Higher Ed Should Take a Cue From K-12

From Inside Higher Ed

April 20, 2018

I never planned to be a union organizer. When I was growing up my parents, almost daily, encouraged my brother and me to go to college. Enlisted military personnel who earned associate’s degrees during their careers, my parents never finished their bachelor’s degrees, but they took a friend’s advice very seriously: tell your kids often that they should attend college, and they will.

So like the other dutiful children of the Reagan generation, we went to college. Higher education was an investment in our future, a promise for a better life and a ticket to something my parents were never able to enjoy: a stable life without worry. But what I didn’t fully understand until I was deep into graduate school was how one-sided that investment actually was.

Toward the end of my Ph.D., as my student loan debt reached insurmountable heights and the academic job market loomed, my pivot to union organizing reflected a sharp shift in my perspective. Our deeply exploitative economic system is preying on my and the next generation’s hopes and dreams, and we’re compromising our future.

While I entered the academy genuinely hoping to make a positive difference in the lives of my students, and to do research that contributes to a more just and fair society, I haven’t been able to shake a consuming concern that those motivations are less and less compatible with higher education today. The political classes that control education policy in our country are fundamentally changing our institutions and, by extension, our profession. Elected leaders have enacted an austerity regime that systematically underfundshigher education, cuts programsundermines tenure and shifts the risks in the system to an army of unprotected, underpaid faculty members. I started organizing because we absolutely have to change this trajectory.

The steady defunding of public higher education over the past several decades has created a crisis. Most people teaching in colleges and universities across the country are not on the tenure track, and many are making poverty wages. In Tennessee, where I organize with United Campus Workers, a nonmajority union made up of anyone who works on campus, the conditions seem especially bleak. In the Tennessee Board of Regents system, which governs community colleges and technical schools, the systemwide pay rate for adjuncts hasn’t changed since 1998. At community colleges, the stated maximum for adjunct faculty stands at $700 a credit hour. Teaching a 3/3 load grosses a faculty member with a Ph.D. $12,600 a year, and adjuncts who make their living solely from teaching are often teaching much more than that. (I’ve heard of teaching loads as absurdly high as 10 classes a semester.) Most adjuncts make a living piecing together several forms of precarious employment, and the secure academic career dangles just out of reach.

This isn’t distinct to Tennessee; it’s increasingly the norm across the country, especially in states that have suffered major, sustained attacks on higher education, like Wisconsin and Kentucky. That has serious consequences for the quality of education our institutions are able to provide.

Consider what’s happening in the K-12 arena: when the Chicago Teachers Union went on strike in 2012, they framed their demands as “schools Chicago’s students deserve,” placing the quality of the service teachers are able to provide to elementary and secondary students at the forefront. That strategy has been echoed in the West Virginia and Oklahoma teachers’ demands, which are related not only to pay and benefits but also to class sizes and textbooks. That approach reframes the gutting of public education funding — no, teachers aren’t greedy; rather, they care about their students and want to be able to give them the best education possible.

College professors are similarly burdened with being a politically maligned professional class. Ivory tower, out of touch, overpaid, liberal indoctrinators — the clichés are well worn by now. But similar to K-12, they don’t align with reality, as our institutions continue to increase class sizes, pay remains stagnant, stable tenure lines are more like lottery tickets (perhaps no coincidence in institutions that are literally funded by lottery tuition scholarships) and non-tenure-track jobs are the norm for newly minted Ph.D.s.

Students are paying more for college than ever but getting less individual attention, encountering overworked and underpaid professors (many of whom don’t have desks or offices), and being sold a version of higher education where they are primarily commodities for corporate America. (This final point I mean quite literally. The Tennessee Board of Regents system has instituted a “student warranty.” If an employer of a student from a technical college program is unsatisfied with their skill level, they can send them back to the institution to be retrained, on the institution’s dime, which could trigger a review of their previous academic program.)

In my experience, workers in higher education are widely aggrieved, and for good reason. So where’s the revolt?

The academic career track instills fear and isolation, undermining organizing. Professors aggressively pursue the “once in a lifetime” tenure-track job — and for many, the chance to be one of the few eclipses any other priority. I’ve found that motivation produces an inertia that transcends rank. People on temporary contracts say, “Something needs to be done, but I need to get hired again.” Pretenure faculty say, “Something needs to be done, but I need to wait until I get tenure.” Tenured faculty, the most secure, say, “I’m fine. Something needs to be done, but they’ve got to be the ones to do it.”

Everyone seems to be waiting for someone else to make the first move. At some point, something has to give. We have to be willing to thwart convention and decide that the institutions we work for are actually worth fighting for, that the mission of higher education is worth making some sacrifices to defend.

The challenge for us is to figure out how to build a movement for everyone in higher ed while advancing tenure rights. People train to be professors because they love their subjects, their research, and sharing the pursuit of knowledge with their students. Let’s fight for a system where that can really be at the forefront of what professors do. Here, we can take a cue from the K-12 teachers walking out and winning: solidarity is a weapon. Our shared passion and desire to do service for the common good is a tool for us to regain ground and reclaim the mission of higher education.

What’s going to drive us to take that risk? Maybe a reckoning — a mass awakening to the contradictions that undermine academic labor daily. But since none of these problems are new, and that hasn’t happened yet, what it will ultimately come down to is much simpler. Movements begin with a small group of people having an infectious amount of courage and acting on it. If you are inspired by what you’re seeing teachers do across the country, give yourself the chance to fight for something bigger. We have so much to win.


Melanie BarronMelanie Barron is an organizer with United Campus Workers in Tennessee and Georgia and is part of the Labor Working Group in Science for the People. She holds a Ph.D. from the department of geography at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.