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Academics are walking out across America because the current way of college is unsustainable

On a warm spring day nearly six decades ago, then-President Lyndon Johnson could think of no better place than a booming public university campus — specifically, the University of Michigan and its commencement ceremony at Ann Arbor’s massive “Big House” football stadium — to unveil his blueprint for a better America, the Great Society.

LBJ spoke on May 22, 1964, about the urgent need not only to end poverty and beautify America, but to educate all of its young people. “Our society will not be great until every young mind is set free to scan the farthest reaches of thought and imagination,” the 36th president said, fretting about the quality of education in the United States and access and affordability of college — even in an era when public-university tuition was counted in the hundreds of dollars, not the multiple thousands.

Almost 59 years later, American society is not looking so great, and the Michigan campus has become an increasingly bitter front line in a war for the future of higher education. A strike by more than 1,300 grad students who work for the university as classroom instructors or staff assistants is entering its fourth week, even as the spring semester moves into final exams.

Last week, police in Ann Arbor briefly detained two striking grad students who tried to confront university president Santa Ono at a restaurant and briefly blocked his car. Ono cited the rising tensions for cancelling a planned concert where he was to have played cello with a local orchestra. Much more importantly, the university announced plans to withhold pay from workers on the picket line after a judge ruled the strike violates the current contract. The grad students seek a 60% pay raise, from the current minimum of $24,000 to about $38,500, and other benefits such as transgender health care and an emergency fund for international students.

If you haven’t heard a lot about the labor showdown at UM, maybe that’s because it’s just one whitecap in a strike wave that has been washing across college campuses from Berkeley to the Bronx in 2023. On Monday, grad students at Fordham University in the Bronx became the latest to walk out in a three-day job action to protest what they call lack of respect and low pay in one of America’s most expensive cities.

Two groundbreaking job actions just ended in our area. At Philadelphia’s Temple University, a late-winter strike by teaching grad students there grew so contentious — featuring school efforts to strip the strikers of their health care — that it played a role in the ouster of President Jason Wingard, while the grad-student union scored significant gains. Across the river in New Jersey, at its public flagship, Rutgers University, a powerful labor coalition of more than 9,000 workers — bonding tenured professors with adjunct instructors and grad-student teachers — shut down more than two-thirds of the campus while pressing their demands that centered on higher adjunct pay along with health benefits.

Overall, 2022 was the biggest year for academic strikes in a generation — with 15 job actions — and 2023 may exceed it, especially with grad students forming new unions at a record pace, including an outfit announced Monday at the University of Pennsylvania. Much of the news coverage has centered on the more immediate issues that were exacerbated by the pandemic, which exposed the chaotic working conditions and sometimes shockingly low pay and lack of benefits on the bottom rungs of the teaching ladder — especially for part-time adjuncts who’ve been taking a larger share of college course loads.

There’s been too little conversation about how the 2023 strike wave has become the most potent symbol that the American Way of College has grown increasingly unsustainable in the 21st century. Colleges that have been squeezed by decades of hostile, budget-cutting state legislators while feeling the need for posh amenities to compete with large-endowment elite schools have been steadily jacking up tuition to kids terrified they’ll fail in life without a diploma, even as their classes are taught by part-time academics desperate for any kind of work.

This is the year that the plates are crashing down.

We’ve been on the defensive for 40 years, but now we’ve finally begun turning things around,” Todd Wolfson, a Rutgers journalism professor who’s currently general vice president of the faculty union, Rutgers AAUP-AFT, told me Monday. A key pivot point in the New Jersey dispute — tentatively settled in part with a promise of state dollars from Gov. Phil Murphy — has been the solidarity between full-time faculty and their part-time and grad-student colleagues. Historically, in the balkanized world of college politics, these groups were often pitted as competing factions, not working as allies.

“It’s both a moral understanding and it’s self-interest,” Wolfson explained. Full-time professors have growing concerns about administrative bureaucrats — the ones often pushing a hard line against unions — as a threat to faculty governance, in a time when basic protections such as tenure are under assault. But Wolfson added that faculty see the reliance on low-paid, part-time instructors as harmful to the university and becoming hard to morally justify.

Today, part-time adjunct professors and teaching grad students are often called “the backbone” of the modern university, even as surveys have shown that as many as a quarter or more of adjuncts fall below the poverty line for annual pay and qualify for public assistance — while rents in their college towns skyrocket. If these problems sound familiar, it’s proof positive that the modern university has been corporatized, often with support from trustees who are big-time capitalists. No one should be shocked at their hardline anti-union stance.

One of the many, many problems with running public universities like corporations is that any brand that loses its former main source of revenue in taxpayer revenue (at Temple, state dollars went from 65% of the state budget to just 10% over the 2010s) and can only stay afloat by charging the customer more and more will become the academic version of Bed Bath & Beyond. Astronomical tuition has sent the approval rating for U.S. universities under water. And that was before the workers declared, we’re not gonna take it.

But there is a silver lining, which is that for the first time since the 1960s — when tuition was rock-bottom at most public universities and free at schools like the University of California and City University of New York — some reformers are again dreaming of higher education as a public good. Rutgers’ Wolfson said these new created alliances of faculty, adjuncts, grad students and undergrads striving for their common goals are the only way to attain public universities that “have the best research in the world, where we serve our communities, and where we create deeply engaged, democratic citizens that can build this world up.” But in the strike spring of 2023, that’s not going to happen without a fight.

This content was originally published here.