers that would be attractive to firms and therefore reflected in a higher wage. Becker’s theory was a tidy inversion of Marx: no longer the possessor solely of “labor power” in a coercive market stratified by class, the worker was rather the proprietor of her own human capital—which is to say, a capitalist in miniature. Education became, in this view. an avenue for students to invest in themselves.

Thus even as Kerr was pitching the university as something of a public good, he described its functioning, in his The Uses of the University (1966), in the language of business: one at the center of the growing “knowledge industry,” such that “The university and segments of industry are becoming more alike. As the university becomes tied into the world of work, the professor…takes on the characteristics of an entrepreneur.”

In 1964, the same year that Becker published Human Capital, huge free speech protests at UC Berkeley would interrupt Kerr’s smooth managerial triumphalism. Kerr, we assume, was unimpressed: in Industrialism and Industrial Man (1960), he writes:

The intellectuals (including the university students) are a particularly volatile element…capable of extreme reactions to objective situations—more extreme than any group in society. They are by nature irresponsible, in the sense that they have no continuing commitment to any single institution or philosophical outlook and they are not fully answerable for consequences. They are, as a result, never fully trusted by anybody, including themselves.3

Protestors appear in Kerr’s thinking, then, as a nuisance to be managed and controlled as the knowledge industry rolls along: an easy prospect, he assures his reader, as “today men know more about how to control protest, as well as how to suppress it in its more organized forms.” It seems he did not know well enough. As soon as Kerr published these thoughts, of course, they were given the lie. Ronald Reagan, who came to political prominence in part through his revanchist opposition to the Free Speech Movement and the way Kerr was managing it, promised California voters he would be the man to “clean up the mess at Berkeley.” Elected governor in 1967, he moved swiftly to oust Kerr and violently suppress the student movement.

And while the political logic underwriting the Master Plan was entrenched enough during Reagan’s tenure as governor that he actually implemented the state’s first progressive income tax to keep California’s public universities tuition-free, his ascendance to the presidency was pivotal in completing the transformation of public higher education into something that conferred a private market benefit. Reagan’s national initiation of the neoliberal epoch was foreshadowed by California’s “taxpayer revolt,” which in 1978 led to the ratification of Proposition 13. By strictly capping property tax revenue, Proposition 13 reduced California’s fiscal base, limiting the amount of money available for higher education expenditure and reinforcing a growing common sense: no longer a public good in any meaningful sense, the university instead offers a way for the driven and the motivated to augment their human capital. This would be (and continues to be) expressed monetarily in the “education premium,” the lifetime of higher earnings that seemed to accrue to the college graduate.

In other words, the ambiguity of the Master Plan, which proposed a public good model of the university but allowed a human capital explanation of its benefit, seemed to resolve in favor of the latter. This has had profound downstream effects on how the university is governed and financed. In Kerr’s time, tuition at the UC was free. The business-like character of the UC has only been magnified since, as public funding has dried up through successive crises, leaving the university ever more reliant on tuition for funding and on squeezing its underpaid workforce. The current era was inaugurated in 2004, when the UC’s Board of Regents signed a “Higher Education Compact” with then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, which committed to yearly tuition hikes twice what the state committed in return. This ushered in what UC Santa Barbara professor Christopher Newfield has called a “devolutionary cycle” of neoliberal privatization and public retrenchment at the university that continues straight up to the present.4 In the 2020–2021 UC budget, for example, tuition ($3.80 billion) and state funding ($3.94 billion) now account for almost equal proportions of the university’s “core funds” for teaching and research. Per-student expenditures on education, meanwhile, have declined nearly 20 percent, from $25,220 in fiscal year 2000–2001 to $20,670 in fiscal year 2020–2021, and the composition of these expenditures has shifted dramatically. Tuition has more than doubled as a share of per-student expenditure since 2001, while the per-student state contribution has been cut in half in the same period.5

The tuition-based revenue model may seem to have been enacted defensively, in response to declining state funding, but it offers certain advantages to university administrators. As Dan Nemser and Brian Whitener point out, tuition, unlike state funding, is unrestricted revenue, capable of being allocated to all of the university’s operations, including construction, real estate, administration, or anything else privileged by higher education’s managerial strata. What’s more, tuition increases, and the phenomenon of mass student indebtedness they have helped to manufacture, can be leveraged as collateral by the university to issue debt of its own.6 Debt financing, consonant with a conception of the lean, entrepreneurial university serving a lean, entrepreneurial student population, has exploded across higher education in the 21st century, and remains central to university operations. In the UC’s 2019–2025 financial plan, for instance, a full 40 percent of the $28 billion in capital with an identified funding source is expected to come from “external financing” borrowed on capital markets.

The university may be able to secure preferential credit scores and interest rates in these markets by representing itself as a quasi-corporate nexus of assets and revenue streams, but it also subjects itself to the whims of financial governance. Finance, of course, celebrates the privatization of the university already long in progress, and the many ways in which public institutions have adapted themselves to market logics. Little surprise, then, that the UC, like universities everywhere, has striven to diversify revenue streams and cut costs—through increased tuition and decreased per-student expenditure, yes, but also intellectual property rents, corporate sponsorship of research, outsourcing and contracting of non-core operations, hospital income, contingentization of the academic labor force, and institutional landlordism. It is in this broader context that the most recent cycle of unrest at the UC must be understood.

The neoliberal university—leveraging tuition money to debt-finance real estate acquisition and other potentially profitable ventures—has both opportunistically responded to and helped to produce one of the largest consumer credit bubbles in the United States’s history, now directly underwritten by the federal government, which has $1.5 trillion in student loans on its books—a figure that is equivalent to nearly 7 percent of the national GDP. Even more than retrenchment at the state level, this new role of federal government as permanent lender for the nation’s student population reflects the breadth of neoliberal retreat: no longer a provider of higher education as a tax-financed public good, the government now operates as the major player in a ballooning debt market. The scale of student indebtedness is enough to “[generate] new forms of docility through peonage” as students take on debt before ever entering the formal workplace.7

But this financialized landscape also exposes new fissures. In 2009, after the financial crisis decimated California’s state finances and led Schwarzenegger to renege on the Higher Education Compact by drastically cutting state funding for higher education, the UC responded by announcing widespread layoffs, budget cuts, and a 32 percent tuition increase. Undergraduates, led by students at Santa Cruz, erupted in protest, occupying university buildings and staging sit-ins across the UC campuses. A flurry of critical student writing proliferated, distributed in chapbooks and zines at the protests. Here is how one of the essays written at that time describes graduate students:

Meanwhile the graduate students, supposedly the most politically enlightened among us, are also the most obedient. The “vocation” for which they labor is nothing other than a fantasy of falling off the grid, or out of the labor market. Every grad student is a would be Robinson Crusoe, dreaming of an island economy subtracted from the exigencies of the market. But this fantasy is itself sustained through an unremitting submission to the market. There is no longer the least felt contradiction in teaching a totalizing critique of capitalism by day and polishing one’s job talk by night…Graduate school is simply the faded remnant of a feudal system adapted to the logic of capitalism—from the commanding heights of the star professors to the serried ranks of teaching assistants and adjuncts paid mostly in bad faith.8

While the tone here is clearly polemical, the undergraduates do capture some of the challenges of graduate student organizing. On the one hand, graduate students at the UC are public employees. On the other, academic graduate students are widely perceived as professionals-in-training, whose advanced degrees will propel them into the comfortable ranks of the tenured professoriate—epitomizing the logic of human capital. But decades spent cutting labor costs means that contingent faculty slots make up 70 percent of all instructional appointments across the United States. Graduate students are thus overwhelmingly competing for part-time jobs that are renewed on a contract basis with little to no year-to-year security, and often paid on a per-class basis that breaks down to less than minimum wage. And while such a bleak outlook offers a stark corrective to the notion that doctoral education is first and foremost a professionalization process that will pay off in a tenure-track future, it also ironically engenders intensely neoliberal forms of self-governance among a graduate and adjunct population competing for an ever-shrinking share of tenure-eligible positions. Promoting solidarity becomes a challenge when, as the undergraduates in 2009 so pointedly put it, graduate students are routinely encouraged to “[polish] one’s job talk by night.”

* * *

We can confirm the ambivalence expressed among graduate students at the height of the COLA actions. Opinion seemed to oscillate between discontent over the 2018 contract ratification process, reflexive support of the UAW, decrying of paltry paychecks, and deep concern over how participation may affect access to university money and future job prospects. The UC’s mass firing of UCSC students did indeed inspire fear in graduate workers, some of whom felt more comfortable committing to slower-moving but legally protected actions through the union than quicker wildcat strikes; other students, whose faith in the apprenticeship model prevailed—particularly in those fields with real promise of stable employment post-graduation—showed little interest in spending their stretched time on questions of labor. In any case, as graduate student workers across the state considered whether and how to expand the strike in early March, the coronavirus pushed university life online—opening new opportunities for organizing, but ultimately throwing a heavy blanket over the COLA push. For a time, the graduate workers’ local, UAW 2865, worked toward an unfair labor practices (ULP) strike to reinstate the fired workers; ultimately, though, that campaign ended with a whimper, with the bargaining committee deciding against a vote to authorize the strike, decrying the efforts of a “‘vanguardist’ minority union of grad workers in the social sciences, arts, and humanities” to act without the bulk of the union’s membership behind them.

In a retrospective on the heels of the COLA campaign’s headiest days, the organizers of the COLA movement considered their successes and pitfalls:

It is possible that the COLA demand uniquely and directly addressed the material conditions of graduate workers, its singularity and universality concentrating political energy in ways that analogous campaigns had not. Moreover, the emergence of the single, focused COLA demand bypassed the pitfalls of recent histories of UC graduate organizing. It was not a Graduate Student Association initiative, did not seek an audience with administration, and was unavoidably antagonistic to the UAW 2865 leadership and the 2018 contract.9

The distaste, then, was mutual, and informed by the history of division between two caucuses within the UAW: Organizing for Student-Worker Power (OSWP) and Academic Workers for a Democratic Union (AWDU). The AWDU had emerged from the post-2009 political landscape on campus and promoted an expansive social justice vision of union activism. OSWP, whose members currently make up the leadership of UAW 2865, took back the local in the wake of declining membership rolls and the shock of the Supreme Court’s Janus decision, aiming to reorient the union to the more modest task of “building a supermajority membership.” It is heavily influenced by labor scholar and UC Berkeley fellow-in-residence Jane McAlevey, who contends that “the strikes that work best and win the most are the ones in which at least 90 percent of all the workers walk out, having first forged unity among themselves and with their broader community.”10 This benchmark is relatively difficult to hit, particularly in the context of a local as sprawling as UAW 2865, which covers more than 19,000 student workers across 10 campuses and which experiences a nearly complete turnover of the workforce in any given 10-year period. The COLA organizers, adherents of the social justice unionism approach advocated by the AWDU, considered that standard to lend itself to an overly conservative approach to labor action; they argue that,

Without the wildcat strike, we would have none of these concrete possibilities to secure and improve our conditions. Without the continuing pressures and threat of mass action exerted by the wildcat strike, there would never be sufficient pressure on the University to agree to reopen negotiations with the union, nor would there be sufficient power behind the union to successfully negotiate with a behemoth institution like the UC.

The union, in this view, is a tool, a legally protected body to be pushed and prodded into action, absent which it succumbs to inertia.

COLA advocates made the case that their wildcat strike accomplished just that. The COLA movement was itself something of a referendum on the last contract signed by UAW 2865, in summer of 2018. That contract was ratified narrowly—with 52 percent of union members who cast a vote approving—and rejected on UCSC’s campus by a more than four-to-one margin. Nonetheless, as March wore on—and before the UAW bargaining committee rejected authorization of a ULP strike—the tactics of the two groups converged: as the union worked toward an authorized ULP strike, COLA organizers pushed rolling wildcat strikes toward the same goal. The very day that our home department (UCLA Geography) held a town hall to discuss our options, though, we left the meeting to news that in-person classes had been canceled the following day. We have not returned since.

Coronavirus squashed momentum across the UC system toward a COLA, and thwarted graduate labor agitation against further austerity for the university. So too does it promise further austerity. A one-time infusion of funds from federal aid notwithstanding, the state legislature has reduced the funds allocated to UC by 12 percent for 2020–21; the $3.47 billion now marked for the UCs is a full 20 percent less than the amount requested by the university’s regents pre-COVID to avoid deep deficits. “Campuses have tirelessly tried all sorts of revenue workarounds, mostly involving overenrollment coupled with non-resident student growth, but it hasn't worked,” writes Newfield. After years of acquiescence to state cuts, the UC is thus staring down a budget one fifth less than their stipulated pre-COVID needs, with the virus wreaking havoc on its ability to generate revenue. COVID exacerbated what would have already been a shoestring budget; as Newfield writes, “the problem isn't just Covid but a flawed business model in which the University has let state funding massively decline.”

The university’s pivot toward a privatized and financialized model amid reduced public funding depends on its continued legitimacy as a hub of what Kerr called the “knowledge industry,” which in turn depends on the matriculation and movement of students through their courses of study. The withholding of grades—and the potential withholding of academic labor generally—by graduate students undermines the ability of the university to publicly certify that core function. As the COLA strikers write:

[G]rades serve as an integral accounting mechanism in the contemporary student debt-financed university where their allocation serves a peculiar evidentiary role, signaling nothing more than that education has indeed taken place. In this capacity, they are more akin to receipts, both for the individual students who can expect one day to present them to potential employers (who are not obliged to pay for them) and for the administrators who must ensure that they are swiftly furnished in order to justify their exorbitant tuition rates.

For a brief moment, it seemed as if the UCSC grade strike, and the follow-up actions on that campus and elsewhere, might force the university to address the concerns of their graduate workers—and, in doing so, force further consideration of the condition of the university and its funding more broadly. Not only did the pandemic throttle that momentum, it will at best exacerbate the cycle of defunding and privatization that spurred the graduate worker uprising in the first place, and at worst shatter the entire edifice.11 At a glance, a fragile equilibrium is returning to the university, even as it transitions nearly fully onto Zoom: in February, UCSC announced an annual $2,500 housing stipend for its graduate workers, which the COLA organizers can tout as a victory; the threat of a graduate worker strike has, for now, abated; and the fired graders at Santa Cruz have been reinstated. The circle, however, remains unsquared, and the structural deficits of the neoliberal university remain unaddressed. Another protest looms.

  1. Across the UC, COLA activists have estimated 78 percent of graduate students are rent burdened. See Latimer, Katie, & Horton, Matt. (2020). "On a cost of living adjustment for graduate students “in the University of California.”
  2. From an interview with Higbie. See also Ron Schatz, The Labor Board Crew, forthcoming.
  3. For a response from the Independent Socialists Club of UC Berkeley, see: Draper, Hal. (1964). “The Mind of Clark Kerr.”
  4. Newfield, Christopher. (2018). The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  5. Tuition as a share of per-student expenditure increased from 16 percent to 35 percent between 2001 and 2020, while state funding dropped from 72 percent to 36 percent as a share of per-student expenditure.
  6. On tuition as unrestricted revenue and the possibility of a coming tuition “limit,” see Nemser, Dan & Whitener, Brian. (2018). “The Tuition Limit and the Coming Crisis of Higher Education.” The New Inquiry,
  7. Brehm, Will. (2019). “Education’s big short: learning peonage in American universities.” Globalization, Societies and Education 17(3), 296-309. Since 2004, the overall level of student debt in the United States has grown approximately 580 percent. The student debt market’s initial explosion was the result of the privatization of the Student Loan Marketing Association (Sallie Mae) in 1997, after which it began to securitize the federally guaranteed debt it held, dramatically expanding its access to capital markets. In 2010, the Obama administration brought much of the student loan market back under federal control while leaving an astronomical amount of student debt on its balance sheets. See also Zaloom, Caitlin. (2018). “A right to the future: student debt and the politics of crisis.” Cultural Anthropology 33(4), 558-569.
  8. No author. "Communiqué from an absent future". (2009). The UC protests also prefigured the tactics and rhetoric of Occupy, which would erupt two years later. See also Meyerhoff, Eli. (2019). Beyond Education: Radical Studying for Another World. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.
  9. COLA Agitation Committee. (2020). “Recording the Complexity of Struggle: An Interview with the COLA Agitation Committee.” Viewpoint Magazine.
  10. McAlevey, Jane. (2020). A Collective Bargain: Unions, Organizing, and the Fight for Democracy. New York: HarperCollins.
  11. As this article goes to press, 41 of the wildcat strikers at UCSC have been given their jobs back. But Carlos Cruz, a history PhD candidate, received a two-year suspension for his participation that remains in place. The other graduate workers at Santa Cruz continue to call for a boycott of the UC until Cruz is reinstated.


Samuel Feldblum

Samuel Feldblum studies geography at UCLA and reports across the southern half of the United States.

John Schmidt

John Schmidt is a graduate student of geography at University of California, Los Angeles.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2020

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