Newsletter #58: Beating Back the Neoliberalization of Higher Ed, with Donna Murch and Todd Wolfson

by Benjamin Feldman

In the fall of 1968, students at San Francisco State, identifying as members of the Third World Liberation Front (TWLF), began what remains the longest student strike in the history of US higher education. In their demands for departments of Black and Third World Studies, the strikers articulated a vision of a democratized university which served the needs of the entire community, rather than the whims of its trustees. Students enlisted (and received) the support not just of their own instructors in AFT Local 1352, but of San Francisco State’s office workers, as well as chapters of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, the Painters Union, Hospital Workers, and two longshore workers’ locals. Having provided free tutoring services in Chinatown, Hunter’s Point, and other national and ethnic enclaves, the students were cheered on by members of San Francisco’s Latinx, Chinese, Filipino, and Black communities, including religious congregants and local politicians. Within weeks, similar strikes had broken out on campuses across California, and though not all of their demands were met, in March 1969, the TWLF won the first Ethnic Studies program in the United States.

The crisis facing higher education today differs in many ways from those of the late 1960s. Like the Keynesian consensus which governed American life in the postwar period, the Fordist university was rent by contradictions and often reinforced existing inequalities. But what has taken its place is something far worse. American universities are being transformed into investment funds with education wings. Conservative governors and state legislatures have targeted educators as a devious fifth column, dedicated to the destruction of the reactionary cultural values and inequitable hierarchies they cherish. While ostensibly liberal states may not share the Right’s demonization of teachers, red and blue states alike have seen tenure lines shrink while student-debt and over-compensated and unnecessary administrative positions expand.

Yet as Donna Murch and Todd Wolfson suggest in the second of The Dig’s two interviews on the higher-ed crisis, the San Francisco State strike provides a valuable model for how entire university communities can fight back against the neoliberal assault on higher ed.

Listen to The Dig’s interview with Donna Murch and Todd Wolfson here.

A historian and a professor of media studies, respectively, Murch and Wolfson are also leaders in the coalition of unions at Rutgers, which organizes all campus workers regardless of their role. Crucial to the coalition’s success is the understanding that, as Wolfson explains, when workers see that the university is “attacking all of us in different ways, then [they] begin to see that the only solution is a collective response.” The explosion of student debt, the exploitation of maintenance and dining hall workers, and the academic jobs crisis are all part of the same struggle: a decades long effort to deconstruct the “Fordist” university motivated both by the push for larger endowments and by a reactionary assault on campuses as sites of left-wing organizing. These attacks hurt not just those directly employed by the university, but also members of the broader community — particularly poor and working-class people of color — who are disproportionately harmed by higher costs. Indeed, Murch notes that when the CUNY system first instituted fees, Black and Latinx enrollment in the system was cut in half.

In recent years, graduate workers, forced to provide service to the university at sub-living wages and faced with the prospects of a job market in which nearly three-quarters will fail to secure tenured positions, have been on the front lines of the fight against neoliberalization. In just the last two months, grad unions have won overwhelming victories at Johns Hopkins, the University of Southern California, Yale, and Northwestern, while the 36,000 grad workers already organized at the University of California successfully struck for significant increases in wages and benefits.

Too often, tenured faculty see the struggles of these workers — as well as those of their contingent non-tenured coworkers — as irrelevant. Murch and Wolfson insist that those on the tenure track recognize a shared interest in opposing neoliberalization, and that they must act in solidarity with these workers and all members of the university community. Examples of what this solidarity has looked like in action include faculty bargaining for better mental health resources for students during the pandemic and using their leverage to insist on higher wages for the lowest-paid university-employees. To embrace this holistic approach to organizing, look back to the democratizing vision of the student strikes which began at San Francisco State in 1968 — a vision which seeks not equal standing within the existing university system, but a transformation of that system into something truly democratic.

Further Reading Before listening to The Dig’s interview with Murch and Wolfson, check out Dan’s conversation with Dennis Hogan on the higher-ed crisis. Two 2018 interviews — with Caitlin Zaloom on the student-debt crisis and with Danny Taylor on organizing efforts by graduate and undergraduate workers at Rutgers — provide valuable context, as well.

On how the pandemic put the higher-ed crisis in overdrive, see Andrew Delbanco in the Nation, and Jeffrey Aaron Snyder in the Boston Review. For more on the coalition of unions at Rutgers University and their efforts at “remaking higher education as a public good,” take a look at these pieces by Sarah Jaffe and by Ian Gavigan and Jennifer Mittelstadt, both in Dissent.