The Meaning of ‘Public’ in Public University

Event Date: 

Thursday, January 8, 2015 - 7:00pm to 8:30pm

Event Location: 

  • Simon Fraser University
  • Vancouver
  • Harbour Centre
  • Joseph and Rosalie Segal Room
  • Talk

Conference Title: MLA Subconference “Non-Negotiable Sites of Struggle”

Panel: Closing Roundtable

The second year of the Subconference of the MLA will center on struggle as a non-negotiable and constitutive action for responding to ours and others’ increasing contingency. When we say non-negotiable, we mean that the following tactics are no longer optional: Direct and collective action, critical research on the financial and labor structures of higher education, union organizing, collectivizing wages and resources, making knowledge and information networks available by whatever means possible, and rejecting gains for some workers that would mean losses for others. These tactics can no longer be considered nostalgically as actions that belong to the past nor idealistically as something to do in the future. They are necessary tactics we need now as we grapple with higher education as a site of economic accumulation and subjective disciplining. Last year we asked, “Who are the subjects of these vulnerable times?” This year we ask which sites, both past and present, demonstrate that only an uncompromising rejection of austerity and precarity can be successful? In addition, we challenge ourselves to consider how such a politics of non-negotiability needs to influence and reconfigure our reading, visual, interpretive, and pedagogical practices as laborers in higher education.

But non-negotiability is also a crucial stance to take for the purposes of building solidarity, so long as we understand our demands in robust rather than meager terms. Living wages AND reduced labor time, healthcare, and accessible and affordable education must be understood as the conditions under which our mutual social aid and academic lives will thrive, rather than a cost that capital must bear. For far too long, those of us in higher education have been willing to make compromises that we thought would save us, compromises that translated into higher costs of tuition for students and families; compromises that led to decreased state and federal funding in favor of privatized dollars; compromises that immiserated low-wage workers to free up increasingly scarce resources; compromises that negatively impact the affordability and quality of higher education in order to improve the status of our brand for Wall Street, tech firms, and for an out-of-state and international student body. That zero-sum game has run its course and it has become increasingly clear that the high-stakes race for private dollars has been a loss for almost everyone who works and learns in higher education. Our struggle needs to be understood as capable of generating material and theoretical gains for us all, not less for the few through a misguided “race to the top.”

Thankfully, we have many examples to draw from, even within the past year, to remind ourselves that academic workers can change the power dynamics of neoliberal education, especially if we align ourselves with non-academic workers who are also stricken with austerity measures. One of the North Carolina Student Power Union founders and a current graduate student at the University of Chicago, Trish Kahle, works to bridge the gap between academia and retail with her work in Fight for 15. Students around the nation are fighting against the mistreatment of workers by Sodexo, a food services corporation employed by many universities. Adjuncts are unionizing with SEIU and United Steelworkers, unions traditionally associated with skilled manual laborers. Students, staff, and faculty are also using tactics popularized by workers’ movements, as shown in the Campus Resistance in 2014 map. Thus, we also call for reuniting radical critical theory with practice, activating our campuses for dissent both in and outside our institutions, and dismantling the myth of the ivory tower to recognize that because academic laborers are contingent and exploited, we need, more than ever, to organize alongside other workers.

In our ongoing effort to change professional conferences, we encourage participants to submit workshops or training sessions rather than individual paper presentations. We are particularly enthusiastic about proposals that use the presentation time to lead interactive sessions on, but not limited to, the following: sharing research topics about and methods to alter the political economy of higher education; training participants for social media and public messaging; modeling in-class discussions for projects about adjunct and contingent labor and assignments focused on students’ own institutions; constructing collective and militant research projects; instructing attendees how to obtain, read and analyze institutional financial and administrative records; and discussing and critiquing campaigns and direct actions such as the following:

  • USCS strike and solidarity building across graduates, undergraduates, and service/campus workers
  • USM success of retaining 12 tenured faculty’s jobs and the sit-in strategy
  • Seattle Teachers’ boycott of standardized testing
  • Rutgers University student organizers’ successful #NoRice campaign
  • UIC United Faculty two-day strike and contract negotiations
  • North Carolina Moral Mondays and Fight Back Fridays
  • Teaching against stop-and-frisk and racial profiling
  • Portland State University and the power of a 94% vote in favor of strike authorization
  • Multiple divestment campaigns and successes at many campuses
  • Building Student Power Networks or Unions as in Indiana, Michigan, and North Carolina
  • Mass arrests at KXL protests in DC and the surveillance of ecoactivists
  • People’s Tribunal of David Petraeus at CUNY
  • Richmond, CA and the eminent domain strategy.

Potential panels might include:

  • First Nations and Indigenous struggles
  • Decolonization and higher education
  • UC and Montreal strikes
  • Critical Resistance and Incarceration
  • Unite Here/Living Wage/Kshama Sawant’s Seatac campaign
  • Faculty ally panel
  • Historicizing Securitization/the militarization of campus policing
  • The possibilities–and limits–of progressive unionism (thinking of NYU GSOC/UAW)
  • Implications of NLRB regional ruling that Northwestern football players are workers and can unionize
  • Dartmouth and USM student and faculty organizing
  • Financialization/Student Debt/Citizens Audit/Community Audits of Individual Colleges and Universities
  • Strike Debt campaigns
  • Segregation and higher education
  • Residential campuses and gentrification
  • Alternative imaginings of higher education
  • Collaborative research vs. competitive research
  • Vanguard activism on university campuses
  • The successful “Vancouver model” for higher education labor

While not an exhaustive list, we hope these possible topics will spark further conversation and ideas.