The University of the Future

It is now crystal clear to me that we must pivot our strategy and get on offense. We need to articulate and fight for what we want the university to be, and we need to create targeted campaigns to achieve it.

An interview with United Faculty for the Common Good

photograph of a university campus
Photograph by Chris Rycroft

Everyone knows the American university is in crisis. The catalog of symptoms is long and familiar. Topmost at present is the attack on free speech and expression of faculty, staff, and students who oppose the war on Gaza and speak out for Palestinian freedom: protests and student organizations have been forbidden and sanctioned, professors removed from the classroom and even fired for political expression. Indeed, you cannot so much as cough and excuse yourself from the presence of an officially favored speaker without risking punishment by administrators desperate to please the miniature McCarthys who now crowd the halls of power. This inversion of the politics of speech, in which university administrators and allies in government claim the mantle of student “safety” to repress dissent with scant reference to plausible threat, builds on the anti-academic and anti-intellectual politics of recent years that has made its appearance in state and local prohibitions on books and whole areas of study, weakening and dissolution of tenure, and repeated waves of moral panic about classroom topics.

Beneath these darkening clouds lies an increasingly economically and institutionally denuded landscape, vulnerable to landslide. Following years of radical decrease in state support for universities and corresponding increase in tuition costs and student indebtedness, many universities now seem near a financial breaking point. Every week brings news of another public university system shredded by its own administration or state government, or liberal arts colleges feasting on their own meager seed corn, with whole areas of study removed from the course bulletin and departments gutted or laid off: West Virginia, Montana, Connecticut, North Carolina-Greensboro, Marquette, Valparaiso—and this is only to scratch the surface. Ghoulish consultants confer with anonymous administrators, and faculty report that the justifications they hear for the bloodbaths they endure reveal perpetrators who seem not to understand the basics of how a university or an academic discipline works. Universities are sloughing off their responsibility as the storehouses of human knowledge and experience and turning themselves into pre-HR departments as fast as they can, “compressing” programs that don’t have a future career track right there in the name—and junking students or faculty who seem noisy, obstreperous, inconvenient. Even at the elite institutions, doctoral programs—the basic mechanisms for the intergenerational reproduction of scholarly knowledge—have shrunk, often by more than 50 percent, in just over a decade. The resulting damage is piled atop a generational decline in the academic job market, witnessing mass displacement of skilled scholars into unstable employment. If you get compressed, you have nowhere to go—and they know it.

What is often attributed to demography (a “cliff” of relative decline in student population, for example) is better seen as political. It is true that there has been decline in college enrollment since the peak in 2010–2011; it is also true that this decline is relatively marginal compared to the enormous increase that preceded it. Today there are 18.9 million enrolled college students, next to 21 million at the 2010 peak; today’s figure remains higher than that of every year preceding 2008. Enrollment, moreover, has already bottomed out and begun to rise slightly again. More to the point, enrollment trends are much more an artifact of the political economy of higher education and the country more broadly—high-cost degrees that, students fear, will only lead to bad work—than they are a fact of demographic life. The issue is not how many people are college-aged, but how many of them enjoy the opportunity to pursue their interests and self-development, and for how many the doors are barred economically. This is more a decision of legislators, trustees, and the administrators who do their bidding than a fixed reality. The leaders of US academia make little effort to press the university’s case directly to the public, and instead have adopted a posture of preemptive compliance, only ever managing down. They were nowhere to be found in 2021 when the proposed Build Back Better legislation, which likely would have included massive federal reinvestment in higher education, was being debated: agitation for the higher ed measures fell exclusively on the shoulders of academic labor unions.

The questions of who gets to go to school, who teaches the ones who go, and under what conditions, are thus profoundly entangled with one another—and with the wider question of the future of our increasingly undemocratic, unequal, and fearful society. They can only be addressed together, at once, by a popular struggle for the right of young people to learn and nurture their capacities without the shadow of financial indenture, the liberty of scholars to teach and study free from fear, and the necessity for our society in general to preserve its own institutional organs of experimentation and self-reflection—the colleges and universities.

The movements of students, debtors, and academic workers in recent years represent the emergence of a force numbering in the millions, increasingly militant and organized, that can lead this struggle. It has many homes: Debt Collective; Higher Ed Labor United; Scholars for Social Justice; Scholars for a New Deal for Higher Education; the massive wave of undergraduate, graduate, postdoctoral, and faculty unionization; innumerable campus movements for racial and social justice. As the many contract victories in collective bargaining and the legislative near-miss in 2021 suggests, victories are within reach if we organize. So I am proud to join the slate of United Faculty for the Common Good running to bring this energy into the American Association of University Professors, the venerable organizational home of the principle of academic freedom—specifically Advocacy Local 6741, which represents at-large AAUP members not otherwise represented through campus-level collective bargaining. The interview below, with the UFCG candidates for president and vice president, Jorge Coronado and Bethany Letiecq, lays out some of the vision of our slate. —Gabriel Winant

Gabriel Winant: I think many academics think of AAUP as a worthy advocacy organization, but we’re all used to seeing it issue warnings and admonishments without much power to enforce its positions. Why do you think it could play a different role at this moment?

Jorge Coronado: Let’s first give credit where it is due. Over the preceding decades AAUP has done some admirable work defending academic freedom and compiling helpful statistics on the composition and compensation of faculty throughout the country. But you’re right: I do think most academics regard AAUP as a largely professional organization, especially those of us in what AAUP calls “advocacy chapters,” meaning non-unionized chapters. These are the chapters we in the United Faculty for the Common Good Slate (UFCG) are running to represent within the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). AAUP National routinely identifies and denounces the most pernicious trends within the modern neoliberal university, such as the adjunctification of the professoriate, the evisceration of shared governance, and so on. The AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure helps expose the worst administrative abuses of academic freedom, which can lead to institutional censure. But the AAUP has little power to hold institutions to account other than shaming them, and those of us who belong to non-unionized chapters wonder what the AAUP is doing to help us fight back against this kind of corruption on our campuses.

Bethany Letiecq: Take, for instance, the issue of shared governance. The AAUP has talked a lot about the principles of shared governance over the years, even as we’ve witnessed its decline. There is nothing wrong with writing reports about the state of shared governance in higher education. But knowledge has to be put into action. And this issue hits close to home. Just this past month, the administration and faculty senate leadership at George Mason University, where I teach, failed to uphold our faculty handbook with regard to our search for a new provost. The handbook could not be more clear. It states that the search and selection process for the provost of the university must include opportunities for the general faculty to meet with finalist candidates for the provost position. Yet Mason’s latest search, led by our faculty senate president, was conducted in secrecy, and only a handful of select (and unknown) faculty were invited to meet with finalists after signing non-disclosure agreements. It’s like we work for Big Pharma! The pressure to privatize searches, and the complicity of faculty in these privatization schemes—all this reveals how weak the commitments to democratic participation are on our campus.

GW: This leads right into my second question. In what specific ways would you like to see AAUP change in how it operates?

JC: Members of the UFCG slate and I are running for election to the AAUP Advocacy Chapter Local 6741 of AFT because we believe a fundamentally different approach to AAUP advocacy chapters is necessary. We need a plan to build faculty power on each campus so we can more fully contest the corporatization and defunding of universities across the country. The only way to do this is by focusing on the very hard long-term project of mass organizing faculty. It may sound trite, but there is no other way. Organizing for power will look different at each university. In some places, where colleagues are actively attempting to unionize, this means committing serious material resources to helping them form a union. In other places, where full unionization is currently off the table (as in many right-to-work states) or is less of a realistic short- or mid-term goal, we need to train ourselves to start acting like union locals. We need to adopt the pre-majority unionism approach, following in the footsteps of the United Campus Workers and the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee.

BL: We also want AAUP and AFT to become more ambitious in higher education spaces. For too long, faculty have been in a defensive posture, always “defending” academic freedom, tenure, shared governance, and so on. All of this is crucially important—but we need to go on the offensive. What we have seen in some of the truly inspirational labor victories over the past decade, in Chicago with the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) or more recently with the national United Auto Workers (UAW) strike, for example, is that more people get involved when the unions start proactively fighting for big things. These groups tossed out the traditional business union model of negotiating, buddy to buddy with management, for slight raises. They went big and demanded things that their bosses and the pundits said would never be possible—unprecedented wage and benefit increases—and big wins for their school and factory communities: reducing class sizes, increasing the number of nurses and counselors in district schools, eliminating pay tiers for new workers, and establishing routes to unionize other factories. We need to follow their lead. We need to ask for what we really need, not for the scraps we think we can get.

GW: You’re getting at a point that I wanted to ask about. It often feels like we lack a positive vision for the university, since, as you said, we’re almost entirely preoccupied with defending it against the constant siege that it’s under. Do you think it’s important, or even possible, to articulate a positive vision, or do you think the defensive fight is what we need to be engaged with right now?

BL: We are under a constant onslaught, especially recently. And many faculty are valiantly doing their best to check the worst excesses of the neoliberal university. I totally understand how we get completely sucked up in that defensive posture. Not only am I involved with a struggle to defend shared governance at my university, but also to protect my institution from political interference from our governor, and from attacks on our faculty’s academic freedom rights. It’s exhausting, and we are losing too much ground. It is now crystal clear to me that we must pivot our strategy and get on offense. We need to articulate and fight for what we want the university to be, and we need to create targeted campaigns to achieve it. We need to be organizing for legislation that democratizes public universities’ governing boards and enables collective bargaining rights in all states. We need to be pushing at the state and national level for legislation like the Sanders-Jayapal College for All Act that would have required universities receiving federal funds to achieve 75 percent tenure-track faculty (and prioritizing hiring its own contingent faculty to meet that threshold). These are the kinds of fundamental, transformative changes that we want to see.

JC: In my own work as president of my campus AAUP chapter I often find my colleagues and myself in a reactive mode, responding to whatever recent, egregious attack on faculty and education has been proposed by administrators. This work is important. But, as Bethany said, we must articulate a vision of the university that will energize all faculty to get involved and fight—not just tenure-track faculty concerned with violations of tenure or academic freedom. We have begun to do that through our UFCG statement of principles, which I would encourage everyone to check out.

GW: How do you see the relationship between AAUP and the broader labor movement?

BL: Well, first, we need to help faculty see that they are, in fact, labor. I think this is starting to change, especially among contingent faculty, but it’s a part of the political education we need to do. We are laborers in the neoliberal university, and just like laborers everywhere else we have bosses that are increasingly seeking to find new ways to exploit us—to divide us, extract from us, and control our production. It is beyond time that we as faculty in AAUP join the broader labor movement and become more involved in labor unions. We have started this work at Mason, where I co-founded the GMU Coalition for Worker Rights in partnership with the Northern Virginia Labor Federation of the AFL-CIO. As a coalition we recently joined with SEIU 32BJ to fight alongside GMU custodians who were experiencing horrible working conditions and wage theft at our institution-–the largest public institution of higher education in the commonwealth! Our coalition recognizes how vitally important it is to bring all workers at Mason together to build a wall-to-wall union that protects all workers from neoliberal harms. And I joined the UFCG slate because we, as AAUP members, also want to get more involved with AFT—one of the most important unions in the US. As faculty, we need to make our voices heard in AFT and shape AFT’s higher education agenda.

JC: Our slate is based on the notion that people who work for universities do so by providing their labor. As such, we embody that labor and demand that it be treated fairly, that it be paid appropriately, and that precarity should be cast aside as its defining characteristic in so many cases. We need to actively cultivate wall-to-wall and bargaining for the common good approaches to labor organizing on our campus, as groups like Higher Education Labor United (HELU) have been advocating. We need to join with contractor, staff, and graduate unions, even with workers and unions in our broader campus communities, to demand more for everyone. This will make us all more powerful and help us become a part, and genuine partner, of our local and national labor communities—and part of even broader social movements for democracy, justice, and peace. At Northwestern, the chapter of the AAUP that I lead issued a report on the university’s practices during the pandemic. In it, the key demands of transparency and shared governance were linked to solidarity with other workers on campus from cafeteria servers to librarians and graduate students. That our administration so easily sidestepped the accountability demanded in that report is precisely the reason that we should join the sort of knowledge our report embodied to the political power our slate envisions.

GW: How would you connect economic struggles over austerity, casualization, program cuts, and so on to questions of academic freedom that are so pressing right now?

JC: It’s all about power. Who has the power to control our labor and our workplaces. The AAUP was founded on the idea that in order to carry out the teaching and research that is essential to a democratic society, faculty must have the economic support to do so. That meant and means guarantees that we will not lose our jobs because we infringe on some powerful donors’ or administrators’ idea of what is allowable political speech and, especially, that we not live in fear that our livelihood will disappear because the university budget needs to show a surplus in the next year or years. As faculty concerned about bringing the university back to serving the common good, we must think hard about how we redefine tenure not as a reward for highly productive (in a neoliberal sense) scholarly output, but rather as a guarantee that the best teaching can be done in the classroom and that, beyond it, cutting-edge research that undergirds teaching will be appropriately supported.

BL: I want to return to the commonality of power. As workers, we all share a common position in the power structure of the workplace. We are not the boss. We do not make the final decisions about the rules and rewards of the workplace. I don’t mean to collapse all intra-workplace hierarchy and power dynamics into a worker-boss dyad. But even the most privileged tenured, distinguished university professor of a very prestigious university could never exercise enough power to arrest their university’s drive toward adjunctification, program cuts (usually to the humanities), outsourcing, and so on. For fundamental workplace transformations like these, we need the collective power of faculty organized together and in alliance with the other workers in the university and in our communities.

GW: Where do undergraduates fit in?

JC: Undergraduates absolutely fit into these struggles—we all know that they are some of the most affected in all this. They often strain under enormous student debt, they see the quality of teaching affected by overworked or underresourced faculty, and they are easily able to identify the shortcomings in the corporate university. A few years ago, during the pandemic, I taught a freshman seminar on university critique and was not at all surprised to see students speak up about all sorts of issues on campus, from the curtailing of their political speech to the lack of investment in their living quarters—all this as they watched huge vanity projects get built. Undergraduates can be a tremendous ally in our struggles; over the years, I have come to understand that university administrators listen when undergrads speak up.

BL: And undergraduates are powerful not only for their deep understanding and lived experiences of how corporate greed, privatization, and divestments in education are harming them, but also for their courage and leadership to stand up against those who seek to rob them of their futures. Faculty should absolutely seek to learn from and partner with students as well as every other worker on campus to—as the UFCG slate says—relentlessly bargain for the common good. Faculty can no longer act like an island. We need to build relationships based on trust and good faith and demonstrate our solidarity and commitments to the labor movement through our actions, through our partnerships and coalition building efforts. We must start asking, how can we work together and show up to support the rights of all workers on our campuses? Our organizing efforts must be unifying. We will be strongest when all campus workers and workers in the broader campus community unite and fight together for the common good.

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