By Wong Tian An
Dear university students and workers,
How can we think of the university as a commons, a community, a site of solidarity? The pitfalls and obstacles are many. Let’s consider one particular viewpoint: the university as an integral part of capitalist society. Viewed as such, who are the workers, who are the bosses, who are the consumers, and what are the commodities? Unlike an Amazon warehouse, it’s all quite opaque. To get a better sense, let’s follow the money to see how it circulates in the metabolism of the institution.
Let’s start with the students. Students pay tuition to enroll in classes and earn a degree. This tuition money coms from some combination of loans, scholarship, financial aid, wages, and family contributions.
Where does that money go? It becomes a part of the budget, which includes other things like the endowment, grants, donations, and in the case of state schools, i.e. state funding (State appropriation, in institutional speak). The endowment itself is rarely touched: instead it’s invested into the market, and the returns go back to the people who manage the money. Grants are typically brought in by professors who apply for them. The professors get some of the money, but the institution also skims a lot of it off (indirect costs). Some of it pays the people who manage all that stuff (Grants Office, etc.). As for donations, the main function of the university president is to schmooze and convince rich people to donate.
OK, but where does the budget go? Well, a lot of it goes to pay the administration, which keeps the system running. That includes the President and all of the people with funny titles like Provost and Dean, whom you’re probably not quite sure what they do (don’t worry, it’s not you; very few people really know for sure). Most of these people are bosses, but you wouldn’t know it if you listened to them. You might start to suspect that money is just going around in circles at the top. If so, you’re not entirely off base. It’s called “money making more money for the sake of money” (the “capitalist mode of production”). There is some criticism of university administrative bloat in a book called Bullshit Jobs, but that’s for further reading.
Of course, some of it does go to the staff, who literally keep the place running: maintenance, cleaning, food, upkeep. We can at least be sure those people go under workers. A good deal of it also goes to the teachers, who include professors and lecturers and such. But they’re a more complicated category. Sometimes they are workers, sometimes they are bosses.
In a pure capitalist system, money pays for a commodity (donations and state funding are more complicated, so we’ll leave those aside). So what commodity is the university producing? There are lots of answers: degrees, research, jobs, pedigree. Does that mean that students are the customers, the consumers? On one level, absolutely. Students pay money, they expect an education. On the other hand, customers can also be scammed: we know about for-profit universities, unregulated Masters programs, and international student fees, all designed to make a lot of cash for the university.
At the same time, many students also work for the university to pay for their tuition. We might think of this as a sort of barter system. But that also means that the customers are also oftentimes the workers. Moreover, some graduates end up being financially successful (presumably because of their education) and donate to their alma mater, again circulating money into the institution but over a very long period of time. More interestingly, students and alumni have a good deal of leverage in making demands of the institution, as we have seen with campus protests and boycotts, to the extent that they can indeed control the purse-strings of the budget (the strategic question of how effective these actions are in fundamentally changing the institution is for another day). So, students are consumers and sometimes also workers.
Now let’s go back to the teachers. A lot of them are professors, but there’s also lecturers, adjuncts, teaching assistants, lab instructors, visiting artists, postdoctoral fellows, and so on. For most of the latter, they may be highly qualified with PhDs and all, but they’re definitely not management. Now, professors on the tenure-track or tenured, are often legally considered bosses in private universities, therefore not allowed to unionize, unlike at public institutions1. But, they almost never think of themselves as the bosses: they work to produce new graduates and new research. It stands that the vastly different levels of job security and prestige means that teachers are incredibly fractured as a class, and the high degree of specialization of their academic training also lends to a silo-ing effect.
There is a pyramid scheme embedded in the academy, which starts with undergraduates at the bottom and professors at the top. Professors, particularly, at, but not limited to, PhD granting institutions, are gatekeepers of their domains, and expect to reproduce versions of themselves in their students, not understanding that the conditions of the academic labour market are far more precarious and competitive than when they were students decades ago. The pipe dream of landing a tenure track job sustains a good deal of the ranks of contingent faculty, lending to those who view themselves as “pre-tenure-track” (or, pre-management) rather than as adjunct labour (or, workers). Other contingent faculty that have given up the dream but decide not to quit, whether out of love or lack of options (likely both), resign themselves to the infinite purgatory of being considered “part time,” though sometimes union efforts have produced job security for some in the form of renewable contracts or the equivalent. One side effect of this tunnel vision among those climbing up the pyramid is, at best, a lack of solidarity, and at worst, a pretension to be “scholar-activists” who betray their co-workers down the hall.
The labour that the university extracts takes many forms: student workers/interns, teaching, research, administration, bureaucracy, and of course, all the support of the staff. Again, let’s be clear that it’s not only the for-profit universities that exploit both workers and students. The idea of a degree itself is also worth questioning, but beyond our scope here; let’s just note that the “brand name” of the institution can often be more valuable than the actual product itself (this shine of a university brand is called “commodity fetishism”).
So, what would community and solidarity in the university look like?
First, being aware of these institutional structures that often rely on the exploitation of workers, students and nature. Second, realizing that we are always more than just one thing. The more we ask questions about who the workers are and who the bosses are, the more the waters get muddied, but the better the view. Students and teachers can exploit staff. Teachers and staff can defend or betray their own. There is always complicity and possibility for solidarity, as the 1U Campaign continues to teach us. Also the LEO and GEO union fights help to make visible some of the labour struggles inside our own classrooms and beyond.
This can be demoralising! You might be tempted to just quit the institution, being exhausted by the way you are utilized, tokenized, and commodified. That might be the best and healthiest option for some. But for most it’s important to remember that simply leaving does little to change or dismantle the system. Loud invocations to “burn it down” almost invariable end up in being reformist in their execution (unless you actually literally do try and burn it down) But be warned that under capitalism, the institution will survive anything short of a thorough job).
Let’s be clear: The university is an inherently counter-revolutionary site. It may house dangerous ideas, books, and people who talk a big game, but when it comes down to it, few will leave the safety of their jobs or their bigger-than-yours paychecks for the sake of others. Why do you think tenured and tenure-track faculty almost never go on strike? Usually, only lecturers and graduate students do, because they know their precarity, their position as workers in the system, and their worth. As an institution, the university of a conservative force, whose ultimate function is to simply continue existing, with or without you.
At the same time, because of those dangerous ideas – or ideas that were once dangerous – the university also has the potential to make revolutionary actors. To be certain, this is not the goal of the university, as we have already seen. It is merely a risk inherent in the marketplace of ideas. many times, the university – its administrators, professors and managers – is the enemy that gives these revolutionary actors the experience to come into being.
So what are the battles that we should pick? Which are the hills to die on? How can we imagine community, complicity, and solidarity in the university through better understanding the function of labour, money, and power in its everyday function? There are no one-size-fits-all answers to any of these questions: we find our own answers to these through love and struggle, together.
Dr. Wong has been an Assistant Professor of Mathematics since 2020. You can learn more about him on his personal website or send him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1NLRB v. Yeshiva University (1980) made unionizing TT/tenured faculty at private institutions nearly impossible. Many public universities like Oakland U and EMU have active unions involving tenure-track and tenured faculty, and others involving most non-tenure-track faculty, called wall-to-wall organizing.