Higher education has been in a state of crisis for more than a decade. Student loan debt has more than doubled since the Great Recession to $1.5 trillion in 2018. Coupled with a massive decline in tuition revenues, many colleges and universities are on the verge of collapse. In response to the financial hardship that forced tuition down and debt to rise, university administrators cut costs. They did this by hiring part-time instructors without benefits and subcontracting staff positions to push down wages and to save the university money.
Now, as the recent Covid-19 crisis has driven many colleges and universities to the brink of bankruptcy, they face billions in lost revenue from tuition and rent reimbursements—as well as further state divestment—this academic year. When enrollments decline in 2020–21, it will only get worse. But the institutions most at risk are not elite institutions with massive endowments—they are historically black colleges and universities, community colleges, and already vulnerable universities that disproportionately serve and offer economic mobility to black and brown, immigrant, and working-class students.
We’re already seeing the beginning of this process: In response to the crisis, hundreds of universities have announced hiring freezes, furloughs, and wage cuts. As they did following the Great Recession, administrators are expected to pass these cuts on to the most vulnerable workers. Bailing out universities as a way to “save” higher education will only further disempower the contingent faculty, graduate workers, staff, and campus workers who give life to college and university communities.
Academia is at a breaking point, and the path forward is perilous. Funding the existing profit-driven university model will only exacerbate existing socioeconomic and racial disparities within higher education and society at large.
This leaves us with little choice. We university workers—graduate students; adjunct, visiting, tenured, and untenured professors; postdoctoral fellows; staff and other campus workers—must come together to demand a better deal.
As scholars and editors, we regularly work with folks from across the university’s power structure. We see how university administrators’ efforts to increase revenue have come at the expense of academic and campus workers at all levels. Yet austerity measures serve to pit these workers against one another in the battle for dwindling funds. To preserve the financial well-being and cooperative environment of higher education, we cannot rely on the benevolence of university administrators.
Instead, Congress must fund the salaries of all higher education workers for the foreseeable future. Although Congress has already set aside $14 billion for US colleges as part of a multitrillion-dollar economic relief plan, there is little hope that campus workers will see much benefit from this sum. In fact, Congress stipulated that half of the money must go to emergency aid for students and allowed university administrators much flexibility in deciding how to use the remainder.
The congressional plan requires that university-grant recipients must retain current employees to the “maximum extent practicable,” but such vague limitations provide little assurance to the people who make the university function. Contingent workers rightly worry that administrators, working within the existing profit-driven university system, will continue “cost-saving” subcontracting and adjunctification strategies, instead of dealing equitably with workers.
Meanwhile, people of color, particularly black people, within the academic community will continue to be policed on campus to the detriment of their safety. We must circumvent the administrations that gave us increased and increasingly deadly campus police with the Band-Aid of diversity and inclusion committees, rather than true racial equity.
It is also clear what will be lost if university administrators get to decide which academic disciplines are disposable. Ohio University announced a major round of layoffs in early May, along with the non-renewal of academic instructors within the women and gender studies and the African American studies programs. We must ensure that disciplines less valued by donors, but essential for a race- and gender-based accounting of the world, can continue to do that work. At a time when misinformation is rampant and white nationalism is on the rise, undermining evidence-based knowledge and gutting disciplines that foster critical thinking skills will compound our current political, health, and environmental crises.
The New Deal of the 1930s offers a historical precedent for funding intellectuals in precarious positions during a national crisis. In the midst of the Great Depression, after unemployment peaked at nearly 25 percent, the Roosevelt administration created the Federal Writers’ Project and the Federal Art Project to provide direct support to out-of-work thinkers, creators, and innovators. The two programs employed thousands of historians, writers, librarians, and artists to catalogue existing resources and create new works for the public good. The results preserved a generation of intellectual laborers, facilitating the postwar education boom under the GI Bill, while creating resources and public works still used and enjoyed today.
Together, the FWP and FAP, as well as related programs under the Works Progress Administration, provide a model for funding knowledge as a public good. Rather than bailing out universities, as we did with banks and brokerage firms in 2008, and hoping they pay their workers, we can directly fund the work that we value. This will save universities money by eliminating payroll costs, create long-term human investment in the university, and preserve the livelihoods of the people fighting to provide opportunities for the next generation.
We need an Academic New Deal.
As part of the Academic New Deal, we demand that Congress:
- Fully fund the health care and salaries of all higher education workers—contracted or not, faculty, staff, and campus workers—at a living wage indexed to the local cost of living. This includes workers whose contracts were set to expire this academic year but who are facing a nonexistent job market.
- Immediately provide student loan forgiveness. As student debt disproportionately impacts black Americans, loan forgiveness will offer a small step in addressing racial economic gaps. While we understand that this will primarily help the students of yesterday, we believe that education should be a right, not a privilege, as it is essential to a functional and vibrant society.
- Immediately subsidize student tuition at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. We are witnessing a massive collapse of existing opportunities under Covid-19, especially for Americans from underprivileged communities. We must not mortgage our future by foreclosing the possibility of an educated, innovative, and equitable nation.
We historians understand that the powerful rarely make concessions unless they are forced to. Like the exploited laborers of the Depression era, academic workers have increasingly organized for better pay and labor conditions, and the strike is spreading. The corporatization of higher education over the last decade and now the pandemic cutbacks make clear that we must make strong demands with the weight of a unified labor force—from campus workers to tenured faculty—behind us. We call on Congress to fund higher education work because we believe it is a public good, and with the knowledge that we university workers are prepared to fight to make it better for all.
Education is an important tool of socioeconomic mobility that if eliminated, degraded, or made inaccessible, will compound the existing downward mobility of already marginalized communities. We cannot leave the future of higher education up to university shareholders or shrug it off as a luxury. We must pass an Academic New Deal.