Us Versus Them: Laboring in the Academic Factory

 [Note: This was first published in Monthly Review in January 2000. It was based upon a talk I gave to teachers at Jamestown Community College in Jamestown, New York. Noted scholar of education, Henry Giroux, told me that he had recently re-read this and thought it prescient. So, here is an abridged and edited version for anyone interested in what we might call “the school wars.” An added paragraph at the end provides some updates.]

Tales from Academe at the End of the Century


1. Administrators at York University in Toronto solicited corporations to place their logos on online courses conducted by the University, for $10,000 per course.

2. City University of New York canceled most of its remedial classes. The University of Pittsburgh eliminated special programs for underprepared (and typically poor and black) students while beginning an honor’s college.

3. Several universities have cut lucrative deals with credit card companies, allowing them campus monopolies as credit purveyors. At one campus, the credit card company pays for student radio and television shows.

4. The so-called “University” of Phoenix, a private, for-profit virtual college, now has ninety-eight campuses in thirty-one states and enrollment of more than 55,000 students. “It has aggressively applied business strategies such as convenience, customer service, mass production, and corporate partnerships on its march across the country.” Phoenix has heavy-duty corporate customers, including Kodak, IBM, and GE and will be aggressively competing for the millions of adult students preparing for the multiple job changes former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich says we will all be making over the course of our working lives.

5. The California State University system was preparing to “hand control of its inter-campus computer and telecommunications system to a private consortia managed by Microsoft and its hardware allies, GTE, Hughes, and Fujitsu.” This privatization of public education was fueled by the same forces that have led to the privatization of all sorts of public services, from garbage collection to prisons to college food services and campus police.

6. Historian David Noble tells us that “Educom, the academic-corporate consortium, has recently established their Learning Infrastructure Initiative, which includes the detailed study of what professors do, breaking the faculty job down in classic Tayloristic fashion into discrete tasks, and determining what parts can be automated or outsourced. Educom believes that course design, lectures, and even evaluation can all be standardized, mechanized, and consigned to outside vendors. ‘Today you’re looking at a highly personal human-mediated environment,’ Educom president Robert Heterich observed. ‘The potential to remove human mediation in some areas and replace it with automation—smart, computer-based, network-based systems—is tremendous. It’s gotta happen.’”

7. In Manhattan’s $229 per night (a special rate!) Millennium Broadway Hotel, a conference was held with the title, “Market-Driven Higher Education.” The blurb for this conference reads, “It’s Not Just Business, It’s Your Future: Is Higher Education for Sale? You bet it is. And everyone—corporations, non-profits, government agencies—wants a piece of it. How do you take advantage of market-driven education?” At this conference one could hear such luminaries as Benno Schmidt (former president of Yale and advisor to CCNY for Rudolph Giuliani) expound on such topics as “What the Market Wants,” and “The University Toolbox” (to discuss “creating for-profit subsidiaries, finding start-up capital, structuring deals, solving intellectual property problems, and more.”) Remarkably, the organizers of the conference tell attendees that you will “learn new ways of doing business, explore innovative deals and joint ventures, discover what funding sources want for their investment dollars, cope with resistance on the home front, and still retain your core values.” (Emphasis added)

8. In Silicon Valley; in Cambridge, Massachusetts; Dallas, Texas; and around the country, high-tech industries and their nearby universities are becoming more and more integrated, as faculty and administrators spin off businesses from publicly funded research and businesses brazenly use the universities as launch pads for new products and technologies.

9. According to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), non-tenure track faculty now account for about half and part-time teachers 38% of all appointments in U.S. higher education. In community colleges the part-time ratio is 52%. The AAUP further reports that, “Some community colleges depend on poorly paid, non-tenure track faculty members to remain in existence. Many of these institutions have no tenure system and appoint only a few full-time faculty members to organize and supervise a large department of part-time faculty.”

Brothers and Sisters, We’d Better Wake Up

On the last page of the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels say, “Workers of all countries, unite.” Unfortunately, if pressed, many—even most—college teachers would say that Marx and Engels were not talking about them. They might admit that business interests dominate their boards of trustees, and they might agree that there is considerable disparity between the pay and power of college administrators and themselves. However, they would not consider themselves to be ordinary workers. Some feel this way because they share the business values of board members. Some think of themselves as future administrators. Others believe that, despite what has been happening on campuses, colleges are still somehow different from other workplaces. They see administrators and teachers as colleagues who settle their differences through discussion and without rancor.

Most of this boils down to an insistence by faculty that they are professionals, insulated from the crassness of the marketplace and the harshness of the outside world of work. They are economists or chemists or mathematicians, not employees, much less workers. Administrators are simply persons whose job it is to facilitate the professors’ search for the truth; they are not “bosses.” Unions may be all right for steelworkers and coal miners, as the chancellor of our university once said in an antiunion memo sent to faculty during an organizing campaign, but not for these professionals.

There are a few colleges or universities in which this academic fantasy is at least partially true. The senior professors in Harvard’s economics department, for example, could not reasonably be described as workers. They really are “professionals,” allied closely with the society’s movers and shakers, among whom are members of Harvard’s governing board. But for most of the rest of us, toilers in academe’s lower circles, this fantasy is just that, a delusion we cling to at our peril. It never had much truth to it, but today, it has no connection to reality whatsoever. For one thing has become clear: our colleges and universities more and more resemble workplaces not much different in terms of their mode of operation than the glass factory in which my father labored or the day care center in which my wife and my daughter once worked.

Radical changes are occurring in academe, and I predict that in a few decades most colleges and universities will be unrecognizable to those of us who work in them now. In higher education today, the primary logic of a capitalist economy has finally struck with full force.

Our economic system is driven by the accumulation of capital, by the actions of those who own society’s productive wealth to maximize both the profits and the growth of their enterprises. This drive is incessant and gradually engulfs not only all of the globe but nearly every aspect of life. Before the Second World War, our colleges and universities served as training grounds for the economic elite, preparing them both to run their corporations and the machinery of the state, which has always served to aid and abet the accumulation process. After the war, when the organized industrial working class, a good fraction of it under radical leadership, was poised to alter radically the nation’s political economic landscape, higher learning was, for the first time, opened up to large masses of non-elites. These graduates filled the rising number of managerial and technical jobs opened up by the postwar boom in the U.S. economy. However, as business employed its battery of managerial control techniques, such as the detailed division of labor and mechanization, relatively fewer of these graduates were needed to do skilled work. At the same time, more and more working-class people were demanding access to higher education (for example, ethnic minorities and women), energized by the civil rights movements of the 1960s. The cultural revolution of this decade helped to bring this contradiction to a head. In its wake, college administrators, spurred on by business interests and their political allies, began to push schools away from the potentially radicalizing liberal arts toward a more career-oriented and narrowly technical curriculum.

Just as these changes were beginning, the long postwar boom ended—the consequence of intensifying global competition and its resultant overproduction. Profit margins plummeted, and corporations began to scramble to restore them. Their strategy to do this involved, first, an all-out assault on workers and their unions and a restructuring of work organization that has come to be known as “lean production.” This managerial system involves the intensification of work (speed-up), the elimination of full-time jobs and the use of a variety of contingent workers, the outsourcing of as much indirect labor as possible, the use of work teams that are given the illusion of decision-making power by the employer, and the use of electronic technology (developed at public expense) that reduces the need for skilled workers and improves management’s ability to monitor and control every aspect of the labor process. Second, corporations aggressively began to seek new fields of capital accumulation. For example, the growth of knowledge-based industries (such as telecommunications, computers, biotechnology, and electronics) led to the commodification of ideas, which soon became intellectual property, protected by laws and trade agreements. Third, business placed great pressure on government at all levels to cut severely public expenditures not directly related to capital accumulation (broadly construed to include spending on defense and police).

This period of economic crisis had profound effects on our colleges and universities, similar in most respects to what was going on in the production of more mundane goods and services, from automobiles to airline tickets. Faced with budget crises, administrators became increasingly cost conscious. Cost cutting began in earnest, mainly through the employment of part-time and adjunct teachers and full-time professors outside of the tenure stream. A business mentality began to pervade the schools, and one result was the hiring of nonacademics to administer them. Colleges also began to solicit corporate funding more actively, to substitute for the decline in public funding.

The closer interface between business and higher education opened the eyes of business to new opportunities to make money. Costs could be externalized if research and development could be done in the universities and transferred to corporations. This meant a de-emphasis on basic scientific inquiry and a focus on studies that would yield immediate returns. A big breakthrough occurred when universities were given the legal right to own patents on university-conducted research. This was seen by schools as a potentially large moneymaker and by the corporations as cheap capital. All sorts of university-corporate deals were made; spinoff businesses were formed; and some faculty and administrators got rich. The consequences for most of us, though, were spiraling tuition, as the schools spent enormous sums on the fixed capital (labs and equipment, for example) necessary for the production of patentable research; swelling class sizes; falling real faculty salaries; and further use of contingent teachers.

Once a production space becomes a site of capital accumulation, the process becomes inexorable. As Noble points out, the commodification of academic research has been followed by that of instruction itself; in fact, he argues, this second commodification is being touted as the solution to the crisis in education caused by the first. Corporations and their academic allies are rushing to produce and sell software and hardware. As I have said elsewhere, “The electronic revolution confronts us with the most extreme assault on our traditional patterns of work. The handwriting is on the wall. The future will see more and more distance education, the cloning of lectures captured on video and sent out over the web, the forcing of faculty to put their courses online, increased electronic monitoring of faculty effort, and other such methods of substituting capital for labor.”

These trends in higher education are incompatible with traditional academic work arrangements. The corporate-administrative juggernaut cannot do what it pleases as long as we control the conceptualization and execution of work, have tenure, and exert real pressure on managerial decisions. Therefore, we are witnessing the implementation of lean production inside of our ivy-covered walls. Tenure is on the ropes, to put it mildly, a victim of management’s war of attrition and a propaganda campaign portraying us as hidebound, lazy, and privileged. We are facing continual speed-up and denial of traditional faculty rights such as sabbaticals, travel budgets, and the tradition of being consulted before important managerial decisions are made.

What is more, the debasement of our labor coincides with the debasement of education. Management tells us that our students are consumers of a product, no different in principle than the fact that they are consumers of CD players and sneakers. We must be concerned only with the quality of our product, but the clear implication is that education must be put on a par with CD players if education’s quality is to be measured in the same way as that of the CD player. Measurable competencies are taking the place of all-round education, something which, by its very nature, cannot be measured or quality-controlled. And as students pick up on this notion of themselves as consumers of a measurable product, they come to treat education as a purchase. Just as it is unreasonable for the supplier to expect that any real effort beyond the purchase has to be exerted by the buyer of a CD player, so too it is unreasonable for us to expect anything from our students. In fact, in the new market-driven colleges, we more or less disappear, a part of the product purchased by the student-consumers.

What is happening in much of higher education is occurring throughout U.S. industry. An unstated reason for the attack on teachers is the unwillingness of corporate capital to tolerate the bad example that our traditional way of working provides for other workers.

No group of workers can be allowed to have real control over their work; this is the province of the management. But as our labor is daily demeaned and devalued, we become just like other employees. There is no basis either for us to feel superior to other toilers or for them to consider us as unlike them. We have more in common with auto workers, meatpackers, and clerical employees than we have with our employers. And this offers us some hope. For it is possible to resist the corporatization of the academy. Some of us have unionized and are using unions to fight back. This is a good thing and ought to be embraced by millions of other teachers around the country. Already the most exploited teachers (the graduate assistants, adjuncts, and part-timers) are organizing, and we should encourage and support these efforts.

However, we are going to need help, and the best source of this aid is the rest of the working class. We need to ally ourselves with the other workers on our own campuses, supporting their organizing drives, bargaining, and strikes, as well as their informal struggles in nonunion settings. Alliances with students could prove useful, especially since so many of them have jobs. We need to participate actively in the central labor councils of our towns and counties, insisting on union support for our struggles and offering our support for those of other unions. The same can be said with respect to progressive community groups. As educators, we might begin to offer informal classes for other groups of workers. And we can, whenever possible, bring a working-class perspective into our own college classrooms and discuss not only labor history and working-class culture but the nature of work itself, in general and in where we labor. Students need to know what awaits them unless they, too, fight back; they need to know that we are sympathetic and will fight for them and for ourselves.

All of these things matter greatly. Unionization makes us much better off in terms of wages, benefits, and terms and conditions of employment. It gives us a voice in our workplaces, and it compels our employers to treat us with some dignity. But building bridges, creating a movement, also pays off, as the great labor crusade of the 1930s demonstrates. A strong working class changes all political parameters and makes possible what is only a dream otherwise. If we want to reverse what is happening to us, we must participate not only in our own struggles but in the larger effort to build an egalitarian and democratic society—one in which critical education is seen as a social good, and in which preparing students simply to be team players, adaptable to whatever the winds of economic change blow their way, is seen as a form of social insanity.

Let me conclude by rephrasing Marx’s and Engel’s famous exhortation: “Teachers of the world, you are workers too. Unite.”

Update: Things are Getting Worse: A Few More Tales from Academe

1. Colleges and universities are proceeding with their headlong rush toward the marketplace. The University of California has plans to privatize the Anderson School of Management at UCLA, to put it on a par with other schools of business. The state funding it now receives would be used, the system’s top officials promise, for other academic purposes. Needless to say, there is no guarantee that this will happen. Private philanthropy and tuition will fund the school once the plan is implemented. Faculty have put some roadblocks in the path of this plan, but I doubt this will stop it. The governor of Pennsylvania, Tom Corbett, has made no secret of his desire to privatize the entire state university system. Harsh funding cuts seem to be his preferred method of making this happen.

2. Schools have been implementing discriminatory pricing, both for majors and for courses. Business and engineering majors might have to pay higher tuition than English majors. Seniors might have to pay more than Sophomores. Students with higher incomes might be able to get into a particular class by paying more money for it (This proposal led to student protests and a police pepper-spraying incident at Santa Monica College). Anything to raise revenues except demanding that higher education be adequately funded and available at minimal cost to all.

3. The use of adjuncts has reached astonishing heights, while their working conditions remain dismal:

– Of the 1.3 million instructional workforce in higher education, 73% are adjuncts.

– At public colleges and universities, adjuncts teach more than half of undergraduate courses.

– Two-thirds of adjuncts get course assignments just two or three weeks before the start of classes.

– Many adjuncts have limited or no access to offices, phones, copiers, and computers. Like elementary and secondary teachers,       it is not uncommon for them to spend their own money on classroom materials.

– Adjunct pay raises have fallen far behind the rate of inflation. A third of all adjuncts earn less than $2,000 per class (this can be much less when the classes are offered online). At a mind-numbing ten classes per year, this amounts to a near poverty-level income of $20,000 (often with no benefits).  No wonder many adjuncts qualify for public benefits such as food stamps.

There are few positive signs in academe today. The OWS movement has generated many student-led protests, and some faculty have joined the struggle for more public funding, cancellation of student loans, and the like. However, absent some kind of mass radical political movement, the only thing that can force higher education to change course is for teachers to unionize. Tenured faculty are hopeless here. They either won’t form unions, or they use the ones they have to feather their own nests. The adjuncts (and graduate students) who do most of the work don’t seem to concern them much. Adjuncts are unionizing, with 59% in positions covered by collective bargaining agreements, and this is a hopeful development. If adjuncts allied with other campus workers, and with radical students, a working class movement on our campuses could really shake things up more now, due to the Great Recession and the worldwide protests against austerity and inequality, than when I wrote the original article.

7 Responses to Us Versus Them: Laboring in the Academic Factory

  1. Charles Reitz October 3, 2012 at 10:46 am #

    Solid argumentation about a sad situation getting worse. Universities have also witnessed the demise of the critical study of education, as schools of education have eliminated their departments of social, philosophical, and historical foundations, where Giroux and McLaren could have a say. There is No Future for the US or the planet without a movement grounded in principles of labor humanism, socialist humanism, that undergird your analysis. It can still emerge during this time of economic and political crisis and the growing recognition of revolutionary multiculturalism as humanity’s prime need today.

    • Michael D. Yates October 3, 2012 at 11:50 am #

      Thanks for this, Charles. I didn’t know about the elimination of these courses in education programs. And we keep hearing how more schooling is key to our economic resurgence! Hopefully, wnat you say at the end is true.

  2. Christofer Nigro April 4, 2017 at 7:16 pm #

    The idea that distance learning is a problem rather than a boon for students and educators under capitalism is a textbook example of how something that would be a great benefit under a socialist system where money didn’t exist and everyone received the full fruit of their labor for their work (including teachers and professors) can be a detriment to all concerned when it becomes part of a market system.

    The problem is that online courses under capitalism mean less pay for the instructors involved. It means less control for them over their work. Under socialism, though, where there would be no money to “lose.” Full access to the social store for all workers, along with full democratization of the workplaces, would enable online courses to reach students all across the world and allow instructors to reach out to those who are willing to learn what they have to teach regardless of where they live.

    Obviously, there are many types of educational learning that must be done in person and in a “hands’-on” manner (e.g., Engineering and Gross Anatomy), but lecture-only courses made widely available, or those where one could use a virtual study area with advanced software that is made readily available to everyone, would greatly extend the parameters of learning no matter where in the globe you resided.

    Granted, travel to far away places to receive one’s education would be freely available to everyone in the world under a global socialist system, and everyone could have far more flexible lives than they do today, but still nobody would be able to be everywhere there was something of benefit for them to learn in person every single year. Hence, online courses, or at least lectures and exchange of information & research, would be a major benefit to everyone under a system that wasn’t dependent on a market.

    • Michael D. Yates April 4, 2017 at 7:36 pm #

      Christofer, Thanks for this. What you say is true, and what it shows is that technology is always shaped by the social system in which it comes into being. Michael


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