a better world
is probable
  1. Why students should care about the battle over tenure at Wayne State

    August 3, 2012

    The administration at Detroit’s Wayne State University, led by President Allan Gilmour, a superstar corporate boss from Ford Motor, Co. with no background in education, is trying to strip away tenure from faculty. When asked if the new contract would abolish tenure, the chief negotiator hired by the administration replied, “It would have that effect, yes.”

    President Gilmour denies this.  “Faculty tenure is an important aspect of academic freedom,” he says. They’re just trying to “improve the University’s ability to evaluate faculty performance and address problems more efficiently than the current contract allows.”  Tenure is important “but it cannot be a place to hide for those whose performance or behavior is poor.”  Tenure is important, in other words, it just shouldn’t protect faculty from being fired whenever the university wants.

    The president of the university’s faculty union maintains that, however Gilmour wants to word it, they’re trying to abolish tenure. The proposed contract aims to place all “the power to eliminate a tenured faculty member into the hands of the administration and [eliminate] the traditional peer review process,” making Wayne State the first research university in the country to effectively abolish tenure.

    I want to address students specifically, and make the case for why they should fiercely oppose this power grab by the University administration.  I’ve already seen several students make comments echoing Gilmour’s case that tenure is a haven for under-performing professors. This, of course, is not a new argument, and has long been a favorite talking point of the most rabid right-wingers.  If management wins, not only would this be a victory for all the frothing-at-the-mouth conservatives trying to destroy the academy; it would be a gigantic leap forward in the corporatization of higher education, an utter disaster for academic freedom, and thus a devastating blow to the quality of education all around.

    Since the right-wing counter-revolution of the 1970-80s, public funds have been radically redirected from education and other forms of public spending, to tax cuts for corporations and the super wealthy, imperial expansion, etc. Because of this, schools have had to rely more on alternative sources of revenue to operate, including steep tuition increases (tuition for a full-time student at WSU has risen from $3,970 a year in 2000 to $10,188 a year in 2012) – as well as donations, research contracts and private endowments heavily invested in the stock market and real estate.

    This trend has had the effect of encouraging schools to behave more like corporations rather than as an institution of higher learning.  Important services are cut or privatized, departments that don’t attract large research contracts (like liberal arts and the humanities) are regularly placed on the chopping block, real classrooms and human teachers are replaced with computer screens and online courses, while full time faculty are replaced with low wage adjunct instructors.  Tenure has been one of the only things to protect instructors, departments and programs from this neoliberal shock and awe campaign.

    Instead of appointing educators, corporate bosses like Allan Gilmour are elevated to the highest ranks of university administrations.  These people are often well versed in making the kind of draconian cuts and layoffs necessary to run a university under the neoliberal model and they are already part of a network of people that can attract lucrative contracts and deals for the university.  People with a background in education would be less likely to play along with the idea that a computer screen is an appropriate replacement for a human instructors and classmates.  Recently, this trend has taken bizarre and startling turns.  Consider, for instance, the uproar at the University of Virginia, where the President was nearly ousted in a virtual coup d’etat because she had doubts about making cuts to liberal arts and language programs.  Her position was only saved through the outcry of students and faculty.

    One might ask: “But aren’t universities a sort of business? Universities should be run inexpensively and they do need to raise money. Businessmen know how to do that.” Of course they do. I’m sure that Allan Gilmour knows how to make a lot of money very, very well. The problem is: schools aren’t businesses, they’re centers for learning.  When a school is run like a business it makes profit the mission rather than education and instruction.  We’ve been seeing that at Wayne State for a while now and the fight over tenure is a major part of curbing that process.

    By eliminating tenure, Wayne State will be open to a completely radical restructuring.  There will be nothing left to stop the administration from turning the university into a full-fledged corporation.  The university has already undergone a massive transformation over the past decade, including the abolition of several programs, specifically ones designed to serve urban community, such as Interdisciplinary Studies and the College of Life Long Learning.  Since Gilmore became president in 2010, programs like American Studies have been completely abolished and Peace & Conflict Studies barely survived, even though both programs barely cost the university a dime.

    Tenure helps protect the integrity of the university, its research and its commitment to education by making a promise, not only to faculty but also to its students, that it will provide certain kinds of instruction.  Wayne State’s administration, by taking the university down the corporate-neoliberal road, is now trying to break those promises and turn education at Wayne State into its most banal form.  If this gets passed the union, Wayne State will become a shibboleth of higher education.  The problem with education is not tenure; the problem is a form of education that places money and profit above everything else.

  2. Organizing around student debt

    July 16, 2012

    In “Is debt the connective thread for OWS?” Jodi Dean raises some important questions around debt as a locus for organizing.  Many of these questions confirm my own experience in organizing against student loan debt, others, others raise new matters, both which I want to talk about here.  And while Dean doesn’t talk about student loan debtexclusively, that’s what I’m going to focus on, because that’s what I’ve dealt the most with, both as an activist and as a debtor.  This is going to take the form of more disjointed thoughts than anything systematic.

    Dean raises the tactical problem that relying on tactics such as people intentionally defaulting on loans relies on people following through with the individual action, i.e. actually defaulting.  “How can we insure that everyone who agrees to default…actually will default?” she asks.  She also raises the problem that certain tactics (not getting a credit card, for instance) err toward lifestylism.  First, the issue of people following through with the tactic, is a problem with any strike, labor or rent strikes included (I’m classifying intentionally defaulting as a genre of “strike”).  On the one hand, any revolutionary simply needs to have faith in people.  Before mass action is really on the scene, people will be more wavering in their commitment to collective action, I suspect.  However, people also know who’s on their side and who isn’t.  The bosses, banks and landlords aren’t.  And if people see that there’s a real opportunity to strike against them, people will find a way to take it (that is, a real opportunity, not an imaginary one, like the call for a general strike in May, which was ludicrous and everyone but the most dogmatic people knew it was).  On the other hand, this is also why you have pickets, rallies and protests of striking workers.  If all striking workers just stayed at home, the strike would have the appearance of just taking a day off of work, and further, there’d be no way for them to know who was scabbing and who wasn’t.  You want to show your numbers, and you want to show your union’s/organization’s capacity to actually mobilize and lead people.  So ideally, if there was an actual debt strike, there would be corresponding pickets, rallies, marches, demonstrations and manifestations of the strikers, showing their numbers.  Furthermore, you need those kind of public manifestations precisely because you want others to join you.  A picket doesn’t just want scabs to not scab anymore, they want to turn the scabs into allies and supporters of the union, and not just the scabs, but all the passersby, the shoppers or consumers, people living in close proximity, other union members, etc.  Strikes don’t win without masses of people.  A debt strike even more.  Debt strikers don’t have the benefit of things like, say, just-in-time production.  The banks can hold out for much longer time than a manufacturer.  So any debt strike would need to have at it’s center a strategy for growing beyond its own ranks into the millions.

    The barrier to this sort of collective action isn’t that there’s no way to trust people following through the tactic.  It’s convincing people that the risks of the tactic are worth taking.  This has, of course, been a bigger problem than any other in producing any social movement over the past forty years.  This is precisely what is so attractive about individualist-lifestylist, so-called “prefigurative” solutions like community gardening, communes, eco-friendly shopping, etc.  For these things to work you don’t need to convince anybody else of anything!  You just need to “believe in yourself,” or something.  It’s very hard to get people to see the solution for their problems relying on collective action taken with others — but there is no way around it, either.

    Occupy raised the profile of debt as a collective personal problem, that is to say, it showed people that they’re not alone.  The second mass movements were back on the agenda, the problem of debt took center stage.  Prior to this, getting people to take any action around debt was like beating your head against a wall.  For years organizing around my college campus against tuition hikes, I felt like Sisyphus.  You’d hand somebody a leaflet about stopping tuition hikes to a student taking out loans, and you couldn’t tell if they were confused or if they just thought you were confused, or both.  Even during Occupy it was hard to actually organize anything specifically around student debt.  The problem is one of lowered expectations.  Most students don’t expect higher education to be cheap, and they don’t expect to not have to take out loans.  That’s just what you do, right?  The movement around higher education at the University of California system was so explosive precisely because the incredible costs of higher education at the UC was a newphenomenon.  So what you see there is the potential that raised expectations have to act as a mobilizing force.

    Then don’t organize the students, organize the debtors, right?  Except, the debtors are dislocated, i.e. they’re no longer centered around a single institution (like a campus), but they’re scattered everywhere.  So this is the biggest problem to overcome, I think.  On the one hand, students see debt as too far distant a threat to become anxious about, on the other hand, once they’re paying off their loans, they’re scattered about — not centralized around a single institution anymore, making them difficult to become organized.

    There’s two solutions to this, one the one hand, the organization of student unions (like ASSE in Quebec) would unite both students and alumni, and unite demands around lowering education costs and fighting budget cuts, with demands to forgive student loans (which are often counterposed to each other).  On the other hand, a revitalized labor movement would provide a foundation for demands around personal debt.  Of course, a labor movement provides a powerful foundation for any social movement (consider the role labor played in the foundations of the early civil rights movement, or even the role the participation of labor played in building the Occupy movement, the UAW sent thousands of rank-and-file workers out to a Justice for Trayvon rally here in Detroit in February or March).  So I think trying to bringing unions into the fight against student loan debt would be a big boost for the whole movement, but even more so, looking toward rebuilding the power of labor period.  This would be a potentially key role for building student-faculty solidarity on campuses, acutally.  As faculty unions (both full time, adjunct and graduate student union) could play a key role in initiating this kind of activity.

    Dean eventually seems to concede that debt is too individualized to produce the kind of movement we want to see.  But I think this is too pessimistic.  Her concerns and the problems with organizing around debt are real, but I don’t think it’s impossible to produce a mass movement in which combating the real problem of individual debt burden.  Dean, at one point, suggests that discussion of debt too closely mirrors the conservative frame around the national debt and big government spending.  I don’t think that has to be true.  Of course we need to talk about the national debt, but our answer to the problem is a socialist answer — no austerity, no cuts, no tax hikes on the poor and working class, and make the capitalist eat the debt.  It’s their debt, not ours.  This is a real solution being put on the agenda right now in Greece by the labor movement and by the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA).  The same could be possible here in the US both as a solution to the national debt, and as a solution to individual debt burden.

  3. Photos from Detroit’s May Day march

    May 6, 2012

    Detroit’s May Day “March for the 99%” drew a crowd of hundreds and brought together an unprecedented coalition of forces including organized labor, Occupy Detroit, immigrant rights and environmental justice groups, reflective of the march them of “uniting the 99% to fight the 1%.”

    The march was notably led by the student-leaders of the recent Western High School walkouts who, after being suspended for their activism, formed their own volunteer run “freedom school.”

    You can see more photos here.