The Neoliberal University

Kay Mann

Posted October 8, 2022

This is the third of a series of presentations to a February 22, 2022 Solidarity webinar on current struggles in higher education. See Current Struggles in Higher Education for the first article and Fighting Cuts and Rightwing Attacks on Education in Tennessee for the second article in the series.

Original image available here.

I am a member of the National Committee of Solidarity and the Milwaukee branch. I also work in higher education as faculty. 

I’m going to begin with a few introductory remarks that are designed to be general and hopefully stimulate our imagination. The neoliberal austerity drives against unions and social services, workers’ standard of living, and their control over their labor process that we’ve seen throughout the economy have been in full force in private and public higher education for the last few years. This involves, among other things, attacks on tenure. And we’re at the point today where about 50% of the classes that college students take are taught by part-time faculty who have little job security, no benefits, and exceedingly low pay. 

The COVID pandemic has been used by college administrators all over the country as an excuse to implement austerity drives. I myself was a victim of this when I was one of 200 visiting faculty at Miami University, a state school in Ohio, near Cincinnati, where the administration used the pandemic as a pretext to launch an austerity drive against faculty. They took out of their drawer, basically, a plan they already had to fire the visiting faculty (VAPS) who had five-year contracts. The goal wasn’t only to get rid of us to save on our salaries, which were way below the national average, but also to increase the teaching load for the tenured and tenure-track faculty who now have to teach the classes the VAPs had been teaching. So, it was really a frontal assault on all of the faculty, the students, and higher education in general. And we’ve seen this in other cases where COVID has been used as a way to encroach upon faculty governance. The provost at Miami University made himself infamous by making a statement that you don’t have faculty governance during a COVID epidemic which was picked up by the Chronicle of Higher Education.

But there are a few differences of kind and several unique aspects of higher education that we should keep in mind when we think of the neoliberal austerity drive in higher education. Although much money is made on managing the huge endowments in many universities, higher education was never supposed to be a site of profit for capital. The universities and colleges were supposed to be inefficient. They were supposed to be subsidized. They were designed to train the next generation of managers and build ideological support for the capitalist system. But in recent years neoliberal principles have guided administrators. I mean, the language you hear goes like this: “how many butts in the seat do we have in a given class?” So, data is collected, measured, quantified, and monetized, and resources are given to “high performance” departments at the expense of lower performance departments and performance here doesn’t mean what it should mean; it simply means the number of students who are enrolled in classes. This has happened while, of course, there has been a 300% to 400% increase in tuition over the last few decades that has far outstripped inflation, making it very difficult for students to go to college and get out of the debt that they often carry around for many years when they finish. 

Another feature of neo-liberalism in the US academy is what we call administrative bloat. This is also a little different from what we’ve seen in other industrial sectors. Some of us remember that in the 1990s there were mass firings, layoffs, and downsizing of middle, and almost up to upper management in a lot of industries, not the type of people we’re usually in the business of rubbing shoulders with or defending. Many white, upper middle class, male holders of MBAs who lost their jobs at that time as part of this restructuring and downsizing never got jobs again. Barbara Ehrenreich, the radical journalist, has written one of her books, Bait and Switch on their plight. But this is not what happened in higher education, because administrative bloat happened instead. The bloat has been incredible. Many more administrative positions are created at the expense of faculty lines, and while departments have to struggle to get a faculty line, the administrators get all sorts of resources, and huge salaries. You’re probably aware of the enormous, sometimes million-dollar, annual salaries received by college presidents. But a lot of the other people below the president also have these huge salaries, while faculty have seen their salaries stagnate. 

There was also what seemed to be an alarming trend before the pandemic. This was the move towards online teaching to cut expenses, including faculty salaries, and bring in more students, or in administrators’ eyes “customers.”  But the COVID pandemic has shown us that administrators are very much attached to their brick-and-mortar campuses. The sudden shut-downs at the beginning of the pandemic underscored the financial value of campus-based education to administrators. Colleges and universities had to refund room and board as classes went virtual. At the more elite colleges and universities the expensive dorms, fancy fitness centers, and food courts that are used to attract students who are willing and able to pay high tuition had to be paid for. So, there was a frenzy of administrators around the country to get students back into the classroom regardless of safety issues. And this was for purely financial reasons from their point of view. 

Another trend we see in the neoliberal universities today is the right-wing atmosphere on campuses that I know Michael and maybe all of the speakers will speak to tonight, and the hostile atmosphere that progressive students sometimes encounter. We also have seen in higher education the attacks on critical race theory and other notions that are critical of the inequalities in US society that we’ve seen in K 12 schools. Just the other day I saw the Lieutenant General of Texas threatening all of us Marxist professors who are talking about race and making those white students feel bad the minute they walk into the classroom. So, this is the atmosphere that we’re dealing with here. 

The last trend I want to just mention because our speakers have lots to say here, is the fight back against all of this. We’ve seen fight backs by graduate students, faculty, and students as well. These fight backs, which include attempts at unionization, are viciously opposed by boards of directors and college administrators. So, it’s to these fight backs and more analysis that we now turn.