talk on teachers

Michael Yates mikey+ at
Tue Oct 26 21:08:08 MDT 1999


The following is a talk I am going to give this Thursday at Jamestown
Community College in New York state.  I'd appreciate any comments before
I go up there.  The teachers' union there have just rejected the
college's latest offer in negotiations.

        Us Versus Them: Laboring in the Academic Factory


        Michael Yates
        Department of Economics
        University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown
        Johnstown, PA 15232

I.  Ten Tales from Academe at the End of the Century

        Consider the following items culled from some of the journals,
newspapers, and email discussion groups to which I subscribe:

1.  Administrators at York University in Toronto solicited corporations
to place corporate logos on online courses conducted by the University,
for $10,000 per course.

2.  City University of New York canceled most of its remedial classes.
The University of Pittsburgh eliminated special programs for under
prepared (and typically poor and black) students while beginning an
honor's college.

3.  The University of Pittsburgh, awash in corporate and defense
department money, canceled sabbatical leaves at our campus without
faculty input.  The VPAA, formerly just Dean, has begun to unilaterally
implement major changes in tenure requirements.

4.  Several universities have cut lucrative deals with credit card
companies, allowing them campus monopolies as credit purveyors.  At one
campus the credit card company pays for student radio and television

5.  The so-called "University" of Phoenix, a private, for-profit virtual
college, now has 98 campuses in 31 states and enrollment of more than
55,000 students.  "It has aggressively applied business strategies such
as convenience, customer service, mass production, and corporate
partnerships on its march across the country."  Phoenix has heavy-duty
corporate customers, including Kodak, IBM, and GE and will be
aggressively competing for the millions of adult students preparing for
the multiple job changes former Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich, says
we will all be making over the course of our working lives.

6.  The California State University system is preparing to "hand control
of its inter-campus computer and telecommunications system to a private
consortia managed by Microsoft and its hardware allies, GTE, Hughes, and
Fujitsu."  This privatization of public education is fueled by the same
forces that have led to the privatization of all sorts of public
services from garbage collection to prisons to college food services and
campus police.

7.  Historian David Noble tells us that "Educom, the academic-corporate
consortium, has recently established their Learning Infrastructure
Initiative which includes the detailed study of what professors do,
breaking the faculty job down in classic Tayloristic fashion into
discrete tasks, and determining what parts can be automated or
outsourced.  Educom believes that course design, lectures, and even
evaluation can all be standardized, mechanized, and consigned to outside
vendors.  ‘Today you're looking at a highly personal human-mediated
environment,' Educom president Robert Heterich observed.  ‘The potential
to remove human mediation in some areas and replace it with
automation–smart, computer-based, network-based systems–is tremendous.
It's gotta happen'"

8.  During the first week of this month, in Manhattan's $229 per night
(a special rate!) Millennium Broadway Hotel, a conference was held with
the title, "Market-Driven Higher Education."  The blurb for this
conference states, "It's Not Just Business, It's Your Future: Is Higher
Education for Sale?  You bet it is.  And everyone–corporations,
non-profits, government agencies–wants a piece of it.  How do you take
advantage of market-driven education?"  At this conference one could
hear such luminaries as Benno Schmidt (former president of Yale and
advisor on CCNY for America's Mussolini, Rudolf Giuliani) expound on
such topics as "What the Market Wants," and The University Toolbox," (to
discuss "creating for-profit subsidiaries, finding start-up capital,
structuring deals, solving intellectual property problems, and more.")
Remarkably, the organizers of the conference tell attendees that you
will "learn new ways of doing business, explore innovative deals and
joint ventures, discover what funding sources want for their investment
dollars, cope with resistance on the home front, and still retain your
core values."

9.  In Silicon Valley, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Dallas, Texas and
around the country, high-tech industries and their nearby universities
are becoming more and more integrated as faculty and administrators spin
off businesses from publicly-funded research and businesses brazenly use
the universities as launching pads for new products and technologies.

10.  According to the AAUP, non-tenure track faculty now account for
about half of all faculty appointments in American higher education.
Part-time faculty now account for about 38 percent of faculty
appointments.  The AAUP further reports that, "The average of 38% of all
faculty who are part-time reaches 52 percent of all faculty in community
colleges . . . Some community colleges depend on poorly paid, non-tenure
track faculty members to remain in existence.  Many of these
institutions have no tenure system and appoint only a few full-time
faculty members to organize and supervise a large department of
part-time faculty."

II.  Brothers and Sisters, We'd Better Wake Up

        On the last page of the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels say,
"Workingmen of all countries, unite."  (Of course, if they were writing
today, they would have said, "Working men and women of all countries,
unite.") Now, I know that even today, if pressed, many, even most,
college teachers would say that Marx and Engels were not talking about
them.  They might admit that business interests dominate their boards of
trustees; after all, Veblen wrote about this in 1918.  And they might
agree that there is considerable disparity between the pay and power of
college administrators and themselves.  However, they would not consider
themselves to be anything as common as workers.  Some may feel this way
because they share fully the business values of the board members and
most administrators, or at least believe that such values are necessary
for the efficient operations of the universities.  Not a few of them may
aspire to someday be administrators.  Others may think that, despite the
values of board members, colleges are still somehow different from other
workplaces.  Colleges are places where administrators and teachers are
colleagues, where these two groups settle their differences peacefully
and without rancor.  Many professors think of themselves as
professionals, insulated from the crassness of the marketplace and the
hurly-burly of the outside world of work.  They are economists or
chemists or mathematicians, not employees, much less workers.
Administrators are simply persons  whose job it is to facilitate the
professors' search for the truth; they are not "bosses."  Unions may be
all right for steelworkers and coal miners, as the chancellor of our
university once said in an anti-union memo sent to the faculty during an
organizing campaign,  but not for these professionals.

        I cannot honestly say that there are no colleges or universities in
which this academic fantasy is not at least partially true.  The senior
professors in Harvard's economics department, for example, could not
reasonably be described as workers.  They really are "professionals,"
allied closely with the society's movers and shakers (among whom are the
members of Harvard's governing board), much as are Harvard's senior
administrators.  But for most of the rest of us, toilers in academe's
lower circles, this fantasy is just that, a delusion we cling to at our
peril.  I do not think it ever had any real truth to it, but today, it
has no connection to reality whatsoever. For if one thing has become
clear, it is that our colleges and universities are more and more
resembling academic factories, workplaces not much different in terms of
their mode of operation than the glass factory in which my father
labored or the day care center in which my wife and my daughter once

        Radical changes are occurring in academe, and I predict that in not
more than a few decades most colleges and universities will be
unrecognizable to those of us who work in them today, that is, of
course, unless we are willing to do something about it.  What is
happening today in higher education is that the primary logic of a
capitalist economy has finally struck us with full force. Again unless
we act, the result will be nothing less than the devolution of academe
into an academic factory.

        Our economic system is driven by the accumulation of capital, that is,
by the attempt by the small minority of persons who own the society's
productive wealth to maximize both the profits and the growth of their
enterprises.  This drive is incessant and gradually engulfs not only all
of the globe but nearly every aspect of life in every nation on the
earth.  Before the second world war, our colleges and universities
served essentially as training grounds for the economic elite, preparing
them both to run their corporations and the machinery of the state,
which has always served to aid and abet the accumulation process. After
the war when the industrial working class was poised to radically alter
the nation's political economic landscape, the higher learning was for
the first time opened up to large masses of non-elite persons.  These
graduates filled the rising number of managerial and technical jobs
opened up by the tremendous postwar boom in the U.S. economy.  However,
as business employed its battery of managerial control techniques, such
as the detailed division of labor and mechanization, relatively fewer of
these graduates were needed to do skilled work.  At the same time, more
and more working class persons were demanding access to higher
education, for example, racial minorities and women, both energized by
the civil rights movements of the 1960s.  The cultural revolution of
this decade helped to bring this contradiction to a head.  In its wake,
college administrators, spurred on by business interests and their
political allies, began to push the schools away from the potentially
radicalizing liberal arts toward a more career oriented and narrowly
technical curriculum.

        Just as these changes were beginning, the long postwar boom ended, the
consequence of intensifying global competition and its resultant
overproduction.  Profit margins plummeted, and corporations began to
scramble to restore them.  Their strategy to do this involved, first, an
all-out assault on workers and their unions and a restructuring of work
organization that has come to be known as "lean production."  This
managerial system involves the intensification of work (speed-up), the
elimination of full-time jobs and the use of a variety of contingent
workers, the outsourcing of as much indirect labor as possible, the use
of work teams given the illusion of decision-making power by the
employer, and the use of electronic technology (developed, by the way,
at public expense) both to reduce the need for skilled workers and to
raise the management's ability to monitor and control every aspect of
the labor process.  Second, corporations began to aggressively seek new
fields of capital accumulation.  For example, the growth of  new,
knowledge-based industries such as telecommunications, computers,
biotechnology, and electronics led to the commodification of ideas,
which soon became intellectual property, protected by laws and trade
agreements.  Third, business placed great pressure on government at all
levels to severely cut all public expenditures not directly related to
capital accumulation (broadly construed to include spending on defense
and police).

        This period of economic crisis had profound effects on our colleges and
universities, effects similar in most respects to what was going on in
the production of more mundane goods and services, from automobiles to
airline tickets.  Faced with budget crises, administrators became
increasingly cost conscious.  Cost cutting began in earnest, mainly
through the employment of part-time and adjunct teachers and full-time
professors outside of the tenure stream.  A business mentality began to
pervade the schools, and one result was the hiring of non-academics to
actually administer them (the conquest of academe by this business
mentality can be seen today in the corporate titles of administrators).
Colleges also began to more actively solicit corporate funding to
substitute for the decline in public funding.

        The closer interface between business and higher education opened the
eyes of business to new opportunities to make money. Costs could be
externalized if research and development could be done in the
universities and transferred to corporations.  This meant a de-emphasis
of basic scientific research and a focus on research that would yield
immediate returns (creative ways must sometimes be found to disguise
research for a specific corporation as more abstract general research).
A big breakthrough occurred when the universities were given the legal
right to own the patents on university-conducted research. This was seen
by the schools as a potentially large money-maker and by the
corporations as cheap capital.  All sorts of university-corporate deals
were made; spinoff businesses were formed; and some faculty and
administrators got rich.  The consequences for most of us, though, were
spiraling tuition as the schools spent enormous sums on the fixed
capital (labs and equipment, for example) necessary for the production
of patentable research, swelling class sizes, falling real faculty
salaries, and further use of contingent teachers.

        Once a production space becomes a site of capital accumulation, the
process becomes inexorable.  As Noble points out, the commodification of
academic research has been followed by that of instruction itself; in
fact, he argues that this second commodification is being touted as the
solution to the crisis in education caused by the first.  Corporations
and their academic allies are rushing to produce and sell software and
hardware.  As I have said elsewhere, "The electronic revolution
confronts us with the most extreme assault on our traditional patterns
of work.  The handwriting is on the wall.  The future will see more and
more distance education, the cloning of lectures captured on video and
sent out over the web, the forcing of faculty to put their courses
online, increased electronic monitoring of faculty effort, and other
such methods of substituting capital for labor."

        As any thoughtful person can see, these trends in higher education are
absolutely incompatible with traditional academic work arrangements.
The corporate-administrative juggernaut cannot do what it pleases as
long as we control the conceptualization and execution of work, have
tenure, and can exert real pressure on managerial decisions.  Therefore,
we are witnessing the implementation of lean production inside of our
ivy-covered walls. Tenure is on the ropes, to put it mildly, victim of
management's war of attrition and propaganda campaign portraying us as
hidebound, lazy, and privileged.  We are facing continual speed-up and
denial of traditional faculty rights such as sabbaticals, travel
budgets, and the right to be consulted before important managerial
decisions are made.  What is more, the debasement of our labor coincides
with the debasement of education.  Management tells us that our students
are consumers of a product, no different in principle than the fact that
they are consumers of CD players and sneakers.  We must be concerned
only with the quality of our product, but the clear implication of this
is that education must be put on a par with CD players if its quality is
to be measured as they might be.  Measurable competencies are taking the
place of all-round education, something which by its very nature cannot
be measured or quality controlled.  And as students pick up on this
notion of themselves as consumers of a measurable product, they come to
treat education as a purchase.  Just as it is unreasonable for the
supplier to expect that any real effort beyond the purchase would have
to be exerted by the buyer of a CD player, so too it is unreasonable for
us to expect anything from our students.  In fact, in the new
market-driven colleges, we more or less disappear, a part of the product
purchased by the student-consumers.

        What is happening in much of higher education is occurring throughout
U.S. industry.  In fact, I contend that an unstated reason for the
attack on teachers is the unwillingness of corporate capital to tolerate
the bad example which our traditional way of working provides for other
workers.  No group of workers can be allowed to have real control over
their work; this is the province of the management.  But as our labor is
daily demeaned and devalued, we become in truth just like other
workers.  There is no basis whatsoever either for us to feel superior to
other workers or for them to consider us as thoroughly unlike them.  We
have more in common with auto workers, meatpackers, and clerical
employees than we have with our employers.  And this offers us some
hope.  For it is possible to resist the corporatization of the academy.
Some of us, yourselves included, have unionized and are using your
unions to fight back.  This is a very good thing and ought to be
embraced by millions of other teachers around the country.  Already the
most exploited teachers, the graduate assistants, adjuncts, and
part-timers are organizing, and we should encourage and support these

        However, we are going to need help, and the best source of this aid is
the rest of the working class.  We need to elicit the support of other
workers, including many of our students. We need to ally ourselves with
the other workers on our own campuses, supporting their organizing
drives, bargaining, and strikes as well as informal struggles in
nonunion settings.  We need to actively participate in the central labor
councils of our towns and counties, insisting on union support for our
struggles and offering our support for the struggles of other unions.
The same can be said for progressive community groups and their
struggles.  As educators, we might begin to offer informal classes for
other groups of workers.  And we can, whenever possible, bring a working
class perspective into our own college classrooms and discuss not only
labor history and working class culture but the nature of work itself,
in general and in our own workplaces.  Students need to know what awaits
them unless they too fight back; they need to know that we are
sympathetic and will fight for ourselves.

        All of these things matter and matter greatly.  Of course, unionization
makes us much better off in terms of wages, benefits, and terms and
conditions of employment.  But building bridges, building a movement
also pays off, as the great labor movement of the 1930s demonstrate.  A
strong working class changes all political parameters and makes possible
what is only a dream otherwise.  If we want to reverse what is happening
to us, we must participate not only in our own struggles but in the
larger struggle to build an egalitarian and democratic society, one in
which critical education is seen as a social good, in which preparing
students to simply be team players adaptable to whatever the winds of
economic change blow their way would be seen as a form of social

        Let me conclude by rephrasing Marx's and Engel's famous exhortation:
"Teachers of the world, you are workers too.  Unite."

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