The world awoke, and tartly spoke:
“Your work is all the same:
Work together or work apart,
Work, each of you, with all your heart—
Just get into the game!”
—Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “The Socialist and the Suffragist,” Appeal to Reason, September 28, 1912
For decades I’ve found inspiration in this call to “just get into the game,” though its author—socialist and feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman, a nativist and white supremacist even by the standards of her day—may have found appalling my support of immigrant rights and the Black Lives Matter movement. The lines between scholarship and activism, I’ve long held, are less distinct than they are often portrayed to be. So as an interdisciplinary historian of work, I’ve both taken inspiration from the struggles of homeworkers, household workers, and poor solo mothers and sought to give back through writing reports and opinion pieces, testifying before legislative bodies, and marching in solidarity. Though my first book was on creative workers, looking at the distinctions between art and labor through the influence of John Ruskin and William Morris in the United States, I hadn’t grappled much with my own relation to what we now name immaterial labor.
Sure, I had addressed rallies of other campus workers, both teaching assistants and maintenance staff, and came out for the movement of our graduate students to secure cost-of-living adjustments to their stipends. I had helped to organize a teach-in against budget cuts in 2009 (UC, after all, used to be free), joined the faculty association, and was present as we started to think about unionization. I assembled sessions on contingent and academic labor—and turned the academic conference into a space for petitioning and resolutions against the punishing welfare reform of Bill Clinton and for domestic workers’ bill of rights. Throughout all of this, however, I could fall back on my privileged position as a tenured, indeed endowed, professor.
I thought that pushing for change from within, as a department chair and member of faculty senate committees, could contribute to the kind of maneuvering between insider and outsider status that I’d learned stops harm, halts discrimination, and sometimes even generates openings for social justice. The pandemic disrupted such thoughts. It was time to focus on my own workplace—the university—and demand not adjustments but systematic restructuring.
That is why I eagerly joined the founding board of what has become Scholars for a New Deal for Higher Education, a name redeployed to emphasize federal investment but without the exclusions inherent in New Deal programs that exacerbated inequality by race and gender. We call upon the federal government to “offer direct investment directed mostly at public institutions,” “tie federal investment to reducing student debt and making access to college education affordable and equitable,” “tie federal investment to supporting instruction and research,” and “tie federal investment to living wages and benefits for all university workers, including adjunct professors and campus support staff.”
A year ago it seemed that students, staff, and faculty of all sorts—contingent, tenure track, and tenured—were poised to fight back against retrenchment, corporatization, and diminishment of education as a public good and social necessity. All of this disinvestment was occurring as BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) students were entering higher education in record numbers. Students faced massive debt, community colleges lacked resources, private liberal arts colleges were being squeezed with their own debt from building fancy facilities to compete against each other for dwindling numbers of eighteen-year-olds, and state legislatures were threatening yet again to reduce funding of public higher education systems. Even the most elite private universities froze pay and opposed collective bargaining with graduate-student employee unions. Layoffs were imminent. While administrators and their salaries expanded, faculty retirements led to part-time and temporary instructors rather than tenure-track replacements. Each day it seemed that departments of ethnic and women’s or gender studies and the humanities—even history— were facing elimination. Threats to academic freedom, directed to Middle East studies and against the genderqueer and nonwhite, seemed newly emboldened; the growing presence of cops on campus became more threatening as students and the communities they belong to protested police violence, white supremacy, and economic inequality.
Scholars for a New Deal for Higher Education seeks to bring all these issues together because we see them as interrelated. We were excited to partner with the AAUP and AFT on the campaign, “A New Deal for Higher Education,” and to provide input to the joint Sanders-Biden education policy committee last summer and now through Sanders’s College For All bill. Among other items, this proposal would tie funding of higher education to converting contingent faculty to long-term jobs without increasing course load or size. Some members of our group have written white papers, others started a podcast, and Annelise Orleck and I coedited the spring issue of Academe on “A New Deal for Higher Education.”
Our goal was to include articles from a range of perspectives, to diversify the voices involved and enhance the conversation, while producing materials that could be used for educational and activist workshops by local AAUP/AFT chapters. We solicited pieces on student debt, justice budgeting, campus police abolitionism, HBCUs, contingent and graduate student struggles, model organizing efforts at Rutgers, and the impact of neoliberalism and the pandemic on the people’s university systems, the California State and City University of New York systems.
The Biden-Harris administration has proposed enhanced funding for community colleges, HBCUs, and Pell grants. It is supporting the right to unionize and engage in collective bargaining and has called for greater funding of basic research. Such measures are a beginning; those of us whose workplace is the university know that much more must be done. Teaching assistants and junior faculty, as well as staff, need living wages, access to appropriate health care, and decent housing. We must become stronger together for bread but for roses too.
Guest blogger Eileen Boris is the Hull Professor of Feminist Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara. Her latest book is Making the Woman Worker: Precarious Labor and the Fight for Global Standards, 1919–2019.
Articles from the current and past issues of Academe are available online. AAUP members receive a subscription to the magazine, available both by mail and as a downloadable PDF, as a benefit of membership.
This content was originally published here.